Dressed in his crisp chef's whites, Scott Price is overseeing the staff of his restaurant Verre at the Hilton Dubai Creek as they prepare for the evening ahead. He's expecting a busy night and his lucrative chef's table, an idea introduced a year ago when he moved to Dubai from London, is fully booked.
Price's pedigree in the culinary world is well documented. The Briton had spent seven years working under Gordon Ramsay in high-profile London kitchens such as that at the luxury hotel Claridge's. The culinary master himself quickly noted his skill and dedication and hand-picked him to take over the executive chef role at Verre, Ramsay's first signature restaurant outside the United Kingdom.
Price arrived bursting with energy and ideas inspired by his many years working in Michelin-starred eateries. Ploys such as scrapping the ā la carte offerings in favour of a fixed price menu paid off and the young chef is now experiencing a loyal fan base who come to eat his food, not just that of his mentor's.
"I came here because there was an opportunity to be a head chef for Gordon, something I've always wanted," says the 29-year-old. "But there's also a great opportunity to run my own restaurant, write my own menus and make a name for myself in my own light. The guests come here because it's Gordon Ramsay's food but hopefully they come back because of what we do."
Price is just one high-quality chef among many who have flocked to the UAE, making for a vibrant culinary scene.
Ten years ago, when Verre opened in the emirate, putting the UAE and the words "haute cuisine" in the same sentence wouldn't have been possible. The nation had only a few international hotels of note, let alone top-quality restaurants. Today that story is radically different. As the nation's economy and its tourism industry have expanded, so has its fine dining scene. And as more big-name chefs such as Gary Rhodes, Nobu Matsuhisa and Marco Pierre White joined the bandwagon first set rolling by Ramsay, the UAE was suddenly the flavour of the dining moment. Factor in high-profile international chains such as the contemporary Japanese eatery Zuma at Dubai International Financial Centre and the Venice-based Cipriani on Abu Dhabi's Yas Island and the trend is unmistakable.
"I think it's really quite incredible what's happened," says the British celebrity chef Rhodes, who has opened two restaurants here - Rhodes Mezzanine at Dubai's Grosvenor House hotel and Rhodes Twenty10 at next door's Le Royal Meridien - and who hints of a third establishment soon in Dubai or Abu Dhabi.
"When I first visited Dubai over 10 years ago you didn't have the restaurants or the chefs entering the culinary scene in the UAE," Rhodes says. "It was fairly quiet and it's really incredible how Dubai alone has grown with completely new areas being created and with that, fantastic hotels with amazing restaurants creating great food. It's become a culinary wonderland of many great chefs who want to be part of it and it has the great feature of being able to source ingredients from across the world."
Rhodes's foray into the Dubai market was followed by other notable names such as the Michelin-starred Vineet Bhatia, who runs Indego at Grosvenor House; Britain's White, who joined forces with the Italian jockey Frankie Dettori to launch Frankie's Bar & Grill offering Italian fare at the Al Fattan Marine Towers in Dubai and at Abu Dhabi's Fairmont Bab Al Bahr, and who also launched his own steakhouse; and by no fewer than four Michelin-starred chefs at Atlantis, The Palm: Nobu, Giorgio Locatelli, Santi Santamaria and Michel Rostang.
While Dubai has gradually made a name for itself over the past 10 years, Abu Dhabi's route to Michelin stardom has been faster.
"Five years ago the fine dining culture simply did not exist," says Wolfgang Fischer, the executive chef at the Emirates Palace hotel in the capital who cites such big developments as the Fairmont Bab Al Bahr and The Yas Hotel for boosting the emirate's gastronomic profile.
"The level of expats with a demand and requirement for fine dining arriving in Abu Dhabi has also risen over the last few years," adds Fischer, whose own arrival four years ago, after an international career in locations such as Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Los Angeles and New York, was also instrumental in the burgeoning culinary scene.
"When I came to the hotel the standards weren't quite up to where I thought they should have been," he says. "So we hired really professional chefs with similar international experience to mine to raise the standards and make sure that each of our outlets had a highly qualified chef."
Fischer ensured every ingredient used in the hotel except French fries and ice cream was fresh rather than frozen. He also kept prices at acceptable international levels and scoured the Emirates' dining venues for ideas to add to the 15 restaurants and 280 chefs he oversees.
Today he feels he has achieved his mission to raise the bar, believing the hotel is now on a par with, if not a notch higher than, some of the leading hotels in Asia that he has worked at, including Raffles Hotel in Singapore.
According to the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority (ADTA), the emirate had only 62 licensed hotel properties in 2005, of which 13 were classed as five-star; today it has nearly 120 hotels, with 20 at the five-star level.
To complement and perhaps seal the UAE's new status as a hotbed of haute cuisine, both Abu Dhabi and Dubai now host annual fine dining festivals as a way to demonstrate and showcase this culinary evolution not only to the nation but also to the world.
Taste of Dubai was launched in 2008 to offer food lovers the opportunity to sample dishes from a selection of fine dining restaurants in the city. "How else will you get the opportunity to try a starter from Grosvenor House, a main from Verre and a dessert from Ruth's Chris?" says the event director, Anju Chadda.
