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Saudi foodies ditch fast food for fine dining

By Catriona Davies, CNN
March 28, 2012 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
A traditional Saudi dish of shredded meat being prepared in an outdoor restaurant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Smarter restaurants are slowly developing in the city. A traditional Saudi dish of shredded meat being prepared in an outdoor restaurant in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Smarter restaurants are slowly developing in the city.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Too many restaurants in Saudi Arabia are fast food chains, say chefs there
  • Saudi Arabian Chefs Association was founded three years ago and has 270 members
  • Chefs Yasser Jad and Emanuele Esposito are both aiming to open fine dining cookery schools

Editor's note: Each month, Inside the Middle East takes you behind the headlines to see a different side of this diverse region. Follow us on on Twitter: Presenter Rima Maktabi: @rimamaktabi, producer Jon Jensen: @jonjensen, digital producer Mairi Mackay @mairicnn and writer Cat Davies @catrionadavies

(CNN) -- Yasser Jad has a dream to open a fine dining cookery school in Saudi Arabia.

He founded the Saudi Arabian Chefs Association three years ago to create a network among his country's best cooks and encourage them to improve their skills and now has 270 members.

But he believes there's more to do in developing fine dining.

Jad himself trained at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and is now in charge of in-flight catering at Saudi Arabian Airlines.

"Most Saudi chefs begin without proper training," said Jad. "We have some courses but they don't take people to the level they need.

"As a result young chefs aren't surviving long in the market. They are leaving the industry after two or three years because they don't get paid a lot and the competition is so high.

I wish everybody could have proper training
Yasser Jad, president of Saudi Arabian Chefs Association

"I wish everybody could have proper training."

Saudi Arabia's food scene is quickly becoming more varied -- and healthier -- as it incorporates influences from around the world, Jad said.

"Saudis have traditionally eaten too much lamb and not enough salad or vegetables," he said. "But that's changing. People are mixing more ingredients with influences from Asia, North America, the Mediterranean and all over the Middle East."

Jad appeared as a judge on the Middle Eastern version of the American reality show Top Chef when it was launched by LBC, the Lebanese broadcaster, last year.

The winner of the series was Omar El Ghoul, a Moroccan-born chef who works in Saudi Arabia as executive chef at Delifrance, the international bakery chain.

The prominence of fast food franchises is one of the issues that bothers Emanuele Esposito, an Italian chef who has worked in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, for six years.

"The country has developed a lot in food and hospitality, but there's still a lot of American influence and fast food," said Esposito.

"There are four million people in Jeddah and only two or three fine dining restaurants, but probably 100 branches of fast food franchises."

Like Jad, Esposito wants to open a hospitality school to help develop young chefs.

"A lot of the younger Saudis want to improve their skills," said Esposito. "I'm working with the Chamber of Commerce in Jeddah, but it takes time. Hopefully we will open later this year."

Esposito is executive chef at Il Villagio Restaurant in Jeddah, which was Highly Commended in the Fine Dining Restaurant Category of last year's Saudi Excellence in Tourism Awards.

When Esposito first moved to Saudi Arabia, he only planned to stay a couple of years, but six years later he has no plans to leave.

"There are more restaurants opening all the time. Alongside the Saudi and Middle Eastern restaurants, there are Italian restaurants and Japanese has really taken off in the last few years."

I love eating and entertainment in Saudi is quite limited, so dining out became important for me socially
Rashed Islam, founder of JeddahFood.com

One person taking advantage of that boom is food lover Rashed Islam. He started a food blog in 2006 and developed it into full eating out website called JeddahFood.com in 2008.

He now has 56,000 Facebook followers, almost 14,000 registered users, 31,000 unique monthly users and 28,000 downloads of his iPhone app.

The website, which has a recently launched Riyadh version, RiyadhEats.com, provides restaurant listings, news and user reviews.

"I love eating and entertainment in Saudi is quite limited, so dining out became important for me socially," said Islam, 29.

"Before we launched, Saudi Arabia didn't have any forum for people to review and recommend restaurants."

Islam, who employs a staff of six, says Jeddah has a vibrant restaurant scene with foods from all around the world.

"It's a multi-cultural city and the gateway to Mecca and Medina, which shows in the food," he said. "From sushi to Indonesian, Italian and Lebanese food, it mirrors a lot of the trends from Paris, London and New York."

Islam's favourite food, however, is from closer to home, the Arabic dish of ful medames, made from mashed fava beans with olive oil, chopped parsley, onion, garlic and lemon juice.

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