Meet the pioneers of UAE’s food truck craze

Two men and a 1962 Citroën van are the ingredients of a successful recipe behind the boutique Dubai catering company, Ghaf Kitchen.

February 21, 2017

Looking back, you may wonder what took the UAE so long to jump on the food truck bandwagon. Thanks to the country’s strict food safety and hygiene requirements, selling food out of a truck was deemed impossible. That was until David O’Brien and Josh Stanzl – the founder and executive chef of boutique catering company Ghaf Kitchen - had their say.

We caught up with the two men to talk about their humble beginnings, food trends and their plans for 2017.

What’s your aim when you cater an event?
Executive chef Josh Stanzl: We want the food to be understated, but to really deliver. Dubai is flashy and glam, with big words on menus but often the food is bad. We use humble ingredients, plus there is an element of fun to our food.
Founder David O’Brien: Exactly. No one does food like this, we’re very different. Put it this way, if I had my business in London I’d be based in Shoreditch. If I was in New York, I’d be in Meatpacking District. 

Some of your dishes are quite quirky, right?
JS: I think the way our menus are written mean that you have to taste it and experience it. For example, it might say ‘cheese and pineapple’ on our menu, but it’s a bit more than that! It’s actually a goat’s cheese bon bon with pineapple ketchup. 

Did you grow up dreaming of becoming a chef?
JS: No, cooking was never my thing. I wish I had one of those stories where I was making pasta with my mum, but I don’t.

What do you like about being in the kitchen and cooking?
JS: I love the creativity of it. And then seeing people come together to eat, smile and talk is so rewarding. When I have ideas for dishes in my head and then I see them become reality – that’s pretty cool.
DO: Yeah, seeing people’s faces when they eat our food is great. Dubai has so many events all the time, and there’ll be food there, but you don’t touch it. Why provide food if it’s not going to be good? Just don’t do it. 

What was a particularly memorable event that you worked on?
DO: That dinner on the roof of the Sharjah Art Foundation was stunning.
JS: Oh yeah, that was great.
DO: It was for Kevin Spacey’s acting foundation. He was constantly talking to people between each course so it took us about six hours to serve the food!

Tell us about your food truck.
DO: It’s a Citroën 1962 H van.We were the first food truck in the UAE. The authorities said we couldn’t do it so I asked them, “How do you want me to do it?” They told me, and I did it [laughs]. Our first event was the Street Nights festival. 

How did it go?
DO: Phenomenal. We made about 1,400 posh fish finger sandwiches in three hours. 

Where is the truck now?
DO: It’s permanently in Café Rider in Al Quoz, serving burgers, hot dogs and salads, plus an amazing honey cake. 

What ingredients are you into right now?
JS: I’m really enjoying using crab. We make a pretty good crab donut. 

Is it sweet?
JS: Yeah, the crab is mixed with crab mayonnaise, then rolled in desiccated coconut and lime zest. It’s good. 

Any food trends we should know about?
JS: I think trying not to cook everything is good. These days everything is marinaded and masked but I try to keep things raw so you get more nutrients and the true flavour punches you in the mouth.
DO: Raw with a twist, I think. Use a main ingredient, keep it simple, and elevate it.
JS: Right. Also, sugar is on the way out. About 18 months ago I looked at my recipes and reduced the sugar content by 35 per cent. Natural, raw, clean food is definitely the trend now.

What are your plans for 2017?
JS: We want to open a restaurant in Dubai this year, 100 per cent.
DO: Yep, we’re just waiting to find the right location. 

What’s the idea?
DO: London is my hometown and it’s all about local eateries there. Everybody’s trying to do big restaurants in Dubai and a lot are failing. We want to do fine dining – but without the fine dining.
JS: A 23-year-old doesn’t want to be greeted with ‘hello madam’ when they go to dinner. We want to deformalise the restaurant.
DO: I think there’s a big hole in the market for quality and simplicity, with good technique in the kitchen.
JS: The team will be knowledgeable about the food. Good music, a comfortable dining room, maybe a raw bar, chefs on show, cool outfits. It’s exciting.