Marking this most important of months for Kuwait we continue our look at the state of the nation as we hand over to a few of our favorite people and invite them to give their views.
From the spheres of design, architecture, social activism, and hospitality, they are each vocal advocates for change. Read on as they cast their minds over Kuwait, reflecting on their corner of society, as they gauge the temperature of the nation and its pace of change today, and look forward to tomorrow.
PART ONE: AlAnoud Al Sharekh – Social Activist
Our second protagonist is Talal Al Rashed. Here, globe-trotting bon vivant and food writer Talal takes the lid off the contemporary culinary and dining scene in the country. Who’s serving up a juicy slice? What is the taste of Kuwait for today’s discerning palates?
For decades the tiny state of Kuwait has punched far above its weight when it comes to the region’s dining and culinary scenes. Back in the 1960s and 70s, Kuwait was one of the first Gulf nations to welcome Western-style fast food chains. Then, a decade later, five-star boîtes began to appear within luxury hotels. More recently, new takes on everything from sushi to hamburgers popped up across bustling Kuwait City fueling the nation’s appetite for increasingly sophisticated and discerning dining experiences.
The Kuwait culinary scene expands and evolves literally every month thanks to its trove of innovative entrepreneurs, government support for small businesses, and cash -rich diners with a taste for the good life. There is an obvious enthusiasm among trendsetters in F&B to position the city as a gastronomic hub, not only regionally but also internationally — which, in my opinion, will take a very long time and needs necessary multifaceted reforms.
Within the GCC, and because of social media, around the Middle East, Kuwait is highly associated with food and restaurants. Some non-Kuwaiti businesspeople turn to Kuwaiti entrepreneurs to help create F&B concepts in their hometowns, as those concepts proved successful in Kuwait. This is one applaudable practice Kuwaitis could achieve in the F&B scene, so much that they are going overseas with it, but it is an attribution to Kuwaiti business people and not to the dining scene here.
“in Kuwait the emphasis is more on the layout, ambience and location, not to ignore the ‘instagramability’ of the dishes regardless of their taste”
I tend to differentiate between the success of a restaurant operations and the value it adds to the dining scene. With few exceptions, restaurants in Kuwait are watering an excessive thirst for a place to socialize rather than to offer a state-of-the-art gastronomic experience; the astounding performance of coffee places here is an evidence that the city is still at the stage of cultivating socializing places, and needs to go through some steps before prematurely claiming the title: a world gastronomic hub.
While around the globe entrepreneurs and chefs in cities Kuwait aspires to be comparable with are focusing more on farm-to-table, mouth bursting and visually clear ingredients with minimal attention to interior-design, in Kuwait the emphasis is more on the layout, ambience and location, not to ignore the “instagramability” of the dishes regardless of their taste, and the quality and source of its ingredients.
Kuwaiti entrepreneurs and business tycoons figured out what is lacking in societies and have indeed become trendsetters in creating concepts. It’s fair to say that the Alshaya company is the most sought after franchisee in the region, filling as a tenant less popular malls with Starbucks and Shake Shacks and immediately boosting their footfall; and Basel Alsalem, known for Burger Boutique and Slider Station, has become a regional power in creating original concepts and make them work.
But are we trendsetters when it comes to the food itself? Most of the successful franchises and concepts offer an upgraded version of what most Kuwaitis grew up having access to in fast food chains, supermarkets and Indian restaurants: burgers, sausages, sandwiches, pizzas, instant noodles, packaged pastas, fried chicken, spicy food, gravies, fried pastries, packaged cheeses, chip bags, candies, cakes and other processed goodies.
The palate and the eye are ready for such flavors to be reinvented and reintroduced in a restaurant setting and, given the young audience, a little innovation and colorfulness in presentation is highly praised; most business people, again solely for business feasibility, are catering to the nostalgia people have for what they grew up eating as treats, but it is not feeding the Kuwait dining scene to become a competing gastronomic hub.
“more than 9,000 café license applications have been submitted in Kuwait”
Even when compared to the region, Kuwait does not come first in offering world class dining experiences. UAE, with its tourism and open economy policies, became home to almost every single world cuisine, fine dining and casual restaurants with many of them using locally sourced ingredients, just as in London and NYC; Oman is boasting about the super-fresh seafood in its restaurants; and Saudi, in one year only, could turn everyone’s head to its ultra dazzling pop-ups of Annabel’s Mayfair, Sass Cafe and Cipriaini in the middle of the desert and rocks of Al Ula.
What are Kuwaitis boon-gifting the country and the region, and catching up with the world through? Creating healthy concepts. Flexitarian, vegetarian and vegan restaurants in Kuwait are truly offering something to the table, and because of the persistent health problems and high obesity rate, this trend is gaining more ground, demanding higher quality ingredients to meet the standards and coloring Kuwait’s dining scene with international appeal. Also Kuwaiti pro-travelers could convince some foreign chefs to make Kuwait home to their ethnic cuisines; we have Greek, Bhutanese and Japanese restaurants with chefs from those countries, thanks to passionate foodies insisting to diversity the dining scene, making it more describable as a world gastronomic hub.