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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

UAE Portrait of a Nation: Meet Dubai's culinary 'Godfather'

Michael Kitts, culinary director at Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, talks about how he became one of the leading figures in the Dubai food scene

 Michael Kitts, director of Culinary Arts in the kitchen at The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National
 Michael Kitts, director of Culinary Arts in the kitchen at The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management in Dubai. Pawan Singh / The National

When internationally renowned chef Michael Kitts announced in 2001 that he was leaving the UK for Dubai, his friends and colleagues thought he was crazy.

It was unheard of, at the time, for a leading chef to up sticks and leave the thriving UK culinary scene, especially to move to the Middle East.

But the man who once cooked for late Princess Diana was offered the chance to head up the culinary section of the fledgling Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management.

Mr Kitts has been so successful as the culinary director of the academy, which teaches students about all sections of the hospitality sector, including marketing and finance, that he is now affectionately known within the industry as Dubai’s Godfather.

The north Londoner earned his stripes by working his way up through the ranks of the industry, beginning at Thanet Technical College in the mid-1970s before going on to work in iconic venues such as Claridge’s and the Ritz Club, before taking his first executive chef position at the five-star Swallow Royal Hotel.

During that time, he competed all over the world, winning numerous awards and international acclaim, before taking a teaching position at Butler’s Wharf Chef School. It was while working there that he was offered the opportunity to come to Dubai.

“A gentleman walked in for lunch by the name of Ron Hilvert, from the Jumeirah Group,” said Mr Kitts.

“He came back the next day and said ‘we are opening a university in Dubai and would you be interested in taking over the culinary side of things?’”

While the move would mean a massive upheaval, he did not have to think twice about it.

“I didn’t even come out to take a look at it, I just packed my suitcases and told myself 'if I don’t do this now, I never will',” said Mr Kitts.

“When I told my friends and family they said I had lost my marbles, but I told them that something special was happening in Dubai that I wanted to be a part of.”

The first thing that struck him about Dubai, 17 years ago, was the standard of service in hotel restaurants.

“I was absolutely mesmerised by it, a lot of people got it straight away and knew it was special,” he said.

“I thought 'if it’s like this now, then what’s it going to be like in another few years when it really takes off?'”

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The EAHM currently enrolls 300 students from 64 different nationalities, but when it first opened it had just 15 students.

“Many of our students have gone on to gain top positions within the industry and it is always satisfying to see former students doing well,” Mr Kitts said.

One of his current crop of students has already achieved something of a coup before he has even graduated from the academy.

“One of our seniors has managed to get a three-month internship working at Noma in Denmark under the tutelage of Rene Redzepi,” said Mr Kitts.

Mr Redzepi has two Michelin stars and Noma has come top of the influential World’s 50 Best Restaurant List four times.

“Some professional chefs would give their right arm to get such an experience,” he said.

“We are a boutique university but some of our students have gone abroad and competed against internationally renowned culinary schools and it gives me a smile to see them competing on that kind of stage.”

The biggest difference between 2001 – when the academy opened in Dubai – and today is the level of technology available to the students.

“Now they are using devices that are more advanced than the equipment the Apollo space programme had.

“They can do so much more now than 20 years ago, thanks to these devices.”

Keeping up to date with the latest industry trends is a key challenge for the staff at the academy.

“We try to give them as many real life situations as possible and keep up with the current trends,” he said.

“It is no good graduating students who are three or five years behind what is going on in the big, bad world.”

There is a positive attitude in Dubai that has made it such a success story, said Mr Kitts. “There is a 'we can win' attitude that you do not get everywhere else. Everyone is so supportive, even your so-called competitors.

“There is a camaraderie here in the culinary industry — you have got to help your mates if they are in need. It is about being collaborative rather than being competitive. [London] could benefit from that attitude sometimes,” he said.