Step into any conversation to do with the region’s F&B industry, and the representation of Emirati chefs — or lack thereof — will eventually crop up. That those Emiratis chefs who have made a name for themselves often don’t cook their traditional cuisine only adds to the debate.
However, chefs Faisal Nasser and Khaled Asaadi, proud of their Emirati roots, are hoping to rise to the top of their profession and put the UAE’s culinary scene on the map at the same time. They’re doing it by creating a modern kind of restaurant, while still trying to show off Emirati hospitality and flavours.
Both chefs spent years reaching beyond their own backgrounds, and believing that the new generation of restaurateurs has to give UAE diners what they want. Whether that’s burgers à la Naser or grilled cheese sandwiches courtesy of Alsaadi, the genuine exploration of what the modern diner wants has allowed these two chefs to succeed in the local F&B scene.With packed restaurants, high demand for chef collaborations and a strong social media presence, Naser’s LENTO and Alsaadi’s FA’E are the culmination of the chefs’ aims to demystify what it means to be an Emirati chef in this day and age.Caterer Middle East sat down with the talented cooks to speak about a generation of local chefs, who shake up the idea of what it means to be a local working in the F&B industry.
For almost 10 years, launching an F&B concept sat at the back of Faisal Naser’s head. “I should have launched LENTO a long time ago,” he explained. “But I was overthinking it massively. I had this idea in my head that if I were to ever launch a restaurant I needed to make a big fancy splash. I wanted it to have white tablecloths with fine dining dishes and a molecular-style presentation. I always envisioned a huge space with five-star service. So I just waited and waited, but the right time to launch this big project never came.”Naser has been cooking since he was a university student in London. “I have always loved cooking, but it really started when I moved to England in 2003 and 2004. I knew I would be away from my mom’s food for a long time, so I could either live on takeout or learn to cook my own food.”He started cooking while living in student halls. All the other Arab students would come to his dorm for a taste of home. “I realised that my love for cooking was more than just a hobby,” he said. “So I started working part-time in restaurants, to see how I would do in the real world. I just wanted to learn and I loved it. My parents didn’t really understand why I wanted to be a cook as my full-time job. It’s not really common in my culture to be a chef or to go to culinary school. My educational background is in genetic science.”When Naser graduated and moved back to the UAE, he ended up working an office job. “It was boring,” he simply said. “That’s when I started my side hustle. I was hosting cooking classes, doing F&B consulting and posting educational culinary videos on Instagram. I was one of the very early content creators on Instagram. I started on the platform in 2013. The videos I made were very technical. Giving people cooking lessons made me stand out a bit from the other F&B content creators who mostly dined out and photographed the food they were ordering. Before the Instagram algorithm changed everyone’s posting habits, I used to post one quality post a month, and people started recognising me on social media.”With Naser too caught up in his own vision, the chef who once believed that a high-concept, high-priced restaurant with its white tablecloth and handblown glassware would catapult him to local culinary renown, focused on burgers. In 2020, almost 10 years after starting out, he decided to create something simple. He launched LENTO in Abu Dhabi as a pick-up-and-eat-in-your-car burger spot.
“It’s funny how my younger self wanted to only launch this gourmet dining experience and I ended up making burgers. But honestly, casual concepts are what make money these days,” he added. And he was right. LENTO Abu Dhabi was a huge success. With it, Naser experienced the kind of head-spinning rise that many chefs will never know in a lifetime.
“I didn’t expect it to do this well. When we launched, we were selling out every single night,” he added. Naser described LENTO Abu Dhabi as a hole-in-the-wall drive-by spot. “The culture in Abu Dhabi is very specifically into the idea of ordering from your car, so we targeted that audience. What I did, was build a huge kitchen and sacrifice space for dine-in and it worked.
“We started selling 150 burgers a day for a week. We were sold out every day that week, so I invested in another oven and we were able to sell 360 a day for the next six months.”
