It’s Friday morning and I’m heading to brunch. Not that there’s anything unusual about this – brunch is enjoyed by hundreds, if not thousands, of Dubai residents every week. Today, however, I’m not going to indulge in an all-you-can-eat-and-drink meal deal, but instead don chef’s whites, go into the kitchen and find out what happens behind the scenes of this ubiquitous Dubai institution.
But why sacrifice an afternoon of unbridled merriment for hard graft? Well, like so many of us, I’ve spent countless Friday afternoons brunching with friends, so much so that I’ve found myself taking these extravagant events for granted. I’ve lived as an expat in a number of cities around the world, all of which boast some semblance of brunch culture, but nothing that comes close to Dubai’s. And while I know exactly how to strategise my assault on the food stations, I’ve always wondered how chefs, waiters and kitchen staff manage to feed our insatiable appetite for brunch, week in, week out.
If there’s one place I can find answers to these questions, it’s Spectrum on One at The Fairmont. The hotel was one of the first in Dubai to start serving Friday brunch as we know it, back in 2003. I’m told to arrive at 9.30am and, while I’ve never been anywhere but bed at this time on a Friday morning, it soon becomes clear that the time it takes for the kitchen staff to prepare and pull off a brunch far exceed the three-and-a-half hours the rest of us spend stuffing our faces.
My guides and taskmasters for the day are executive chef Patrick Duff, executive sous chef Hugh Styles and chef de cuisine Martin Buechele. Having worked as a waiter to pay my way through university, I’d always remembered chefs as being explosively temperamental characters. Not so with any of these gentlemen, which surprises me, especially considering that they, like the rest of the staff who are hurrying purposely around the sprawling dining area, have been here for at least a couple of hours already.
My morning starts with a brisk tour of the Spectrum on One’s huge dining area and its seemingly countless food stations, which will soon be overflowing with dim sum, desserts, roast meats, tandoori skewers, oysters… Once we arrive at the Japanese station, however, it becomes clear that I’m not here in the capacity of a culinary tourist – I’m here to work. I’m ushered behind the sushi station, given a pair of plastic hygiene gloves and, before I know it, I’m making sushi rolls. My ham-fisted attempts are humoured gracefully by Jessaman and Looverville, two Filipino sisters whose sunny disposition puts my grumblings of a 9.30am start to shame – they’ve been up since 6am, having only finished the previous night’s shift at 2.30am. I manage to roll a couple of decent spicy tuna rolls during my 10-minute stint, but considering that 1,500 slices of sashimi and nearly as many sushi rolls will be served over the course of the brunch, it’s fair to say I’m not planning to quit my day job any time soon.
Patrick relieves me of my sushi duties and leads me to the kitchen, where a couple of chefs have been prizing open oysters since 7am. Less than 24 hours ago, these oysters had been basking in the waters of Brittany; in a couple of hours they’ll be sliding down the throats of the Fairmont’s guests. As with the oysters, nearly all of the food on display was flown in yesterday; the fact that this happens on a weekly basis demonstrates what a giant operation brunch is. However, despite the huge amount of produce flown in every week for this brunch (and, I imagine, many others like it), I’m surprised to learn that this Friday spectacle doesn’t reap huge profits for the Fairmont.
‘So why I have the brunch in the first place?’ I venture. According to Patrick, a hotel’s brunch is an opportunity to showcase the quality of its food and service. If people like what they see (and eat, obviously), then they’re more inclined to come back during the week. This is where the real money is made.
As we leave for the tandoori ovens, I can’t believe the transformation that has taken place in the couple of hours since my arrival. Previously empty food stations are now brimming with a colourful composition of international fare. I can see now why Patrick and his team don’t fit the stereotypical image of the angry chef – his staff are so well-drilled, and so used to their pre-brunch routine, that they hardly need any instruction whatsoever. A well-oiled operation is unfolding before me. To think that this is happening in hotels all over Dubai at this very moment is quite remarkable.
My tenure at the tandoori station is rather more frightening than the relatively serene stay I enjoyed with Jessaman and Looverville. The tandoor chef demonstrates how to reach into the barrel-like oven and slap raw naan dough onto the inside wall. He then implores me to do the same. I take the naan dough and reach towards the oven, only to retract my hand as soon as I feel its intense heat – and I haven’t even reached inside it. Much to the amusement of my growing audience, it takes me several attempts before I buckle up the courage to reach inside. Once I do, I can’t help but let out a girly shriek and whip my hand out as fast as I put it in. In my hurry, I let the naan fall to the bottom of the oven rather than stick to the side, as it should. Laughing, the chef picks up a pair of pincers and unflinchingly reaches into the furnace to extract my botched attempt. I can’t believe how casually he does it, but considering he bakes around 150 naans every brunch, I suppose he gets used to it.
A shout echoes through the dining hall: brunch will begin in a matter of minutes. Patrick, Hugh and Martin take their place alongside black-clad waiters who line up at the entrance, brandishing tray after tray of fizzing flutes of bubbly. Patrick tells me that the Fairmont is Moët & Chandon’s second-biggest customer in the world (the first, apparently, is the Fairmont in Singapore). It’s a remarkable statistic, but having seen what I’ve seen today, I’m not entirely surprised.
As the countdown ends, the staff let out an enthusiastic cheer as a steady stream of bemused guests trickle through the doors. For them, brunch has just started. For the 70-strong Fairmont team, it began a long time ago, and will finish long after the last well-fed guests have eaten their fill and waddled out into Dubai’s early-evening heat.
Brunch at Spectrum on One is served every Friday, noon-3pm. Dhs295 (soft beverages), Dhs395 (selected drinks), Dhs550 (bubbly). The Fairmont Dubai, Sheikh Zayed Road (04 311 8316).
The Fairmont Friday brunch in numbers
25kg of European cheese
25kg of sweets and candies
1,000 Peking duck rolls
800 pieces of dim sum
30kg of Wagyu beef
38kg of roast turkey
96kg of roast beef
100 kebab skewers
60kg of lobster
300 bottles of bubbly
600 mini cup cakes
1,500 slices of sashimi
25kg of chocolate in the chocolate fountain