American three-star Michelin Chef Christopher Kostow – also awarded ‘Best Chef: West’ by the James Beard Foundation – may be more at home in the singular dining surrounds of The Restaurant at Meadowood in California’s Napa Valley but this week he stepped out of his comfort zone for a culinary adventure in Abu Dhabi’s vast desert landscape.
In the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for a starring role in the annual Gourmet Abu Dhabi culinary festival, Chef Kostow, who’s taken up a four-night residency in the UAE capital’s latest five-star beachfront resort, left the city lights behind him for a journey to the isolated Arabian Nights Village deep in the Al Khatem desert.
Surrounded by towering dunes, Chef Kostow was a guest of Chef Saeed Fawaz, who has been honoured by the Emirates Culinary Guild for his authentic representation of Arabian cuisine and who has cooked for many a ruling family’s wedding.
On the special menu in the quaint surrounds of the village’s Al Maqtam restaurant, was roasted camel – a treat traditionally reserved by Arabs and Emiratis for special celebrations, particularly weddings.
“We are celebrating something,” said Chef Saeed. “It isn’t every day we get a visit from a culinary personality of the stature of Christopher Kostow.”
The camel was first scrubbed with salt and vinegar before marinating for 24 hours in an aromatic paste of local spices, including garlic, ginger, green chilli, turmeric powder, cardamom, coriander, white pepper, and fresh tomatoes, tomato paste and corn oil.
It was next steamed in a stock of bay leaves, cinnamon powder, coriander, cloves, cardamom, onion, celery, black pepper and corn oil in an oversize, 150cm wide and 75cm deep lidded pot, in which the camel was placed on a steam-tray 10 centimetres off the pot’s bottom, and covered with date palm leaves.
After four hours of steaming over gas fire, hot charcoal was spread atop the metal lid to roast the meat for an hour.
“To get the distinctive smoked flavour which we’d traditionally have when the dish is prepared directly on a coal pit dug in the sand, we add red hot coals to a tray of clarified butter, known locally as ghee, which goes into the pot with the camel,” explained Chef Saeed.
The final dish ‘Hwar ma’a Machboos’ – was served up on a giant dish and was the centrepiece of an Arabian feast fit for the most honoured of guests. “The camel meat was absolutely delicious, like roasted lamb but less gamey with a soft texture and unctuous fat. We all really enjoyed it,” Chef Kostow said of his first taste of Emirati food.
“It’s always very cool to learn traditional cooking techniques as they have a lot of relevance to modern cooking,” said Chef Kostow. “There’s nothing new, per se, but it’s interesting to have an understanding of what was done in previous years. I also think it’s imperative to use cooking as a window onto a given culture, so it very interesting to learn how traditionally these things were prepared.
“I found it particularly interesting the amount of techniques actually employed in the preparation of this dish: there’s steaming, there’s roasting and smoking – there’s quite a bit of actual technique. You would assume that it’s a very rustic cooking process, and there are elements of rusticity, but really there’s a lot of technique going on and that’s pretty cool.”
Chef Christopher Kostow, a man whose frequently changing menu utilises produce from his own garden and the wilds of Napa Valley, was keen to discover local produce and cooking techniques on his first trip to Arabia. “We’ve only brought a few little things with us from Napa, such as acorn, and some things that are super specific to Napa Valley, but not much; we pretty much are making it all from scratch.
“I think the diners are going to get a taste of our style of cooking. You know, we don’t want to bring Napa to the Emirates but we want to show a little bit of our style and our philosophy, and for me it’s more important to work with the people and the products of the place, the way we’ve been able to, than necessarily just transplanting things. That process and working with the cooks who I don’t normally work with, and dealing with chefs here and talking to the people, that’s more interesting than just showcasing what I do in Napa.”
Chef Kostow has incorporated local touches for his culinary promotion at the five-star The Ritz Carlton Abu Dhabi Grand Canal, which runs from February 5-8, with the menu featuring camel bacon served with rye porridge, seaweed and Brassica mustard and local fish with Napa acorn, celery and black truffle.
On discovering bright yellow mustard flowers along the winding paths at the Arabian Nights Village, Chef Kostow impromptu picked a few which he’s decided to use as garnish for his dishes at The Ritz Carlton’s The Forge. “These Brassica grow all over Napa Valley, but this year there’s been a drought, so it appears I had to come to Abu Dhabi to find some.
“The desert is an amazing place it’s not a place where I’ve spent a lot of time, but it’s almost like a mindset. It’s so striking in its aesthetic and its vastness and in how extreme it is. Driving around the desert and just being in the desert for me is enough.
“There are commonalities between Meadowood and the Arabian Nights Village in the idea that it’s an oasis. Obviously Meadowood is a little more luxurious than an actual oasis, but I think that in the idea: a place of respite, a place of safety, a place of comfort, I think that they’re very similar.”
Camel meat, which was traditionally a source of sustenance for Arabia’s desert dwellers, is undergoing something of a resurgence in Abu Dhabi. A camel meat burger has now found its way onto a menu at Emirates Palace – one of the world’s most opulent hotels – and a camel meat pizza is now …
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