Chef Nir Weinblut Set The Guinness World Record For Preparing The Highest Kosher Meal Ever On The 122nd Floor Of The Burj Khalifa In Dubai.
What Was He Doing There?
Lots of you already know that Leah and I worked very hard this past winter collecting amazing recipes from the top kosher restaurants around the world. And while I was very happy when my correspondence with each chef resulted in a really awesome recipe or cooking technique, once in a while Hashem would throw me a little bonus. One of those bonuses was this article.
I’ve never been to Los Angeles (anyone wants to invite me?), but I had heard about the cuisine at La Gondola, the iconic kosher restaurant in Beverly Hills. I reached chef and owner Nir Weinblut one day, and while discussing cookbooks and the popular items on his menu, he mentioned, “I’m flying to Dubai tonight.”
I suppose I must have vocalized what I was thinking. “Dubai?!? What are you doing in Dubai?! For those of you who don’t like looking at maps, Dubai is located in the United Arab Emirates on the Persian Gulf side of the Arabian Peninsula. UAE’s neighbor to the west is Saudi Arabia. And just across the Gulf is Iran.
“It’s actually my second trip there…”
I learned that Nir is going to Dubai to prepare upscale kosher meals for a group of Jews who will be arriving in the city a few days hence. Cooking. Dubai. I think we have a Whisk article.
BACK UP THREE YEARS
“Rabbi Hier, the founder of the Museum of Tolerance [a Holocaust museum in Los Angeles] and the Simon Wiesenthal Center [the human rights organization], was eating dinner at my restaurant. He told me he had traveled to Dubai with about 30 benefactors of the museum. He wanted to plan another trip, but people were thinking twice about going because the food had been disappointing,” Nir told me.
For that first trip, the kosher food had been shipped, double wrapped, from Europe. So while the trip had been exotic and luxurious, the cuisine had been…airline food. That’s kind of a buzzkill.
Nir had an idea. He was accustomed to flashing freezing and shipping gourmet restaurant meals to his clientele when they traveled to cities where kosher food wasn’t available (not everyone likes
crackers and canned tuna, you know). Lots of his regular Los Angeles clients vacation in Hawaii, so he had shipped there too. Three days worth of frozen-but-easy-to-rewarm meals usually go
into each box.
If customs wouldn’t be a problem, perhaps he could also ship to…Dubai?
But a moment after Nir had that idea, he had a better one. “Why don’t we just ship the ingredients there and cook it fresh?
Why don’t we serve real gourmet food?” Rabbi Hier liked the idea. “Shoot me an email,” Rabbi Hier told Nir. “I’ll forward it to my hosts and see if it’s doable.”
I see. You’re still confused. I still haven’t told you: 1) What are Orthodox Jews doing in Dubai? 2) And who is welcoming them?
About 10 or 12 years ago, Rabbi Hier was introduced to Mohamed Alabbar, and they remained friends. Mr. Alabbar is the chairman of Emaar Properties, one of the largest real estate companies in the world and the largest in the United Arab Emirates.
He’s only 58 years old, but it’s predicted that he will soon be one of the 10 richest men in the world.
The UAE is very different from other Middle Eastern countries. Only a small percentage of the population is Arab; the majority are Indians and Filipinos who are
there to work in the construction and tourism industries. Emirates have a Bedouin background. Today, they are a wealthy and educated group. They speak with English accents and their children attend Western universities. In stark contrast to the leaders of the surrounding countries, the UAE’s leaders are relatively open-minded.
The women there do not wear burkas. Dubai, the UAE’s largest city, is the Middle East’s vacation spot. It’s a metropolitan city with high-rise buildings, jaw-dropping architecture, and extreme luxury.
Even though it’s a tiny country with very little oil, the UAE has the largest economy in the Arab world next to Saudi Arabia.
Now, quick…what sounds more intriguing? A trip to Dubai or a night in a hotel ballroom at a trustee dinner?
