Charl Reze, the culinary instructor at the European International College in Abu Dhabi and better known as Chef Islam, was a guest on The Livehealthy.ae Podcast on May 17, 2020. Among the topics addressed in a wide-ranging discussion on the future of food were the Covid-19-related shift to veganism, what the lasting impact might be for cooking at home and whether we will ever bring back the buffet.
From virus-phobic to veganism
From Dubai to the US, the Covid-19 lockdown has had a discernable impact on diets: people are embracing veganism as a way of life – particularly plant-based meat.
Why is this happening? A variety of factors could be at play. Some may be worried about Covid-19’s suspected origins in a Chinese wet market that was selling meat, fish and poultry. A sudden slowdown from their usual frenetic pace of life has made others think about the environmental impact of the livestock, poultry and fishing industries. And many, many more people have taken an interest in how food can help boost their immune systems.
Fabrice Vriens, brand manager for Bareburger Restaurant in the Emirates, reports that vegan burgers accounted for 50 percent of sales in April, compared to 35 percent of sales in January. In April, a new report from consultants MarketsandMarkets indicated that the global market for plant-based “meat” was projected to grow from a current US$3.6 billion to US$4.2 billion in 2021, a growth partly due to the perceived health benefits of cutting out meat from your diet.
“People are noticing that meat products are getting more expensive and large consumption of them carries clear health risks,” says Reze. “The younger generation are even more informed about those risks and alternatives. At the same time, they are more keen to experiment with different diets.”
New technology means chefs no longer need to compromise on flavor when it comes to vegan dishes. Cooking techniques are also making vegan alternatives indistinguishable from the real thing.
“A dish will win us over if it can satisfy us through its aroma, texture and flavor,” says Reze. “And now, meat alternatives can be created with mushroom protein and flavor profiles that make it taste almost identical to real meat.”
People will take the lead from others around them when it comes to food trends and making changes in their diet.
“It really depends on the individual and the social affirmation around them,” he says. “The foods you eat strongly reflect your lifestyle, so healthy and trendy diets like vegan or keto are something that most people aspire to follow.”
The new normal for dining
While people are heading back out to restaurants across the UAE, many are still working from home. The length of the lockdown could change the way we socialize – and eat – for good.
According to BusinessLive ME, Emirates online grocery searches grew by 560 percent between January and March 2020, as social distancing measures took hold. Food delivery apps including Zomato and UberEats (which has become Careem Now) experienced a 55 percent and 96 percent increase respectively in search volume.
Reze is positive about the food trend of eating at home, believing that people will take advantage of the growing number of businesses such as Hello Chef! or Livefreshr, which deliver baskets of fresh ingredients so the customer can easily cook at home.
“It’s how we interact socially, through technology now, that can stimulate how we interact with food and diet,” he adds.
Reinventing the buffet
There are some hotels in the Northern Emirates that have still been doing buffets, but with queuing and common plates and utensils, it’s hard to imagine they will resume the same pride-of-place position as before in the UAE.
Could this aspect of the future of food mean more outlets shift to a tableside concept – something that was increasingly a trend in Friday brunches even pre-Covid?
“I’m thinking now, how I can reinvent the buffet to be more of a table service with the food selection provided at the table, so customers don’t have to move about the restaurant?” he wonders. “The challenge is that people’s mindsets have been changed dramatically. However, for business owners that are more agile and willing to create innovative solutions, this could be a great opportunity.”
After experiencing revenues close to zero during Ramadan, Grand Barbeque, one of Dubai’s renowned buffet restaurants, has seized this opportunity.
The owner, Haji Gani, is a believer in the old saying: “When you aren’t at war, it’s time to sharpen your saw.”
The team re-engineered their concept to an “a la carte” menu with an all-you-can-eat barbeque.
“Challenges will always arise every now and then,” says Gani. “But I also know we are here to stay.”
Issa handles multimedia at livehealthy.ae and got involved in fitness and healthy living after graduating high school. The sedentary lifestyle and junk food diet of his teen years had taken a toll on his wellbeing. Now, he makes sure to put his health first. Issa earned his bachelor’s in marketing and has since found his passion in media and arts.