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Travel to Dubai


Ghaf Kitchen, Dubai

1 July 2014

Restaurant industry veteran David O’Brien’s is determined to develop the pop-up dining concept in the UAE with his upmarket food van

Ghaf Kitchen, a mobile kitchen in a restored 1962 Citroën van, is the first high-end restaurant on wheels to appear in the UAE, popping up at large public events to serve quality street food, at beach-side villas to cater parties, and helping creatives host meals in surprising locations from construction sites to warehouses. 

Ghaf launched at Dubai Street Night Art, an outdoor festival featuring 50 local artists, in early 2013, with the five-strong team setting up shop in an unassuming grocery store car park where a throng of 1,000 art lovers queued up to nibble on ‘posh’ fish finger sandwiches with mushy peas and homemade tartar sauce, prepared by executive chef Adrian Bandyk, who previously worked in a Michelin-starred restaurant in London and led the kitchen of Dubai’s well-established Rivington Grill. 

David O’Brien, Ghaf Kitchen’s director, is originally from London but, as former operations director of hospitality powerhouse Caprice Holdings, he oversaw openings of a number of famous UK franchises in Dubai, including The Ivy. He says that replacing his coat and tie with jeans and an apron was risky but thrilling. “The three partners who started Ghaf Kitchen have considerable depth of experience in business and the restaurant and hospitality sector, both internationally and in the UAE, and we all share the same passion for food and entertainment,” he says. 

“Wanting to bring new concepts to UAE’s dining scene, we came up with the idea of a five-star restaurant on wheels – something that was a first for the city and a dining concept that delivers in an unexpected, intelligent and charming way.” Now David’s kids, who often help at Ghaf events, jokingly refer to him as “the van man”.

The name Ghaf is a clever cross-cultural word play. “In London, where I am from, ghaf is slang for a person’s home,” David explains. “The term also describes the Middle East’s native ghaf tree, which provided a source of shade and nourishment to Bedouins for centuries.” 

In hipster hot spots in London and Brooklyn, when the rents are too high to establish permanent venue, guerilla chefs often prove their resourcefulness with pop-up restaurants and ‘gourmet’ food trucks. But the pop-up concept is in its early stages in glamorous Dubai, which, while quickly becoming known as a restaurant city, is only just beginning to appreciate independent, bespoke restaurants and cafés. Unlicensed street food is not permitted, and Ghaf had to work closely with the authorities to refine and adapt the concept for the local market. 

David discovered the Citroën H van, nicknamed panier à salade (salad basket) in France, rusting away in a field in Normandy, towing her to a specialist mechanic where she spent months being rehabilitated in a sort of car hospital, before ultimately making the journey to the UAE. 

“In a place that is known for it’s local people’s hospitality, we wanted to bring our metaphorical tent to people’s homes and absolutely needed a Citroën van to do it,” he says. 

The Citroën is kitted out with a space-efficient kitchen that is able to generate sit-down dinners served family-style to up to 50 guests, canapés for 150, or gourmet festival nibbles for major crowds. Menu highlights include a rich artichoke salad with truffle dressing, whole roasted sea bream, lamb rump marinated for 48 hours and served with black olives, mashed potatoes and fig jus, and an extravagantly creamy Eton mess for dessert.

Although prep for some dishes, such as chopping and marinating, is done in a central kitchen, Ghaf stays away from cooking ahead of time, judiciously avoiding the bland catered event taste of large banquets. Whenever possible, produce is sourced locally and there is a real commitment to sourcing sustainable fish, free range chicken and grass-fed beef, with as little lead time as possible from farm to table. 

A remarkable amount of the major legwork is done in the van — a whole fish can be cooked in a flash in the van’s blancher plate in less than eight minutes. As a foodie through and through, David is prone to eating 10 small meals a day, tasting everything that comes out of the kitchen, and he jokes that he doesn’t have to visit the gym because he drives the Citroën. “You have to pull it up for one and across for two and three. Don’t even try to reverse!” 

On its journey so far Ghaf has served food in a number of odd locations, including an alfresco multi-course meal to a Hollywood film cast on set in an isolated quarry in the middle of the Liwa Desert. “That was a logistical challenge that we ran like a military operation,” David recalls. “We had three vehicles going back and forth from Dubai at any given time to make it happen!” 

A few months ago the team served lunch in the middle of an active construction site to a group of the city’s style enthusiasts involved in the upcoming d3 Dubai Design District, a destination being constructed as a creative hub for the region’s rapidly growing design community.

On a personal level David avidly visits galleries and museums and is drawn to the experimental, the spontaneous and the edgy. “Ghaf exists to collaborate with and support the UAE’s booming arts scene,” he says. 

It’s not unusual for the van to collaborate with enterprises such as local performance space The Fridge to incorporate entertainment by up-and-coming musicians into an event. At the restaurant’s recent formal launch in Dubai’s gallery hub Alserkal Avenue, while clearing salad plates, an opera singer disguised as a bustling waiter burst into unannounced song, serenading guests in flowery Italian. 

The pop-up venue was a bare bones warehouse, which had been festooned with crystal chandeliers and long tables brightened with refreshingly natural arrangements of bold flowers, and the experience had a bit of a Cinderella-at-the-ball feel to it, as before the stroke 12 the entire restaurant was disassembled and repacked into the Citroën, which disappeared into the starless night. 

Words by Danna Lorch