For all of you out there who try so hard to find ways to fundraise for your yeshivah or organization (been there), I bet you never thought of this one. The top donors to the Museum of Tolerance were invited on the trip as guests of Mr. Alabbar, who was thrilled to promote his country’s hospitality and to network with wealthy Jewish businessmen and philanthropists. It makes him look very good (and tolerant) to invite Jews, show them around town, and treat them well. The theme of the trip also fits the goals of the Museum of Tolerance, opening a line of communication between Jews and Muslims.
Nir began organizing a general list of what he would need to make kosher catering possible in Dubai…including separate kitchens for preparing dairy, meat, and pareve meals. He didn’t expect acquiescence to all his requests. Within 24 hours, he had a response from one of Mr. Alabbar’s assistants: “Once the chef arrives in Dubai,
he will have all the staffing and equipment he requests. Please send a complete inventory list.” “It took four months of logistics,” Nir told me.
“Dozens and dozens of spreadsheets…organizing menus and recipes and item lists. We had to ship everything there except for fish and produce—from meat to salt, pepper, oils, and mayonnaise. We needed extra of everything because it’s not like we could run to a local market if we ran out. It was similar to planning a Pesach program.”
Nir would arrive in Dubai five days before the delegation of 70 Jews so he’d have time to prepare.
“It kicked in while I was flying Emirates Airlines. I looked at the flight map and saw I was over Iran. I realized I’m flying by myself. I was born in Israel and I have an Israeli name. I’m
an Orthodox Jew and I’m going by myself to a Muslim country. What if no one picks me up at the airport? What if something happens? Who can even help me?
“But then I got there. And it turned out that everything you read and hear about Dubai, from the exotic cars to the golden bathrooms, is true.
When the door of the plane opened, the luxury started. Within 10 feet was a gentleman waiting for me. He took my carry-on and escorted me to the executive lounge to relax and freshen up.
Waitresses walked around offering eight different kinds of juices, halvah, and dried fruit. “The gentleman then arrived with my checked luggage to escort me to customs. Even though I
have an American passport, it says I was born in Israel, and it’s stamped from my trip to Israel the summer before. But within 30 seconds,
my passport was stamped again and I was told, ‘Welcome to Dubai.’ Down the hallway, another
entourage was waiting to take me to my hotel in a Rolls Royce.”
Nir stayed at the Armani Hotel, which comprises the first eight floors of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (the tower is 160 floors high plus the spire). His room
was on the eighth floor, with 15-foot ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the man-made Burj Khalifa Lake and the Dubai Fountain, the largest animated fountain in the world.
VACATION IS NICE…BUT WHAT ABOUT THE COOKING?
“When did the food get there?” I ask. “The food was on another plane. Our staff rented refrigerated trucks and brought it over the next day.”
“And when did you start cooking?”
“The following day, with the preparation of the stocks. I had a tour of the kitchens, and I met my head chef, Emiliano. We did
a walkthrough of the menus and the itinerary…and then I received my equipment. One of the rabbis from the museum and I were in charge of the kashrut. Kashering the kitchens
was relatively easy since everything we were provided with was brand-new.”
In addition to his staff of chefs (including executive Arab chefs, three Syrian Muslim
chefs, a Portuguese chef, a French pastry chef, a Greek chef, an Asian chef, an Italian chef
and more kitchen help from India), Nir was supplied with new dishware, silverware, cutlery, and crystal…all straight from the package.
Imagine unwrapping a brand-new set of expensive dinnerware for each meal?
“They gave us Rothschild dishes that normally cost hundreds per place setting… We used sterling silver for breakfast and lunch, and gold flatware for dinner. Whatever I requested I had at my front door within an hour. Mr. Alabbar’s assistants were told to accommodate anything that was needed for the kosher event.”
