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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 12 December 2018

Spice up your life: Baker & Spice a decade on

A decade since Baker & Spice launched in the UAE, with a focus on locally sourced and seasonal products, there is still some educating to be done, co-owner Andre Gerschel tells us

Andre Gerschel with staff at Baker & Spice cafe at Al Manzil Mall, Dubai. Clockwise from top left, Manish Gajra, Sumanta Roy, Adrian Chow,  Deejay Leon Aaliyah Randeree and Gerschel Victor Besa / The National
Andre Gerschel with staff at Baker & Spice cafe at Al Manzil Mall, Dubai. Clockwise from top left, Manish Gajra, Sumanta Roy, Adrian Chow,  Deejay Leon Aaliyah Randeree and Gerschel Victor Besa / The National

Diners in Copenhagen will be getting a distinctly UAE experience this Ramadan. In a collaboration with the UAE Embassy, Dubai’s Baker & Spice is teaming up with Copenhagen restaurateur Safi Enayat, of Indian restaurant Dhaba, to create The Opposite Kitchen – a dinner series dedicated to bringing communities together through a common factor: Middle Eastern food.

Iftar will be available daily from June 2 to June 8, and up to 50 bookings can be catered for each night, for a literal taste of Emirati culture.

“The partnership could not be more unusual and fitting to the cause, with Safi being an Afghan who grew up in Denmark and opened an Indian restaurant, and me, a New Yorker with a passion for Middle Eastern cuisine,” says Andre Gerschel, co-owner of Baker & Spice. “We’ve been friends for a while and wanted to demonstrate how food knows no boundaries. Iftar is the perfect way to do it.”

It has been two years since Gerschel took over at Baker & Spice, a homegrown restaurant business that first opened its doors in Dubai’s Souq Al Bahar a decade ago. This talkative, stylish New Yorker (he was voted one of the region’s best dressed men last year by Esquire magazine) came to the UAE seven years ago after a career in America and Canada in the hospitality industry.

A cousin of his had started Baker & Spice, the health food eatery, and set the tone of the business – which hasn’t changed over the past 10 years. It quickly made its mark in the region, by sourcing the food it served from growers and farmers who were as close as possible to its restaurants. It also refused to serve Coca-­Cola. When Gerschel took over the reins (he part-owns it with two Kuwaiti investors) in 2015, he simply took that concept and built on it.

Change and advancement have been rapid. “She used to deal directly with three or four local organic farms,” he recalls. “Now we’re dealing with 26-plus at our Farmers Market every Friday. It’s grown exponentially in the past few years and there’s been a tremendous effort, particularly on the part of the UAE Government, to increase agricultural production.”

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He says that he views himself as a custodian of the brand – doing what he can to continue the legacy its founder envisioned from the start. When he took over, Gerschel says, the company operated three restaurants, all in Dubai. Now there are eight across the GCC and approximately 500 people working in the organisation.

Plans for the year are ambitious yet fully under way, with the first Saudi franchise set to open in Jeddah, the handling and operating of the entire food and beverage operations for a new boutique hotel (all under the Baker & Spice branding), as well as taking care of all the catering operations for a new hotel in Dubai’s Science Park.

Baker & Spice’s USP is simple enough – it harks back to the way we used to eat – and that naturally entails a constantly changing menu, which is different each day in each of the restaurants (all of which buy from producers most local to them). When good food is available, it’s bought and worked into new dishes. The only constant is a striving for utmost quality.

“We don’t have salmon on the menu,” he says, “because it’s not a local fish. We’ve never served it. To have it on our menu would be to go against practically everything else that we do. There’s a lot of education involved when setting up this kind of restaurant in a region where the concept is new. A great many people, for instance, can’t get their heads around the fact that when a particular food isn’t in season, they can’t have it served by us.”

Ah, yes, seasonal produce – remember that? Some of us are old enough to recall a time when you could buy strawberries only for a few weeks each summer, or when blackberries were available only in late autumn. “Can you imagine,” Gerschel says, “not having avocado on the menu? It could start a riot. And that’s something we have to try to get around, so we look to northern hemisphere producers for oranges, Lebanese and Ethiopian avocados when they’re in season, artichokes and asparagus from Tunisia and Algeria, and microclimates within our immediate geographic area to see how we can source the best.

“We’re about to enter blood orange season – a fruit that can be used in loads of different ways – cakes, marmalades, salads, juice. When we start receiving them, we’ll start selling them. If deliveries start on a Tuesday, they’ll be on the menu on the Wednesday.”

He says customers sometimes require an explanation as to why homemade food costs more than the pre-­prepared equivalent. “We’re using the ingredients of ‘fine dining’ restaurants while charging casual prices, yet we’re often compared against fast food. That’s a tough one. Also, why import bottled water? I use Al Ain and I mark it up significantly, but there’s a good reason for that: I serve free, excellent filtered water. We work with a company here called Liquid of Life – I can’t speak highly enough of them, the work they do is exceptional and I use their filtration equipment in my home now, so I don’t buy bottled water any more – it annoys me.”

Gerschel is worked hard to build relationships with local farmers, helping them when he can to build their businesses and increase their profits. “I’ve bought organic seeds and given them to a farmer so he could grow stuff for us, but now that we’ve grown as an organisation there’s a willingness on their part to do their bit and supply us with what we need, safe in the knowledge that there’s a ready buyer.”

He went to culinary school in the United States and understands the importance of great staff, who he believes should be paid well and looked after – something else that makes good business sense. And they all get to spend time at the sharp end of the business.

“The first four weeks working for us, it doesn’t matter who you are, you’re in the kitchen. You’re chopping, you’re cooking, you’re cleaning, you’re butchering. We prepare everything here ourselves. We make our own butter, yoghurt, cream, everything. The furniture is probably the only thing we don’t make, but even then we’ve used camel leather that would otherwise have gone to waste, had it organically treated and dyed at a tannery, and then used to upholster our couches. It’s part of our narrative,” explains Gerschel.

It’s refreshing to talk to a restaurateur who’s so aware of each and every part of his business, and that extends to the way the food is farmed. “I’ve killed my own cow,” he says. “It was at an abattoir in the UK and it’s a deeply emotional experience, but it gives a total and newfound respect for the consumption of animals. I don’t just go to a farm, I visit where the guys who work there live, I want to meet them, see every aspect of the business. And I know that when I’m referring to our eggs as ‘free range’, that it means 120 square feet of living space for every six chickens.

“I went to see the farm where we buy our eggs and poultry from – I know where the corn they feed the birds is from and I know, because I’ve checked, that no hormones are used to rear them.”