FACT caught up with Chef Faizan Ali – head chef at Khyber, the Indian restaurant at Dukes The Palm, A Royal Hideaway Hotel to discuss his 20-year culinary career and how the Dubai branch of Khyber differs from its Mumbai counterpart.
What can diners expect when dining at Khyber Dubai?
Khyber as a restaurant is well known for its authenticity, where we serve a very traditional form of Indian cuisine. Khyber originated in Mumbai, India, in 1958 as a small family-run restaurant serving hearty authentic and north Indian food and then slowly expanded, with the most recent opening being in Dubai. Expect well known Indian dishes such as Khyber chicken tikka and Butter Chicken but prepared in a totally different way. For example, our butter chicken may not be expectedly sweet, and will not expect a fiery edge. The same with our Khyber Chicken Tikka, which we prepare on a griddle pan rather than inside the tandoor, plus the marination is different. The culinary techniques and marination we take directly from Khyber Mumbai.
What are the signature dishes at Khyber Dubai and which is your favourite to prepare for guests?
Firstly, for the starter, we’d always recommend the Khyber chicken tikka and the Reshmi prawn. You’ll see the preparation of these dishes are different to the rest of the market. For the main course, it has to be the Khyber Raan or the Khyber Butter Chicken, both have be given a unique twist while still retaining authentic flavours. Customer will order the raan at the time of reservation to ensure we have it. The dish is that popular! In terms of preparation, it’s also my favourite dish to recommend and prepare for guests.
Would you mind describing your creative process when it comes to the creation of new dishes? Where do you find inspiration?
Firstly, we always keep in mind to retain authenticity and tradition. It’s all about preserving the flavours while playing with the presentation. We don’t follow the fusion or molecular cuisine trends. At Khyber, we’re all about preserving traditional flavours. The creation of new dishes requires intense research and to make sure the dishes are tasty, authentic, natural and have no inorganic ingredients.
The dishes at Khyber Dubai focus on quality ingredients as well as exciting flavours and textures. Where do you source the ingredients from and how much do you rely on locally sourced produce?
Usually, we bring a lot of the ingredients from Khyber Mumbai. There is a small room in the restaurant which is used purely for the preparation of spices. We don’t buy chilli powder or any spices from outside. Everything comes from Khyber Mumbai. Since opening in 2017, we have been led by the Khyber Mumbai team and continue to order ingredients from them to ensure the consistency of our dishes.
What do you think it is about the cuisine at Khyber that has resonated so much with Dubai diners?
I believe people return to Khyber due to the trust of our product, consistency, flavours, authenticity, quality of the food, and value for the money. We have received many guests from Khyber Mumbai, and many repeat UAE residents who love our food and atmosphere. Our chefs interact with customers to ensure the customer has the same experience each time they visit.
Do you believe people’s attitudes to dining out have changed since the pandemic?
At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw guest numbers decline because people werre afraid to go outside with family and friends. We then reduced the number of covers in line with government advice, and now we can substantially see a return to form. We have noticed an increase in F&B revenue and guest numbers when compared to this time last year.
What do restaurants have to do to stay relevant and ensure success during these unprecedented times for the industry?
People are now looking for changes, special promotions, offers and healthy concept dishes and they look for health and safety measures to feel safe when they visit our restaurant. Our hotel has implemented COVID-19 health & safety precautionary measures and Barcelo corporate health & safety protocol called We Care About You. For retaining our customers we launched a seasonal set menu, and next month we will start a new menu for the winter season. People will take the set menu to dine in a group or perhaps use Zomato when dining a la carte.
With the rise of influencers and bloggers, what are your opinions of this new digital world where everyone has suddenly become a food critic?
We’ve seen many influencers come to Khyber, when the customers see their posts and comments, the restaurant will be packed! We’ll be fully booked, not just for a day but for two weeks following their visit. I’ve never had a bad experience with an influencer, and it seems to work well for us.
What do you do to stay up to date on culinary trends and how do you feel about creating dishes purely for Instagram?
There is now a social media trend and also its powerful tool to connect customers, and even I showcase my culinary creations on Instagram. Social media is a great way to promote our restaurant, our cuisine and ourselves. Our cuisine is served simply in a copper pot, and we are not chasing the social media trends. What you see on our social media is precisely what you will get in the restaurant.
Was there one person who impacted your decision to become a chef and who are your culinary inspirations?
I belong to a family of chefs. My father, uncle and brothers are all chefs, and my father is the corporate chef for The Leela Palace Kempinski and a brand ambassador for Lufthansa. He is my biggest inspiration, and when I was a child, we would cook biryanis, kormas and kebabs together on Fridays. These are some of my fondest memories. We did a father and son promotion at a hotel in Mauritius.
You’ve worked in India, Mauritius and Bali. What was it that attracted you to Dubai and how do you find working in the UAE?
I believe Dubai is the biggest market to promote yourself as a chef on an international level. There is a lot of freedom here when it comes to culinary exploration and showcasing our skills.
I love Dubai. There is a lot of diversity and the scope to display your skills, and great opportunities to attract customers by serving quality food. Dubai is a hub for restaurants for foodies. Mauritius is paradise, but after two years on a small island, you know it’s time to explore where the hospitality industry is booming up. I have been five years in the UAE, worked with iconic hotels Jumeirah Beach Hotel and Jumeriah at Etihad Towers in Abu Dhabi.
Working in the industry, where do you like to eat when you have a day off? What are your favourite establishments in Dubai?
I am the kind of food hunting person who visits a lot of restaurants to see the new innovation, invention, and creation of Indian food. I spent most of the time with family when I get a day off and will prepare for them special Indian food to enjoy. I used to visit reputable restaurants to see what they have on the menu.
What are the current plans for Khyber Dubai? Are there brunches or specific promotions we can look forward to?
We are starting a new menu in October and adding new dishes from Khyber Mumbai and a Kashmiri menu later this year. We have also recently started a Bollywood Night on Fridays, which has proven very popular. There’s also a plan for a brunch in October with a live DJ, and our week-long Diwali celebration in November.