This year the event returns in March and hopes to build on its 14,000-plus attendance by introducing live entertainment to its mix of chef's theatre and cooking school.
Similarly, Gourmet Abu Dhabi was launched in 2009. An all-star cast of international industry heavyweights were invited and what started out as a 10-day gastronomic extravaganza quickly turned into a 16-day event with a range of masterclasses, special dinners and the Gourmet Abu Dhabi Stars Awards, dubbed the Oscars of the local industry, which recognise local talent.
This year's event, next month, hopes to surpass its predecessors with 17 international master chefs - with 22 Michelin stars and three Chefs Hats among them - as well as a horde of celebrity guests expected to descend on the emirate.
"Gourmet Abu Dhabi not only brings the world to Abu Dhabi, it sees our guest participants go home extolling the virtues of what they have seen and where the emirate is going," says Noura al Dhaheri, the acting leisure development manager at the ADTA. That's a sentiment shared by the headlining celebrity chef James Martin, who says he's looking forward to seeing what Abu Dhabi has to offer this year.
Martin's presence at the event affirms the importance of celebrity names in the modern culinary world in general and in the UAE specifically. The British chef Jamie Oliver is the latest big name to announce his arrival here, with the imminent launch of Jamie's Italian at Dubai's Festival City - a development that has already attracted the likes of the Michelin-decorated Frenchman Pierre Gagnaire, whose eccentrically designed Reflets Par Pierre Gagnaire graces the InterContinental hotel there.
And there's no denying that dropping a celebrity name or Michelin-star credentials into the marketing material of any establishment is a win-win situation for both chef and hotel.
Mark Patten, the vice president, culinary, at Atlantis, The Palm, confirms that having four big-name chefs with a high tally of Michelin stars among them was a huge windfall for the 1,539-room family resort that feeds 15,000 people a day at its 17 restaurants.
"It offers added value to the customer, excitement and a bit of cachet to the whole experience," he says. "And it's the familiarisation that comes with that. Guests that come from the UK eat at Giorgio's Locanda Locatelli or Nobu in London and they want to eat at those restaurants here, too. These customers do a lot of travelling and they know the restaurants as much as we do. Giorgio is a great personality and Nobu is a superstar, he's like a rock star, and these guys have a great following and it does help to have that."
Still, it takes more than big names and a Michelin star to get customers not only through the door but also coming back for more, especially after the economic downturn in Dubai.
"When I came here in 2007, they were talking about having 22 hotels on The Palm by the end of 2009. Well, we know that hasn't happened," says Patten, who adds he had to wrack his brain to come up with innovative ways to keep attracting customers during the crisis, such as the Friday High Brunch at Nobu - a list of signature dishes paired with top-quality beverages for Dh495.
In Abu Dhabi the ADTA is introducing a Michelin-style classification system to bring added credibility to all the capital's dining establishments. And with both emirates signalling more high-profile launches, there's no doubt that as more haute cuisine establishments and big names arrive in the UAE, the better the quality will be.
For Lothar Quarz, the general manager of the newly opened Ritz-Carlton DIFC, launching a hotel this month presented a major challenge for his dining establishments because of the level of competition here.
Quarz, a trained chef himself, says the hotel had to deliver something different to the market, banishing the traditional Dubai Friday brunch, putting the emphasis back on service and creating a steakhouse where the meat is carved table side.
"When you have so much competition around you, you need to do something and improve on your quality," he says. "And what we are doing is focusing on our level of service to set us apart from other hotels."
Indeed, service standards in the UAE are often criticised, and executive chefs admit the biggest challenges facing the industry are the lack of well-trained staff and retaining quality personnel. The Australian-born fine dining connoisseur and communications consultant Sharon Garrett regularly eats out at the nation's high-end restaurants as part of her job, describing herself "as the guest chefs often dislike".
"If you have a great chef but rubbish service, people won't come back," she says. "In the UAE, I've noticed no expense is spared in restaurant interior design, fit-out, crockery and glassware, yet just because you spend a fortune on these areas doesn't result in great numbers of diners. People are looking for more.
"Maybe the food is fabulous but it's delivered to the table cold. Perhaps the person delivering it gives the wrong dish to the wrong person, or maybe they just can't get the bill right. I think the restaurant industry needs to go back to basics because the pitfall for restaurateurs and hoteliers here is that you only get one chance to get it right."
Price, the executive chef at Verre, agrees.
"You can't rest on your laurels; you have to work hard for your money and work hard for your guests and make sure they want to come back," he says. "In London I worked for Claridge's, which is a very well-established restaurant with a high client base so we were consistently busy. When I came here the economic crisis was a bit more apparent so I had to go out there and make people aware that there is even a restaurant here."
Price has obviously succeeded and it seems with the right attitude from the new crop of ambitious chefs of his calibre now based here, the UAE's spot as a destination point on the culinary map of excellence will only grow.
For more stories from M magazine's Food Issue, pick up a copy of Saturday's The National or visit www.thenational.ae/m