BEIRUT: Bustling crowds of foodies, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs alike gathered Friday for the final day of the 24th HORECA festival. Testing out the array of tastes on offer this year, festival-goers navigated a maze of booths with drinks and samples in hand. Over the course of four days, over 350 local and international exhibitors showed off culinary talent and wares at Beirut’s waterfront BIEL pavilion.
Bartenders shook and stirred ornamental cocktails for passersby, butchers beckoned attendees to taste sumptuous cured hams, while volunteers toured the vast venue passing out chewing gum for those who had exhausted their taste buds.
The final round of the Lebanese Bartenders Competition in particular captured the attention of many at the event. The contest challenged participants to concoct a drink in 15 minutes. They had a full bar at their disposal and several surprise ingredients. Friday evening’s mystery elements included sesame oil, cornichons as well as pomegranate and blueberry iced teas.
Twenty-two-year-old Bachar Assab, bartender at Bonavida in Mar Mikhael competed against 25-year-old George Abou Diwan, bartender at Sax in Beirut Souks. Co-workers and friends watched the competition, cheering the contestants on until the very last drop of the cocktail hit the sparkling glass.
“If he wins, he’s going to be getting a promotion, a bonus or something. But regardless, it’s all good motivation,” Joseph Melhem, the Bar Manager at Sax, told The Daily Star as Diwan worked away nearby. “He’s a finalist and it’s the first time he’s competing. Hopefully, no one will offer him a higher-paying job if he wins,” he joked.
After several rounds of competition over the four days, the final rounds of the Lebanese Bartender Competition, Lebanese Barista Competition and National Extra Virgin Olive Oil Contest were held. Late Friday evening, Assab was crowned Lebanon’s best bartender
Friday’s closing day drew a diverse crowd. While some were there just to enjoy the various culinary delights, those with business ties in the industry had come with clear missions. “Some friends had gone in previous years, so I thought I would try it out,” 24-year-old Christopher Chamoun said after taking a bite of artisanal pizza. “Free gourmet food, free drinks, what’s not to love. It’s a fun event.”
Taking a break from mingling with potential clients, Rafi Kechichian, corporate executive at LibanPost said that HORECA was equal parts business and pleasure.
“There are many companies here that can profit from our services,” Kechichian said. “We don’t solely deal with mail. There are many services [we can provide], like marketing, since we have a fleet of cars and motorcycles all over Lebanon. For example, there was a restaurant that was interested in distributed their menus as fliers with LibanPost.”
Jad Wakim, co-founder of Kitchen Avenue – a kitchen and home appliances retailer – attended HORECA for the first time this year and was impressed with local innovation in the industry. “We specialize in new cooking techniques, such as steaming and sous-vide cooking,” Wakim told The Daily Star. Sous-vide is a method in which food vacuum-sealed in a plastic pouch and placed in a controlled water bath at around 55 to 60 degrees for several hours. “We were hoping to see how advanced the restaurant and hotel businesses are in these new cooking techniques. Since this is my first time visiting HORECA I was actually happy to see how local brands have developed innovative and quality products.”
Maya al-Hatib, project assistant at the Euro-Lebanese Centre for Industrial Modernization, crewed the stand for her company. Hatib was one of many representing companies that work behind the scenes of the food and hospitality industry of Lebanon.
“Our research institute does a lot of work on [food] safety and standards. So we have consultants who help suppliers, and restaurateurs run workshops and offer training,” Hatib said. “There are fewer people here compared to other years, but there are always new companies.”
The HORECA festival opened weeks after New York-based travel magazine Travel and Leisure published a survey listing Beirut as the “Best International City for Food.” Other cities mentioned included Paris, Rome, Florence and Chiang Mai. In addition to coming first, Beirut was also the only Middle Eastern city that made the list. Beirut has long gained international attention for its cuisine and hospitality, with a feature in Vogue Magazine last year and a ranking in Condé Nast Traveler’s 2013 Readers Choice Award.
Looking forward to 2018, Randa Dammous-Pharaon, HORECA’s project manager, said that the theme of next year’s event was still in the works. “We need to think of something, maybe also something Lebanese but a different focus ... and we’re hoping to franchise more and serve the industry further,” she said.