Naser found himself walking around the parking lot and apologising to customers, who didn’t get a chance to receive their orders. “They thought it was a marketing tactic,” he explained. “But honestly, we ran out of bread, meat, everything. We grind the meat ourselves, I bake the bread myself as well. So we can’t just pull the ingredients out of nowhere. Thankfully during Ramadan, things got a little steadier, but we are still, to this day, going beyond our targets,” he said.“I believe the main reason for the growth in Abu Dhabi was through word of mouth. I didn’t do any marketing campaigns. It was all people talking to one another. I also put my logo on the bun and people marketed it for me for free by taking pictures and posting on their social media.”With the success in Abu Dhabi, Naser launched LENTO Dubai two years later. The Dubai outlet, located in Um Al Sheif on Al Wasl Road is an evolution of Naser’s culinary skill, featuring his beloved smashed burgers and fried chicken, but also globally inspired dishes that will be showcased as limited-edition specials.Although Dubai has absolutely no shortage of burger restaurants, it’s not every day you come across one at which people line up outside during hot summer nights to get their hands on the burgers. Nasser said: “Honestly, it is so humbling to see how many people want to come and try the food. The other night, we had to move the outdoor furniture inside to accommodate diners.”The 30-cover restaurant showcases a minimalist-industrial look. The monochromatic grey palette features dark wood and a KAWS-inspired sculpture. According to Naser, the star piece is a DJ booth and his treasured hip-hop vinyl record collection. He said: “I really want to have people come in who love music and ask me to put a record on. We want DJs to perform and for people to dance and eat and just enjoy the party.”
To cope with the demand, Naser is regularly asked by customers to offer delivery. “I never want to say never, but… I will never do delivery,” Naser said. “I get pressure to be on delivery platforms every day and I tell people that they already have a million options to order burgers from. I want people to dine in. I think the taste of the burger isn’t as good when you deliver it. Some places do a fantastic job, but my burgers are designed to be enjoyed on the spot. We are doing well without it.”
When asked about expansion plans, Naser also prefers to keep his operation small. “I really don’t want to expand. I might add one more branch in Dubai, but I am so against the idea of having a lot of branches. I want to keep it artisanal rather than a conveyor belt-style operation. The whole idea of LENTO in the grand scheme of things is that it is a fast-food concept, but all the ingredients I add to it are slow-cooked ingredients. That’s why I called it LENTO, which means slow in Spanish. For example, I love baking, so our burger buns are sourdough milk buns, which take ages to make.
“I also looked at the sauces. These are all made with fermented ingredients that also take a really long time to create. Our chicken stock, our spices, and our fermented honey. These are all ingredients that take time to make and we really focus on creating ingredients that have an element of slowness to them. I think that is what takes our burgers to the next level.”The restaurant’s kitchen is also a playground for Naser’s favourite Emirati ingredients. “I always say that Emirati cuisine needs a huge movement and a whole generation working with local producers to bring it into the mainstream F&B sphere. A feat that is way too big for me, so what I do instead, is finding a way to bring elements of Emirati cuisine into easier-to-eat dishes. We have a lot of condiments in our kitchens that people have never heard of and I like to somehow incorporate them into sauces and stocks to give people a little touch of it, without it being too overwhelming. I think this is how it will slowly become more mainstream.In fact, I recently did a collaboration with chef Anthony Demetre from London and one of the dishes that I brought to the table was Emirati fish and chips. The battered fish was marinated and spiced with Emirati masala, served with goose fat roasted potatoes, black garlic and tamarind aioli and salona sofrito. I think we can raise the profile of Emirati cuisine through fusions and mainstream collaborations.”In the near future, Naser hopes to do more collaborations. He said: “This is why I built a bigger dining space in LENTO Dubai. Yes, the burgers run the show at LENTO and they bring in the revenue, but that is what gives me the chance to express myself by doing these collaborations in that space. Chef collaborations give my team the chance to grow and break the routine a little bit. These collaborations also show that LENTO can do so much more than just creating good burgers.”
Another one of these noteworthy collaborations was Naser’s event with Alsaadi. Alsaadi who helms FA’E kitchen in Abu Dhabi’s Youth Hub also represents a new generation of Emirati chefs doing things differently. The event which took place in early August presented guests with a six-course ‘Sea Stories Menu’ in which both chefs worked together at LENTO Dubai’s kitchen to create a special menu.
