Preparing to host a dinner party is not only challenging and time-consuming, but many of us find it more nerve-racking than attending a job interview as well, a study has revealed. From devising dishes to suit diverse palates to synchronising cooking times and ensuring the Umm Ali is a specimen of celestial splendour, the most innocuous event can suddenly seem like a Herculean task.
And all that’s before you’ve had time to set the table and transform into a vision of unruffled elegance.
In the UAE, we love to entertain, so it’s perhaps little surprise that more and more of us are outsourcing the planning, grocery shopping, preparation, and even the cleaning up to a third party.
Personal chefs are not a new concept, but the market space they’re set to occupy this year reflects the ever-evolving relationship we have with dining. And as competition rises, prices become all the more, well, digestible.
Ex-banker and self-confessed foodie Karl Naim spotted a niche for blending entrepreneurship with his gusto for gastronomy two years ago. Karl, who says he can ‘always find an excuse to host’, set up www.chefxchange.com, an online marketplace enabling fellow food fanatics to search, find and book a private chef from among dozens in Dubai alone.
‘I’ve always enjoyed hosting dinner parties,’ he says, ‘but I found I was forever over-buying or under-buying groceries, being so busy in the kitchen that I barely had time with my guests and then, after they left, having the whole place to clean up.’
Since the website’s launch in Dubai last January, it has attracted hundreds of people to sign up to its user-friendly services, which include price structures and a menu prepared in one’s home or chosen venue. The site has since expanded to Washington, London and Beirut as well – part of Lebanese-born Karl’s mission for it to become the Uber of the culinary world.
‘The number one reason we knew this would work in Dubai is culture,’ he says. ‘Both expats and locals like to entertain at home. There are many people with high disposable incomes and they tend to live in nice villas or towers with greater square footage than other places in the world. With lots of dining and kitchen space, hosting at home is easy and comfortable.
‘Secondly, in Dubai, eating out is probably the most popular form of entertainment as there are so many good restaurants and hotels. The downside is, it can be expensive.’ Karl adds that anyone who can afford to dine out in a top city restaurant can afford to hire a personal chef. ‘We want to become everyone’s private chef; we’re trying to be affordable for everyone.’
The website offers different prices according to whether one books an apprentice, amateur or professional chef. Users are asked to rate their experience, building up reviews for each cuisinier, which visitors to the site can refer to before selecting one.
‘The first question we usually get asked is if we can tailor a menu,’ says Karl. ‘People get pretty ecstatic when they realise they can have it customised exactly how they want it. Then they ask what the pricing includes and they’re always surprised that it incorporates not just the chef and meal, but the ingredients and cleaning up too.’
Prices tend to run up to about Dh300 per person for a professional chef, substantially less than in a first-class restaurant, Karl says.
‘We can afford to be competitive because there are no overheads for the chefs as often, they’re doing this in their free time. And usually they have easier access to discounted ingredients through contacts and going directly to markets.’
Chefxchange.com, which makes money through a 15 per cent commission on the chef’s rate, offers a dizzying array of international cuisines, from US soul food to Mediterranean, Thai and Indian. And while an upsurge in Japanese, Chinese, modern Arabian and even Armenian dishes may have dominated contemporary menus over the past couple of years, Karl says 2016 is all about the flavours of Peru.
‘Peruvian food is our biggest hit. Our best-rated chef is Chef Roberto Segura, who does lots of dishes like ceviche and quinoa – the new rice.’
Chef Roberto, formerly of The Act Dubai at the Shangri-La Hotel, says he loves to ‘surprise and inspire’, blending traditional Peruvian ingredients with French ones.
Another popular genre is classic Italian – proof that the UAE’s affair with pasta and pizza isn’t going to end anytime soon.
However, even as the site continues to expand (it now boasts more than 100 active and approved chefs), there are occasions when not everything goes entirely to plan.
‘We had a French chef turn up at a house in Dubai with a party of 10 to cook for and the oven blew up at the beginning of the evening,’ Karl says. ‘Thankfully, he really thought on his feet and cooked the whole meal on a barbecue outside – he literally set up all his pots and pans on the grill. There were scallops for starters followed by roasted cod with hazelnut butter and polenta fries.’
When British expat Lucy Miller, who lives in Jumeirah Park, decided to enlist the services of a professional for a New Year’s Eve dinner, she hired a chef on the recommendation of a friend. And for her, it all came down to practicality and logistics.
‘We wanted a relaxed meal with friends; lovely, celebration-style food but in a relaxed setting,’ Lucy says. ‘I considered cooking myself or even asking everyone to bring a dish, but it seemed like so much work. We also thought about going out, but it’s expensive and taxis are not easy to get on New Year’s Eve. Plus, we all have children so they were able to come to my house and go to sleep after a mini party of their own.’