When one of the head chefs in the kitchen saw that Nir received anything he asked for, he had an idea. He had been asking for a steamer for the longest time. Commercial kitchen steamers have a hose connected to a hot water tank. They use pressure and steam to clean and sterilize kitchen surfaces easily, without the need for a lot of soap. The chef had always been told, “It’s not in the budget.”
So he asked Nir, “Can you do me a favor? Can you use a steamer too and add it to your list?” The steamer was there within four hours.
“THEY GAVE US ROTHSCHILD DISHES THAT NORMALLY COST HUNDREDS PER PLACE SETTING. WE USED STERLING SILVER FOR BREAKFAST AND LUNCH AND GOLD FLATWARE FOR DINNER.”
“Sometimes our meals would be in a different location. I’d use our main kitchen as a base but would have to kosher another kitchen to heat it up. One meal was at an Asian restaurant at a different hotel. I brought the food ready to go, and they supplied brand-new dishes…the most beautiful, fancy dishes. One lunch was on a
100-foot yacht. I prepared a cold lunch for that day and brought along a warmer for any hot elements,” Nir continues.
The meals that Nir and his staff served broke a few world records. “During the first trip, we served dinner on the 120th floor of the Burj Khalifa. That was the highest kosher meal ever served. This year we went up to the 155th floor—that’s twice the height of the Empire State Building. Imagine davening Minchah and singing Jewish songs at that height, overlooking the river, while planes take off at eye level?”
“What floor was your main kitchen on?”
Some of the artful, refined cuisines served during the trip.
The view from a suite on the 39th floor of the Armani Hotel, Dubai
“The third floor.”
“How long does it take to get all the way up to the 120th or 155th floor?”
“About 20 minutes in the elevator. You definitely don’t want to forget anything.”
“Did you ever forget anything?”
WORKING WITH THE TEAM
“How did you teach a brand-new staff your recipes?”
“They were very talented cooks and chefs, so it was easy to show them what I was planning. I was on top of finishing off each dish
and tasting it to give the final okay. When it was time to plate, I’d make one plate to show them how I wanted the food presented, and they could take it from there,” Nir tells me. “When I told
them I wanted to serve tuna tartar as an appetizer, I compared recipes with the sushi chef on my staff, and they were similar. I
told him to do it his way since he was already accustomed to it.”
Besides the kosher ingredients he had shipped overseas, Nir had access to an amazing pantry of fresh hothouse produce, shipped overnight directly from Holland, and fish, such as Ahi tuna, that
had just been caught on the other side of the world in Japan.
“The produce manager brought me freshly harvested white truffles…a few of them. They normally cost $2,000 a pound.”
Nir calls this story “the chocolate mission”: “Prior to the trip, when I was reviewing the ingredient list with my Dubai contact, I told him that I use Callebaut chocolate at my restaurant. He told me that they use the same brand. Callebaut makes both pareve and dairy chocolate, so I gave him the serial number of the pareve variety that I use. When I got to Dubai, I saw that they had mistakenly ordered a dairy chocolate; the serial number was one digit off. Not a problem. With one phone call to Callebaut in Belgium, we had 40 kilos of chocolate Fedexed overnight.”
No one had to miss out on dessert.
BEYOND THE LUXURY
When it’s time to go, Nir’s kosher equipment is locked up in dedicated space so he can return to use it the following year. And while it’s nice to see interesting new places and be pampered for a few days, the trips to Dubai are eye-openers for Nir and the Jews who attend. “It was amazing to teach people about kashrut and see them respect it—at least to our faces,” he adds.
Is the positive treatment of the Jewish delegation sincere or just good public relations? It’s difficult to know.
But there is one thing I do know. I doubt I’ll ever make it Dubai. But if I make it to Beverly Hills (maybe when my kids are all grown up?), where this story began, that’s vacation enough for me.
“IMAGINE DAVENING MINCHAH AND SINGING JEWISH SONGS AT THAT HEIGHT, OVERLOOKING THE RIVER, WHILE PLANES TAKE OFF AT EYE LEVEL?”