x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Feeding friends without a fuss

Hiring a personal chef is the perfect way to entertain friends in style without having to break a sweat.

Chef Marta Yanci caters an in-home dinner for friends earlier this month.
Chef Marta Yanci caters an in-home dinner for friends earlier this month.

The table looks just so; purple blossoms are scattered along its length, tea candles flicker in dainty holders and each place setting is a vision of elegant order.

In five minutes the amuse-bouche will be served - zucchini shots sprinkled with marsala spice, topped with a coconut-covered prawn. The appetisers will follow seamlessly.

I can say this with absolute confidence because though this is my lunch party, and the menu wildly ambitious, I'm not cooking.

The smells of food that drift from my kitchen do not cling to my clothes because I have been no nearer the stove than my guests. I can look forward to the crab dressed with avocado cream and lemon, to the beef tenderloin wrapped in pastry and to the tooth-meltingly sweet speculoos (caramelised sugar biscuits) ice cream every bit as much as my friends.

No beads of sweat trouble my brow, no last-minute cursing colours the air. There is no anxiety, no stress and, for my guests, no need for polite smiles and strained chewing as the end result of hours of toil fails to live up to expectations.

Forty minutes earlier I was at my desk in my office, while the decorations now on my table and the food that will soon be enjoyed were in a variety of boxes en route from Dubai - safe in the capable hands of Marta, my personal chef... well, mine until the coffee is served.

This is the secret to hosting a dinner party: throw open your home to your friends - and your kitchen to a personal chef.

It's a first for me, but, according to Katie Harvey, the co-founder and managing director of the events organisers Dubai Party Queen (DPQ), this is increasingly what the savvy UAE host is doing.

"We're definitely seeing a trend," she says. "Last year when the global financial crisis hit people started going out less. They invested more in their homes and now, even as things are picking up, they want to show their homes off and feel relaxed.

"It may sound extravagant hosting a dinner party this way, but it needn't be hugely expensive. We get men and women enquiring about personal chefs for a variety of reasons. Some don't have the time to cook, some don't have the skill, some have both but simply love being the host and choose to focus on that."

When the Basque-born Marta Yanci left a career in law to launch Marta's Kitchen it was, she admits, "a risk", but food has always been something about which she is passionate.

"When my husband and I were newly married we would go to London and stay in a cheap hotel so we could afford to dine at a three-star Michelin restaurant," she says. "I'm self taught - I read, I taste, I experiment on friends and family. I've always been a gourmet. Really I studied law because it seemed the sensible thing to do - but cooking is always what I really wanted to do."

Now barely two years on, demand for her Dubai-based service is threatening to outstrip her resources. (She will travel to other emirates.)

She works with a sous chef and can, if requested, provide waiting staff. Like most chefs she discusses menu options with the client, prepares some items ahead of time, then cooks the rest in your home - arriving an hour or so before you want to start eating.

Our meal cost Dh110 per head with an extra Dh20 each for crockery and cutlery hire.

"We can work out pretty much anything with enough warning," Marta says. "About the only thing I can't do is cook without an oven.

"One of my first jobs was a dinner for 20. It included oven-baked fish and oven-roasted vegetables and only when I got to the home did I learn that the hostess didn't have an oven. She had a small grill and I lived about 30 minutes away so with a bit of travel and a bit of improvising we managed."

If you want you can order everything from the food to the table dècor. DPQ does a variety of themed dinner party boxes, averaging Dh2,000 for a party of 10 and including everything you need to dress your table. Many chefs also will arrange crockery, waiting staff and a clean-up service.

The purist might quibble that all this is "cheating", though this allegation may not bother everyone.

One of my closest friends is a case in point. Her dinner parties are never less than exquisite. I'd long marvelled at her ability to emerge from her kitchen - with faultless make-up and attire - serve up course after impressive course, while relaying the precise details of just how she had gone about creating each dish, and never neglect her guests. Only the chance discovery of the catering company menu and hastily disposed-of packaging gave the game away.

Truth be told there's something rather special about having a professional chef cook for you and your guests at home.

It's fun when each dish arrives at the table with a flourish. It's a pleasure when you can appreciate both the food and your company without that nagging certainty that every moment devoted to one comes at the expense of the other.

And at the end of the evening when both dinner and party have been a roaring success you don't have to get a taxi home.


Where to start

There are a number of chefs and companies that arrange in-home dinners and party foods. Here are two that are featured in the story and two that aren't.

DUBAI PARTY QUEEN First stop for everything from free advice to throwing the party, www.dubaipartyqueen.com

MARTA'S KITCHEN www.martaskitchen.net, 05 0379 8002, http://martaskitchenandco.blogspot.com

ALFRED MOUSSA Director of food and beverage, Crowne Plaza Dubai, alfred.moussa@cpdxb.com, www.crowneplaza.com, 04 305 6300

NATALIE'S PIE For sweet canapés and pies, www.nataliespie.com, 050 2956 073