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When Toronto chef Craig Wong, a graduate of France’s prestigious L’Institut Paul Bocuse, returned to his native Ontario after years of cooking overseas, he sought to shine a spotlight on the cuisine of his Jamaican-Chinese heritage. Over the past two years, through his restaurants Patois and Jackpot Chicken Rice, he's paid homage to his family's home cooking while imbuing it with the contemporary technique he honed in the kitchens of three-Michelin starred restaurants like Alain Ducasse at the Plaza Athenee and Heston Blumenthal's The Fat Duck. That spotlight also served as a beacon, attracting the attention of Sami Khoreibi some 7,000 miles away.
Khoreibi is the founder of Enviromena Power Systems, the largest solar-power developer in the Middle East. Born in Saudi Arabia, he was raised in Toronto, relocating to the UAE in 2007, at the age of 27, when a business opportunity presented itself. Setting up shop in a suburb of Abu Dhabi that was as much food desert as actual desert, he soon longed for a specific, absent, taste of home. "In Toronto we had an abundance of great casual Jamaican options you could eat out of a styrofoam container, and it was such a unique flavor when I lived there," recalls Khoreibi.
So when Emaar Properties, the powerhouse local developer behind Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, offered Khoreibi a vacant storefront at the nearby Souk Al Manzil, he seized the opportunity to open a space with a taste of home. The call to action sent him around the world to experience the best Caribbean food in New York, London, and his former hometown where a single bite of juicy jerk chicken confirmed Wong was his man. "We did some homework on the chef, and my friend called him over, and told him, ‘We know who you are.’ He just read off his resume from high school through present day, and I'm pretty sure he [Wong] thought we came to collect cash," says Khoreibi. Instead he gave the chef a first class ticket to Dubai.
Before an impromptu audition, Wong made a quick study of the local souks, where he was relieved to learn the Middle Eastern spice palate wasn’t so different from the flavor combinations he cultivated at Patois. "They like the same things: They like heavily spiced meats, braises, chicken, homestyle cooking—and rice with everything,” says Wong. His trial brunch won over the 400 influential Emiratis in attendance, and Ting Irie opened in Dubai in May 2016.
What you’ll find inside, beside a contemporary take on island flavor, is a restaurant bustling with equal numbers of local Emiratis and Jamaicans: In the dining room, the latter are largely pilots that have just touched down at Dubai International (over the past few years the region's biggest airlines, Emirates and Etihad, have gone on a hiring spree), and in the back, the kitchen is fully staffed with Jamaican natives, including a sous chef that previously led the kitchen at the American embassy in Kingston. Under the guidance of Wong, who frequently engages the cooks at Ting Irie in Dubai via Skype from Toronto, Nicholas Beckford executes innovative, bright, boldly flavored dishes that could never be contained by Styrofoam. Buttery jerk chicken, also served as shawarma, is marinated for a full 24 hours. Nachos are deconstructed Jamaican beef patties—trimmed pastry crusts piled with braised oxtail smothered in a cheddar fondue. The goat curry is saturated in spices from near and far. While all dishes were specifically developed for the Dubai restaurant with Jamaica in mind, there is one signature nod to local tradition—not least because, as Khoreibi believes, “every restaurant should have a burger.”
The Chips Oman burger is an unofficial national dish that's long been a childhood delight in the Emirates. "Here they take a piece of bread, and spread Kraft original on it, crunch up this local brand of potato chips, and roll it into a pinwheel," says Wong of the savory sandwich as common in the Middle East as peanut butter and jelly. For his own twist, he bakes pineapple buns, and crushes the chips atop a cheeseburger smothered in housemade riffs on Big Mac sauce and Velveeta, made from a soft white cheese infused with Scotch Bonnet peppers. It's a dish that's been embraced by kids of all ages, and helped Ting Irie become a popular spot for families while the restaurant bided a lengthy vetting for a liquor license.
The license went into effect this January, so the new year brings with it more indulgent Friday brunches, the day-long fetes that kick off weekends in Dubai and which are defined by free-flowing alcohol. Drinking laws in the Emirates restrict liquor sales to hotel properties, their rooftop bars, and dining rooms shielded from public view. Until now, Ting Irie has been a well-kept secret hidden in plain sight, its carnival atmosphere existing behind a high-walled patio facing the street and covered windows within the souk. Just waiting for a liquor license meant masking its exterior so not to promote the immorality, aka a good time, taking place within.
Ting Irie is located at Retail 1, Souk Al Manzil, MBR Blvd., Downtown Dubai; 971-4/557-5601; tingirie.com.