Much has been made about the Michelin-starred chefs appearing at Gourmet Abu Dhabi. With the likes of Santi Santamaria, Heinz Beck, Alain Passard and Annie Feoldé gracing the capital's kitchens, we really have been spoiled. They clearly all deserve their plaudits, but their geographical location has a lot to do with their star status. In order to win a such a rating, you must be plying your trade in an area covered by the famous Red Guide. But while there have been whispers about Michelin establishing a presence in the UAE, we're still waiting - and so are the nation's chefs.
The "hosting" chefs at Gourmet Abu Dhabi will be particularly eager to welcome the respected French guides to these shores. These are the executive chefs at the local hotels which serve as venues during the festival, and while their contribution hasn't exactly gone unrecognised, they would be the first to admit that they are not yet among that elite group of crowd-pulling gourmets. A Michelin star in the future might change all that, however, as it might for many of the UAE's up and coming young chefs.
Without the recognition of such established bodies as Michelin, it would be easy for the uninformed to dismiss the product of local professionals. It would also be very wrong. Which is why the Abu Dhabi Gourmet Stars Awards represents an important development for everybody in the capital's restaurant industry, not to mention diners too. On Tuesday night, The Al Raha Beach Hotel played host to a gala dinner billed as a night with the stars. One one hand it was an opportunity to rub shoulders with Abu Dhabi's glitterati and taste the food of the esteemed chefs who had been jetted in from all over the world. But the real purpose was to reward the outstanding chefs, restaurants and restaurant managers of the capital and celebrate their work.
The reception area boasted seven live cooking stations presided over by our masterchefs chefs. There were pan-seared diver scallops from Laurent Pillard and veal sweetbreads from Philippe Massoud, beef tartare with golden Iranian caviar by Alain Soliveres and steamed shrimp dumplings with bird's nest from Sam Leong. And this was all before we'd sat down to a seven-course dinner in the main ballroom. By the time formal proceedings commenced, our palates had been stimulated nicely for one of Gourmet Abu Dhabi 2009's most eagerly awaited events.
The dinner offered the best that the festival could offer. Among my highlights of the evening was a playful yet simple dish called "egg chaud froid with caviar" by Alain Passard, which presented a gloriously runny yolk inside an immaculately cut egg shell. Then there was the homely and rustic comfort food of Santi Santamaria, who gave us a Catalan sarsuela of stunningly soft shellfish and creamy potato purée. But the pick of the bunch was the dessert by master patisserie Oriole Balaguer, entitled simply "substance". You're going to have to trust me when I say that the Grand Cru chocolate cream, vanilla mousse, toffee jelly and cocoa sponge crunch with lemon sorbet was every bit as good as it sounds.
The Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Tourism Authority, Sheikh Sultan Bin Tahnoon al Nahyan took to the stage to present nine awards, which saw the honours shared by just four Abu Dhabi hotels. In the regional cuisine categories, Emirates Palace swept all before it, claiming awards for best regional cuisine chef (Ali Charaf at Diwan L'Auberge), regional cuisine manager (Adel Danihasseli at Anar restaurant) and regional cuisine restaurant of the year (Anar restaurant).
Joseph Matar of the Shangri-La hotel was named food and beverage manager of the year, and the Intercontinental's May Labo took the award for restaurant host of the year. But the lion's share went to the Beach Rotana - whose Ernst-Lothar Frank was crowned executive chef of the year - and its highly rated Finz seafood restaurant, which won the gongs for best restaurant, restaurant manager (Thaer Hanna) and chef of the year (Danial Smeenk).
I was surprised that such excellent restaurants as Board Eau at the Shangri La and Sardinia at the Abu Dhabi Health and Fitness Club had been overlooked. Maybe one day the folk at Michelin might have something to say about that.