The 31-year-old chef spent the last five years working on his skills. He started out self-taught before approaching award-winning Dubai-based chef Grégoire Berger to give him an apprenticeship in Ossiano, where he absorbed every bit of knowledge he could from Berger and his team.Alsaadi said: “I actually love seafood. That’s the reason I approached chef Gregoire Berger many years ago, asking for a chance to work in his kitchen. He thought I was joking. But I wouldn’t leave until he said yes.”Alsaadi started washing pots at Ossiano before he moved up to the vegetable chopping station. He said: “I would drive from Abu Dhabi to Dubai every day after my day job. I would change in my car, while it was parked at Atlantis, The Palm. I put on my chef jacket and head straight to the kitchen. I would work from 6pm until closing time. Then I would have to drive back to Abu Dhabi and be up by 5am for my day job. It was so tiring but so rewarding.”Alsaadi’s love for cooking started when he was trying to get healthy. “Around five years ago, I weighed 150 kilograms. I always loved food, but when I was losing weight, I didn’t really like any of the healthy restaurant meals out there which led me to learn how to cook. In that process, I started learning more and more about how to perfect the techniques of each ingredient. That was what sparked it all.”
After spending time learning from Berger, Alsaadi decided to start small. “Grilled cheese,” he said. “I love grilled cheese sandwiches. So I launched a little pop-up in the park on the weekend, just to see what people would think and how it would be received. Word travelled fast and people were really positive with their feedback. Eventually, it caught the attention of the Youth Hub in Dubai, whose committee asked me to host a pop-up of grilled cheese in its Emirates Towers space. After that, the Ministry of Culture got in touch and asked me to represent the UAE at an event in Paris. And suddenly, there I was flipping grilled cheese sandwiches at an international event.”
When Alsaadi landed back in the UAE, Atlantis, The Palm’s F&B team asked the chef if he was interested in working across all of their eateries. “I trained in Nobu, Hakkasan, and Bread Street Kitchen where I met Gordon Ramsay,” he added. Once he completed his training, Alsaadi felt ready to finally reap the accolades he sought. So he stepped out on his own. At 28, he was given carte-blanche to create a concept at Youth Hub in Abu Dhabi.
He launched FA’E. Inspired by the spirit of the Ghaf Tree, the national tree of the UAE and the symbol of tolerance. He centred the menu on his life story. It features dishes made using locally sourced ingredients, which change regularly depending on what is in season. “I also use that same kitchen to cook for any events that I am catering as well as for collaborations. Anything that allows me to demonstrate what we can do,” he explained.
On a day-to-day basis, Alsaadi’s menu ranges from your usual breakfast, lunch and dinner options to crowdpleasers and vegetarian options. However, chef collaborations allow Alsaadi to flex his creative muscles. They keep him on his toes. “Collaborations are opportunities to show the world what we can really do.” Alsaadi has previously collaborated with Greg Malouf, Hatem Mattar, BOCA’s Matthijs Stinnissen and even one or two chefs at Etihad Airways for a special Emirati menu.
When it comes to cooking authentic Emirati cuisine, Alsaadi believes that the wider public might not be open to the heavily spiced food that he grew up with.
He said: “When hosting Emirati dinners I try to find the balance between flavouring foods with spices to either resemble traditional Emirati dishes or I create new dishes as an Emirati chef that can be called ‘Emirati dishes’ today. I am trying to work with local producers and farmers. These geniuses are growing new ingredients in the UAE. There is a guy I found growing mushrooms right here in Abu Dhabi. Another farmer I speak to regularly is growing a wide range of fantastic dates that we can incorporate into our desserts or use in savoury dishes. There are so many local ingredients you can work with.”
Like any other chef, Alsaadi believes that in the F&B industry, learning should never stop. “There are still so many techniques I want to work on and improve. I still have my day job, which sometimes makes it a challenge to focus solely on F&B, but I will always do my best to make time for everything culinary in life.”
Although still trying to shape their story, having young voices like Naser and Alsaadi on the scene is the beginning of something special in the UAE. It is clear that people are paying attention. 10 years ago you’d rarely hear about Emirati chefs, but with their exceptional skill, regional and global influences, and an eye for great ingredients, Naser and Alsaadi are clearly showing that the country’s culinary future is bright for young local chefs like themselves.
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