iReport: 30 days, 30 kitchens: Making food in the UAE
August 11th, 2011
03:15 PM ET
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Carefully sliced meats are tenderized and cooked over flames. Simmering vegetables intermingle in appetizing combinations as they prepare to accompany comforting foods like steak and potatoes. Pastries form eye-catching designs, as if they were placed there to serve as centerpieces.

Photographer and iReporter Sean Blake's account of his visit to The Butcher Shop & Grill is told through still images, plus a bit of glowing praise.

"I would like to unofficially change the name of this place to 'The Immaculate, Super Fresh, Awesome, Never Go Home Hungry, Definitely Will Go Back, Butcher Shop & Grill,'" he writes.

The restaurant sounds like it could be just about anywhere in the world, but it's in Dubai, along the Persian Gulf in the heart of the United Arab Emirates. As cosmopolitan as it is steeped in history and culture, the region attracts a diverse crowd of business folk and travelers. A correspondingly eclectic army of restaurateurs aims to feed them all, drawing added inspiration from what Blake says is a remarkable array of possible ingredients.

"There is an availability of fish, meats, fruits and vegetables at the various markets like I have never personally seen in the U.S. that are native to this side of the world," he said.

Blake's photos focus on the food preparation zone, rather than the final destination. His fascination with how food was being made around him got him thinking about starting a blog.

"30 Kitchens in 30 Days" was born, a photography project focusing on behind-the-scenes snapshots celebrating kitchens. Blake has traveled up and down and around the emirates in search of cool places to eat and the kitchens that serve them.

"We as consumers sit down at a restaurant and order off a menu, minutes later our food magically arrives," he wrote. "It's easy to forget about the human element: the people and the talent just a few feet away on the other side of the kitchen door."

Blake started working as a photographer in Abu Dhabi this spring. His work takes him to different parts of the emirates.

He shared a few photos from his stay so far on CNN iReport, which is looking at travel in Dubai as part of the ongoing Destination Adventure series. He's a long way from his hometown of Houston, Texas, so he's been getting acquainted with his new home by venturing into all these new kitchens.

He recalls one night when he was wandering around Abu Dhabi with his camera in hand, and he came across a restaurant called Lebanese Flower. "I walked up to the service window and was greeted with a 'salaam,' a warm smile and a waft of deliciousness," he said. It didn't take long for him to be hooked.

But first, a couple test runs were needed. Blake started with Lebanese Flower and another establishment, Abu Dhabi Fish Market. He was concerned that language issues would be problematic, but he found that he was able to communicate at least a little bit with the staff in both places. He hoped it would be true that "everyone speaks 'camera,' " as he noted in a May 31 blog post just before the project officially began.

As Blake launched his project, things got off to a slow start before picking up later. When he asked if he could photograph the kitchens, some refused, but others were willing to bring down their barriers and let him get to work.

When he approached restaurants about participating in the project, Blake carried an iPad so he could demonstrate how the project works.

He targeted everything from five-star restaurants to construction kitchens, "and everything in between."

After visiting so many establishments, he's noticed a certain flow in food preparation.

"I've learned that the kitchen is a living breathing orchestra," he notes. "For it to be successful it must move in a rhythm. It has a measurable beat that starts off slow and increases exponentially, and then eventually slows down."

Getting this kind of access, while not easy, has proven a rewarding challenge for Blake. The worlds of diner and food preparer don't often mix, and strategically placed barriers serve to keep it that way. “Good walls make good neighbors”, the old saying goes, but Blake says he hopes he can shatter this barrier through his photography and help people appreciate the origins of those lovely meals on their plates.

"Very quickly into the project, I realized that this was more about the people and their talents and it turned into a photo documentary praising their skill," he says.

CNN's Destination Adventure series takes a look at great places for eager explorers. Each week, we'll feature favorite regional foods, secrets from the locals and the best photos and stories from readers. Have you been to Dubai? Share your story with CNN iReport. Next week, we'll journey to the Masai Mara in Kenya.

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Filed under: Destination Adventure • iReport • Middle Eastern • Travel • UAE


soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. Glenn Derham

    BEST, BEST steak house I ever had, though I tried many places in London, USA, France...etc no match, they really know how to deal with steaks, Super delecious.

    August 14, 2011 at 7:16 am |
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