Lucy, a marketing professional, opted for a classic British menu. ‘We had scallops to start and beef Wellington for the main course, followed by a choice of crème brûlée or bread and butter pudding.’
She describes the event as a huge success. ‘It was a brilliant, stress-free way to entertain. Everyone loved watching Chef Henry prep and cook, and chatting to him about the food.
‘It worked out to be around Dh300 per person, much cheaper than going out. We split the cost between the 10 of us, so it was really good value. The chef even prepared smoked salmon canapés for us as an extra treat, free of charge.’
Lucy says that an added advantage was not having to clear up. ‘Henry cleaned up amazingly well,’ she says. ‘He also brought all of his own cooking equipment and crockery, etc. so it was super easy; he just loaded it all up and took it away.
‘But the best part was that he left us delicious leftovers for the next day! I would definitely hire a chef again for a special occasion or large dinner party.
‘The only thing I would do differently is invite more people, because it was really easy and good fun. I’d also spend the day with the chef to see how he made the dishes – like a mini masterclass.’
Lucy knows the trials of hosting at home only too well, what with young kids and a high-powered job to prioritise. ‘It’s lovely to have friends over for dinner, but it takes a lot of organisation if it’s a special occasion and it can be stressful if there are a lot of people.
‘It’s cheaper to get a chef than dine out if you all split the cost and is a bit of a novelty too. It also saves taxi fares and babysitting costs, plus you get your own drinks, so don’t pay restaurant prices for those either.’
Any advice for those considering following suit?
‘It’s important to find the right person,’ she advises. ‘Our chef was amazing and he also joined us at the table afterwards – perfect for our casual party. If he had been overly formal or the food had been too fussy, I think it might have felt a bit awkward.
‘We felt he was part of the party rather than someone who was working.’
UAE residents are no strangers to hiring help to cook and clean, but the foray into gourmet chefs is great news for professionals like Tomas Reger. The Czech Dubai-based maestro spends his time crafting special menus for everything from family dinners to larger, more formal affairs.
There are two in particular that stand out.
‘One was set up outdoors in the stables around a huge campfire,’ Tomas recalls. ‘It was a thank-you dinner for all the workers of the stables from one of the horse owners. There were gazelles roaming around.
‘Another was a birthday dinner for a husband. We set everything up on a candlelit balcony, including a mini cooking station. It was meant to be a surprise and the wife would tell the husband she heard some strange noises, and to go check it out.
‘We were a bit worried as the husband was actually a policeman! Luckily nobody was harmed and it was a great success.’
Tomas loves it when his customers join him in the kitchen and get involved voluntarily. ‘It really breaks the ice and relaxes everybody,’ he says.
‘A couple of times, I’ve had clients eating their meal in the kitchen rather than at their perfectly set-up table as they were interested to see how the next course was being prepared.
‘Having a private chef gives you the option to be personal and eat a bespoke meal without the need to travel anywhere – which I think is one of the reasons this trend is becoming more popular. Unlike catering companies, private chefs will also cook most of the dishes fresh in your home. And with the increasing popularity of chefs’ tables, cooking shows and chefs as celebrities in general, having one of your own will always give any party an edge.’
Tomas recalls a challenging request, when he was asked to create a menu almost entirely of meat, ‘with no vegetables, at least no visible ones.
‘It was harder than it seems, as vegetables play a large part in my style of cooking and are important to balance each dish as well as for presentation.’
Meat fiends aside, healthy eating is the trend du jour, with nutritious meals making their way to tables in the UAE, beset by Type 2 diabetes and heart diseases. The rise of personal chefs as a regular feature in the home generally comes hand in hand with fresh organic produce and less of the traditionally rich fare that prompts and exacerbates illness.
For example, when Scottish expat Sam Brooks, who lives in Dubai Marina, suffered a heart attack three years ago, doctors warned him that his fast-food diet had to change if he wanted to live a long, healthy life. Sam now has a personal chef who comes home once a week and rustles up fresh and healthy meals for him.
‘I live alone and have a really busy job, which doesn’t leave much time for cooking,’ he says. ‘Chef Rebecca usually makes enough meals to last me a few days, and that way I’m not tempted to stop for a burger and fries on the way home.’
Chef Nabih Al-Momaiz has made a name for himself in Dubai with his almost raw, and often vegan fare, which includes delectable treats like Greek-style bruschetta or crackers topped with raw mayo, sun-dried tomatoes, cucumber, olives as well as fresh rosemary.
He says he’s inspired by ‘everything that encourages a healthy lifestyle. I challenge every conventional recipe with creative, healthy and equally delicious substitutes. My niche is in the ability to make healthy food look and taste like a million bucks.’
Whether the reason for sourcing a personal chef is health, or merely to have more than enough to eat on your plate, you really can have your cake and eat it too.