The Dubai restaurant scene is extensive and flourishing, meaning the temptation in this city to neglect your own kitchen is high. I, for one, cherish the chance to get the knives out on the (very) odd occasion when I’m not eating my way through Dubai’s newest and best menus. Yet there’s still so little time and so many tempting venues to plough through.
The rest of Dubai’s residents appear to be just as eager to get their aprons on: high-end cooking classes are constantly popping up to cater for demand, while new restaurant Blue Flame neatly combines a cooking studio into its design and concept. Two standalone cooking schools have also launched in the past few months: Top Chef, which opened in Jumeirah in June, and Scafa, which landed in JLT in September.
Scafa, aka the School of Culinary and Finishing Arts, was co-founded by father-and-daughter team Zaigham and Alisha Haque. It’s shaping up as a culinary hotspot for amateurs who want to learn the basics or add new dishes to their repertoire, as well as aspiring pros aiming for an entry-level qualification to kick-start their career as a chef. For Zaigham and Alisha, creating Scafa (alongside wittily named in-house bistro Scafé) has been a labour of love – the love of food and learning combined.
‘Food has always been a passion and it runs in our family,’ explains Alisha. Her father, Zaigham, reveals it all started with a throwaway comment from a friend, who insisted he should devote his energy for good food to a venture such as Scafa. Since then, the project has developed to become a licensed and accredited vocational training institute concentrating on classic French techniques, as well as offering a range of courses for enthusiasts. ‘There is a need in Dubai to develop the vocational education sector,’ Zaigham explains. ‘We hope our students will become an important part of the growing hospitality landscape in both Dubai and internationally.’
Unfortunately for me, the six-month intensive professional course slightly exceeds the bounds of reasonable research, so instead I join the weekly couples’ cooking class, with a fellow Time Outer in tow, to learn how to cook (and eat) Thai food. This relaxed, accessible event, aimed at couples and friends alike, focuses on a different cuisine or style of cooking each week, from Spanish to vegetarian, with a class in raw food also in the pipeline. After donning an apron and meeting chefs Francisco Araya and Jyotika Malik, who will be taking charge during the evening, we join the intimate group around the table in the cooking studio. The atmosphere, from fellow students and teachers alike, is relaxed and friendly. Aside from my friend and myself the group is primarily made up of couples, but the vibe is still communal and unintimidating.
We start with the last dish to be eaten, a dessert of mango mousse, because it will take some time to set in the fridge. Jyotika starts us off with a rundown of the different knives on display, before instructing us to use whichever we feel most comfortable with to prepare the mango. I mistakenly opt for the chef’s knife to slice the mango into cubes, before realising I need to peel it first, and gingerly picking up a paring knife as well. Cue plenty of comic trial and error as each couple tries to find the best way to peel the mango (hint: don’t cut it in half first, as attempted by one couple).
To create this simple dessert, Jyotika guides us through various basic techniques, from whipping the cream to creating a sugar syrup with gelatin, accompanied by plenty of advice, patience and interaction. Once the mousse is poured into individual glasses and chilled, it’s on to a summery Thai salad, aka yam som, filled with everything from fruit (pomelo, grapes, mango, lychees) to chilli, peanuts, coriander and prawns. We try our hand at preparing a pomelo, a giant Asian citrus fruit, and learn to create presentable segments (in my case, with varying degrees of success). Each ‘team’ creates their own salad and is encouraged to include the balance of ingredients they prefer, but with so many delicious ingredients I struggle to decide between them.
Starting work on the aubergine yellow curry, we begin working in teams, with one half of each couple overseeing the sautéing of the aubergine and the other working on the curry paste. For those who live (and will presumably cook together), this division works well, although my friend and I both greedily want to see every step of the recipe. As we begin to cook the freshly made curry paste in a pan, it smells mouthwateringly aromatic: it will be the base, we’re told, of a style of home-made Thai curry rarely seen in restaurants. During the class, we also make accompaniments that will turn this into a full Thai-style meal, with lemongrass-infused jasmine rice, stir-fried broccoli and stir-fried minced chicken with basil. Each dish is fairly simple, and achievable to replicate at home.
Once our hard work is over and the meal is prepared, the group moves to the bistro, Scafé, to relax, sip on delicious mocktails and tuck into our own bespoke salad. It is refreshing, as well as diversely flavoured, with bursts of sweet and bitter fruit juice amid the savoury and aromatic mix. While relaxing and chatting with our fellow students, we learn that the women in each couple are the primary cooks at home, even though one of the men attending is currently enrolled on Scafa’s vocational course. I wonder whether, after the lesson, the men will be inspired to take up the cooking reins.
Chefs Jyotika and Francisco are still hard at work, putting the finishing touches to the dishes for the main course, before bringing out the well-presented finished plates. The thickened and caramelised aubergine curry is exceptionally tasty. Finally, we finish as we began with the simple yet very effective mango mousse.
This particular class isn’t designed for those who are seriously looking to brush up their skills (Scafa offers plenty of more appropriate options for this), but it’s plenty of fun. It would make an incredible alternative date, and the final edible result is even more enjoyable.
Scafa’s couples’ cooking classes cost Dhs500 per couple and take place every Wednesday, 6.45pm-9.15pm and focus on a different cuisine each week: the class on November 28 will focus on vegetarian cooking. Unit 16, Cluster I, JLT, www.scafa.ae (04 379 4044).