When I was looking for a venue to hold a food photography and styling workshop with Meeta K Wolff, one item was at the top of my list. Light. I saw my fair share of places, usually conference rooms, but nothing inspired me. The problem in the Emirates is that we have too much sunlight so buildings are designed to keep it out, with overhanging porches and tinted windows. The room often seems remote from the view, however dramatic. Where would I find an environment which had a range of well-lit places, inspiring vistas, photo-worthy backdrops and great food? Oh yes, and add in a projector screen, room and power for 12 laptops, cameras and other paraphernalia.
Nasimi beach at Atlantis The Palm. Really? Isn’t that the place where they hold massive club nights? I wasn’t sure what to expect at all. I discovered a secluded part of the resort, with an informal restaurant opening out onto shady terraces and a white sand beach. White furniture punctuated with vivid splashes of colour is designed for lounging by hotel guests or day visitors. Two bars lubricate the loungers through mid-morning coolers, to sunset cocktails, to late evening nightcaps when the lighting changes to blue and a DJ fuels the mood with ambient music. While I have visited many of the hotel’s restaurants such as SeaFire, Ronda Locatelli, Nobu, Saffron and enjoyed a tour of several others, Nasimi was like a secret discovery.
This was home for two days for ten delegates (nine ladies and one brave man!) who had come from as near as Dubai Marina to as far afield as Bahrain, Kuwait and Egypt. Food blogging, cook book writing, TV producing, photography and food styling – the backgrounds, experience and skills brought to the table were diverse, brought together by Meeta who shared her own perspective on food photography and food styling.
We started to get to know each other over a breakfast of pastries, fruit and juices and then spent the day in our ‘classroom’ – part of the restaurant specially prepared for our group, overlooking the beach on one side and a part of the terrace set aside for our private use on the other.
Lunch was bruschetta, salads and a fabulous array of sushi. It was very difficult to stop myself from diving straight in, but assignments were set and this meant anything edible had the potential for a lens being pointed at it.
Meeta is animated, voluble and candid. She covered many principles of food photography and styling and the secret of her own success as a now professional photographer and stylist. Questions punctuated every slide and our brains were buzzing by the end of the day.
Were we ready for a cocktail demonstration at the beach bar in the dwindling dusk light? You bet we were. Some of us were then content to sit with our drinks and relax in the chic surroundings. My mocktail was sipped directly from the pineapple shell with a straw – deliciously exotic. Others were inspired to take their cocktails and assignment further afield. I watched a life guard wander down to the end of the jetty to make sure the girls who were horizontal at the end of it were alright. More inspiration was found in the lush undergrowth of the gardens, the textures of the sand, the rainbow colours of the drinks and the maritime inspired pinnacles of the coral pink Atlantis hotel building that seemed to glow as the sun lowered.
We meandered through the hotel via the ‘pop-up’ Easter shop (including an egg made of 115kg of dark and white chocolate which you could stand up in) via the elegant shisha terrace – an Arabic-style curved balcony overlooking the resort – to an outside terrace at Levantine. Chef Ali was on holiday but had come in specially to oversee the banquet that was prepared for us including a sneak preview of many dishes that will be served during Ramadan including a slow roast whole shoulder of spicily, scented lamb. I am a fan of Lebanese wines and so delighted that Chateau Keffraya Blanc de Blanc and Chateau Keffraya Rouge were served during the meal. Meeta’s family joined us and her young son’s eyes were on stalks when the belly dancer appeared.
Our rendezvous in the morning was at Lafayette Gourmet. Coffee, fresh juices and pastries awaited us and we were led on an extensive tour by Chef Russell Impiazzi. The great thing about Russell is that he is so passionate about every ingredient that he thrives on the multitude of in-depth questions fired at him by a bunch of foodies. As well as finding more inspiration for the assignment (challenging under artificial and daylight from different angles) including pizza baking in the wood fire oven and an action shot of pasta making (capturing the egg being cracked into the flour) our group discovered many hard to find cuts of meat and other ingredients not available elsewhere in Dubai. It really is like a well-kept secret Aladdin’s cave for gourmets (and gourmands). It was almost impossible to extricate ourselves as more food kept appearing including freshly cooked paella from the new tapas area and seared wagyu. We charged back to Atlantis to meet on the lawn for a cookery demonstration by Chef Hany.
He showed us how to make two types of kofta including one using meat smoked with herbs before grilling. Meeta styled the dish which was wilting fast in suddenly raised temperatures of the day, the efficient staff also whisked away several of the ingredients, but she kept her cool. A lot of chatting went on over a three course lunch of prawn and avocado salad, sea bass and hazelnut Pavlova before the delegates got cracking with the next step of their assignment. The chefs from Nasimi presented a range of dishes from their menu plus some of the key ingredients so that the pairs could style, prop and shoot them.
We ended the day reviewing everyone’s assignments which was fascinating. So many different views of a multitude of subjects. Meeta and I waved everyone off laden with goodies from some really generous sponsors including Finer Things, Jones the Grocer, Lafayette Gourmet, Lindt, Toffee Princess, Weber and, of course, Atlantis The Palm.
As the co-organiser of the workshop, I won’t comment on the merits of the course. I will say that as a previous food blogger conference attendee myself, I was hyper-aware of what I would expect and eager to get everything spot on. Atlantis was a brilliant event sponsor and the staff couldn’t have been nicer. The group of delegates was so diverse and everyone had very different aims from the course; I think it’s safe to say we all went away with new inspiration, myself included, not just from the course but from each other as well.
We parted, all promising to keep in touch; Meeta dished out some homework to a couple of people. In fact we met up a few nights later in Dubai including a couple of the delegates who work with Chef Osama on Dubai TV. Then Meeta joined them on the show; she expected just to see the studio but was suddenly asked to style some of the dishes live on air. I know it meant a lot to her when some of the course members tweeted their support.
So I’d like to say a massive thanks to Meeta, who I can now say is a firm friend as well as an inspiration, to every single one of the delegates – a hugely talented bunch of people – who it was a real pleasure to meet. Nothing would have been possible without our wonderful sponsors too – a massive round of applause to the incredible team from Nasimi and Atlantis The Palm who pulled out all the stops for us. The location and food were fantastic but what really made the difference were the staff, from the security guard who told me how much it meant to him to work there, to the lovely guys at the Nasimi bar, to jazz lover Chef Philippe, Chef Ali and Hany for their care and attention, to Chef Grant who oversees the whole enormous food and drink operation of Atlantis, to Alison whose enthusiasm lit up our days. Our reception at Lafayette Gourmet was fitting for royalty (especially royals obsessed with fine foods). And last but not least the goodie bag sponsors – please visit their links and give them some support; all provide top quality culinary goods and equipment in the UAE.
One thing is for sure, this is another step on a fascinating journey…