x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Summer Bachelors 4: A matter of hunger

The fourth in our series on the UAE's 'summer bachelors' features a man who is putting his money where his mouth ought to be, dietwise.

Alan Connolly has a minimalist philosophy (in terms of effort) when it comes to feeding himself while his wife is away.
Alan Connolly has a minimalist philosophy (in terms of effort) when it comes to feeding himself while his wife is away.

"I haven't eaten all day and I was starving before you got here," jokes Alan Connolly in his seventh-floor apartment overlooking Khalidiyah Garden in Abu Dhabi. "So my hand was reaching for a packet of Hula Hoops from the drawer but then the doorbell went." I apologise to our fourth summer bachelor for delaying such a nutritious lunch. His other half, Ned, has already been in her native Australia for two months, so I wonder if he has been living entirely off the corn snack in that time?

"I met a friend of mine in Spinneys the other day, and all I had was a basket full of beans," he adds. Ah. A cupboard above the microwave reveals a several stacks of these baked bean cans, along with a neat row of packet soups. The fridge is better, housing some kind of vegetable life (a few peppers), some yoghurt and a bag of grapes. "I took half a Subway roll out that had been there for the past five or six days," he says, a touch sheepishly. There's a huge amount of chocolate too. Several Mars bars and a big slab of Dairy Milk.

"I love this Cadbury's from home," he explains. He's been cooking from time to time, though. "I don't mind cooking, actually. This is probably the best thing I've ever bought," he says, retrieving a non-stick griddle pan from a cupboard. He uses this miracle instrument for things like steak and lamb chops. "I'm a simple enough feeder; for me it's just a matter of satisfying hunger," he says, adding that he will eat the odd baked potato, with beans, too.

The interesting thing, though, is that despite his mostly functional role with food, Connolly is soon to launch an Abu Dhabi-based catering company. It's called Cafe Bia, bia meaning food in Gaelic, which is fitting as Connolly talks in a strong Irish lilt and a model green shamrock is pinned to the wall above the oven. Despite a background in banking in Ireland and later IT and seminar training in Sydney, where he met Ned, Connolly spotted a gap in the catering market when he moved here three years ago.

"You're talking about those who have their wife and kids go home for two or three months," he says of The National's summer bachelor series. "But there's an awful lot of fellas who are here for 12 months of the year on their own. There are more single than married." He says the Lebanese take care of the Middle Eastern food requirements, the Indians take care of the Asian requirements but asks: "Who's taking care of the Westerners? Very few of them take care of the guy who just wants some soup and brown bread for lunch. It's very difficult to get good soup at lunch time, you know?"

I nod. Cafe Bia plans to offer gourmet sandwiches for lunchtimes, along with freshly cooked supper options like stews, shepherd's pies and spaghettis for people to take home in the evening. "Why bother stopping off at the supermarket on the way home when we can give you a lasagne to take home?" he offers. So he is interested in food, then? "I'm on the business side of things, but yeah, I am. I'm interested in the way we eat food. And the way people eat food out here is shocking. People work long hours so it's whatever's quickest and handiest, but that's not always what's healthiest."

Did he suffer the infamous expatriate weight gain when he moved here? "I turn 37 next month," he says, "And for the first time in my life I'm looking at my weight. I've never bothered about it before but I'm the heaviest I've ever been." Part of the problem, according to Connolly, is the attitude towards sport in the Emirates. "In Ireland, sport is massive. We have the Gaelic games, and a football team in every village. Here you don't have that. You have great professional sporting facilities, but you don't have amateur facilities."

He explains that while "most of the parks have trees and lamp-posts everywhere, there's not enough space for seven lads to kick about a football." He has found an ally in the Abu Dhabi Food Authority, which has helped him and the chef Gerry, his partner in the enterprise, get their plan for Cafe Bia close to completion. They aim to launch, he says, in the next couple of weeks. Connolly, with his fondness for beans and Hula Hoops, will presumably be one of his own business's best customers.