The Taste of Dubai bandwagon rolls into town this week, with celebrity chefs, cooking exhibitions and, naturally, lots of food. Andy Buchan caught up with Anthony Worrall Thompson to find out about being the face of the festival, what he makes of the recent smoking ban in Dubai’s restaurants and his thoughts on fellow chefs Gary Rhodes and Gordon Ramsay.
Smoking has just been banned in Dubai’s restaurants. What do you think about that as a smoker and a chef?
There are a large amounts of smokers out there so I guess it’s not been too popular. Possibly the ban should take place in restaurants, but bars in Britain have noticed a 20 per cent drop in trade. 22 per cent of the adult population in the UK smoke and they should be allowed to smoke. Britain has never rejected a very large minority like that before. I am a smoker and I’m defending the right for people to do it.
What about the other 78 per cent – don’t they have rights as well?
A large percentage of the population is getting fatter, but they’re not doing anything particular about the obesity problem yet. Smokers raise nine billion pounds a year and we only cost the NHS 1.3 billion a year so, to put it cynically, we’re paying our way. There’s no tax on the wrong sorts of food and that’s something I’m campaigning for as well.
As a chef, doesn’t smoking dull your taste buds?
Well, they say that but I’m on lots of tasting panels, I write monthly columns in magazines and newspapers and my taste buds are far more acute than most non-smokers. I can spot cumin or coriander a mile off.
What about the smell in restaurants?
But then it’s there own choice – they’re adults, they can vote with their feet. And in most cases there are smoke exhaling machine that reduce particles in the atmosphere by 94 per cent. The days of a heavy smoke haze are gone. We can have perfectly good surroundings with smokers. They can’t ban it as we’re making too much money so it’s a bit hypocritical really – on the one hand they want the money and on the other they want us to give up smoking.
It’s an oddity that we can abuse smokers for killing themselves, but we don’t seem to want to attack overweight people for killing themselves with food.
You’re right, it’s not acceptable in this politically correct world of ours. What they should be doing is taxing unnecessary food as I call it – ready meals, dips, crisps, lazy food, etc. That revenue could be put towards providing free school meals. We made the massive mistake of giving children a choice at school a long time ago and they went and made the wrong choice. They’re not getting a healthy balanced meal now – they’ll go for the chicken and chips every time. We should be treating children like children and at the moment we don’t. The UAE has a severe diabetic problem, and eating the right foods could very easily help rectify that.
Obesity and diabetes are huge problems here in Dubai. What should we do?
You need to eat more vegetables. More often than not, they’re an afterthought and meals are not very nutritious at all. It’s something we all have to address really.
And how do you get people interested in vegetables?
You have to teach them how to cook for a start. And you have to teach them young. It’s too late for our generation to change our ways, but we have to think about how future generations can stop what’s gone on. And that comes from teaching them how to eat it, how to make it and how to enjoy it. Food technology is too much about how to wrap a sandwich, how it’s going to be mass produced. We have to get them back to cooking from scratch so that they know what’s going in there. If you buy a ready meal, then it’s packed with salts, sugars and fats. And they’re very bad for you.
You’re the face of Taste of Dubai aren’t you?
I am, I’m like their mascot. I’ve been all over Britain with it and it’s great fun. The audience last year was really good and we were very well received and it should be a fun time. Some of the chefs are going to be doing good food, some will be doing poncey food and some will be doing normal food.
Where do you fit in?
Erm, I’m doing a selection of fish dishes as there are some wonderful fish in the Dubai market. More people should make fish, so I’m going to make it quite exciting in my demonstrations. I like to have a bit of fun, I take the mickey a bit as well as trying to give people some cooking tips.
How do you think Dubai’s restaurant scene compares to other places where you cook?
It’s very good, and it’s getting better. The biggest problem it faces is that a lot of the food has to be imported. It’s got great fish on its doorstep, but there’s very little in the way of vegetables. You lose a lot of the nutrients by getting it from thousands of miles away.
And you give it a whopping carbon foodprint.
That’s right. I’ve had some very good meals and I especially like going to the local Arabic places. To be honest, I get a bit bored of Gary and Gordon’s food – if I go to another country, I want to eat what the real people are eating. It’s a miracle what they’re doing with all the buildings and the climate for nine months of the year is perfect. It’s a working playground.
Would you like to play in this ground?
I do and I don’t. I don’t want to con people into believing that they’re getting me at the restaurant when they’re not.
Does that mean you think Gordon and Gary are doing just that?
Not deliberately, but they’re rarely there. They’re emailing or texting their chefs with dishes.
But are the brands not strong enough to survive that?
It is about delegation and it is about teaching, but you’ve got to be there sometimes. How often does Gordon come out – once a year? They’re both professionals and they’re both very good chefs. Marco Pierre White is doing a more downmarket sort of product, which is a pity as he’s a brilliant chef. I’m interested in things like grills, the supplies, good animal welfare and organic produce where possible. The latter hasn’t really taken off yet in Dubai.
If Dubai was a dish what would it be?
Oh, that’s a tricky one. It would be a lovely roast red snapper taken from the sea and delightfully spiced. I’d add some couscous on the side and some nice hot dip to go with it.
Thu 12noon-5pm and 7pm-12midnight, Fri 11am-4pm brunch and 7pm-12 midnight and Sat 12noon-5pm and 7pm-12midnight. For more information, visit www.tasteofdubai08.com.
Taste of Dubai runs for three days from February 7-9 at the Dubai Media City amphitheatre. Tickets cost Dhs150 for standard entry, including Dhs100 of Taste currency to spend on dishes and drinks at the festival, and VIP tickets cost Dhs350 including Dhs150 of Taste currency. Tickets are available from www.timeouttickets.com.