Ever dreamt of living abroad? Dining daily on international cuisine? If so, you’ll definitely be inspired by Courtney Brandt, American expat, food blogger, and founder of A to Za’atar. Since 2007, Courtney has made the Middle East her home. Between getting a driver’s license while living abroad and making a living writing about food, Courtney knows a thing or two about the expat foodie life.
We sat down with Courtney to learn how she makes a living as an author and blogger thousands of miles away from her home country. She also talks about the importance of a consistent content strategy and how Perlu has helped her make valuable connections with like-minded influencers.
Interview with Courtney Brandt from A to Za’atar
Perlu: Welcome to the Perlu Podcast. I am Alexis Trammell, and today I have the pleasure of speaking with Courtney Brandt. Courtney is an American expat living in Dubai, and she is the founder and lead contributor of the blog A to Za’atar. Her articles seek to share unique culinary and hospitality experiences from the UAE and beyond. She is also an author of 10 published novels. We hope you enjoy today’s podcast and connect with Courtney on Perlu. Courtney, thank you so much for joining us from Dubai.
Courtney Brandt: Yeah, my pleasure. The power of technology!
P: Courtney, tell us a little bit about yourself.
C: I’m Courtney Brandt, the founder and person behind A to Za’atar, which is my primary food writing and travel blog. As you know, I’m also an author. I publish mostly under my name, Courtney Brandt, and as a young adult author, but some of your readers and followers might be more interested in my pen name, Ann Benjamin, where I’ve published two adult books, and I’m working on books three and four right now.
And I do some radio and television, and I also have been really excited to do some speaking engagements, moderating some panels, and being involved with different conferences. I did some of those last year. I’m definitely looking for more opportunities in the coming year and months.
Lastly, I’m pretty active as well as a local guide on Google Maps, where I think I’m approaching 16 million views on my photos. I was invited as the only delegate from the UAE last year to attend the Local Guide Summit, which took place in San Francisco in October. And I got to meet people – 150 delegates from a lot of countries. I can’t remember the exact number but it was a really amazing experience.
P: So, Courtney, tell us, after growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, in the USA, what drew you to the Middle East, and what about it has kept you there?
C: After graduating from the University of Georgia, I moved to the west coast with my husband, to Los Angeles. Then, we went on a trip to Singapore, and we met friends’ parents. They said, “We’re moving to Dubai,” and they were long time expats as well. We didn’t really know where it was; we didn’t know anything about it. But the main thing was we were jealous that our friends’ parents were living this amazing life.
So my husband, who’s an architect, applied to a few jobs – and this is Dubai in 2007 when everything was really kicking off. We thought “We’ll try it for a year or two,” and now we’re in year 13. We’ve lived in Doha, we’ve lived in Abu Dhabi, but mostly we’ve lived in Dubai, and we really love it here.
P: Wow, very cool. I, myself, am very jealous whenever I hear people moving abroad; it’s amazing. What made you want to become a food writer?
C: Of all places, I went to Noma, when Noma was the number one restaurant in the world. This was like 2012, 2013, and I was on a trip to Copenhagen because one of the things about being an expat is that you can just have these easy kind of trips. So we applied late and last minute, but we got a table. I remember going in and thinking, “I’m not good enough for this restaurant.” I didn’t think that fine dining was something I could do. Then when we walked away from the experience, it was so not pretentious; they were so welcoming. I thought, “Everybody should be able to feel this way about fine dining.”
C: So A to Za’atar has always been a place where I talk about food, and I talk about fine dining, but in a way that I hope at least, makes food accessible, and makes fine dining accessible, and really asks questions like, “Is it worth the money?” and, “Would I go back?” I think you can put fine dining on a pedestal, but then you need to take a moment and say, “This should be for everyone.” Food is something that sustains us.
P: What would you say is the toughest part of your job?
C: I think it’s that a lot of people don’t understand how much goes into what I do. Things like a blog post might take a day, or two, or three to edit. Getting through that, getting the words together, editing it, checking it, editing photos, people just think, “Oh, you get to eat for free,” and it’s so much more than that. I have invitations at all times, but what is good for me as a brand? What do I want to be associated with? Which chefs are doing things that I think are interesting or notable?
For example, last night I was invited to a collaboration dinner between one of my favorite Dubai chefs and a Bahraini woman chef, and the restaurant is one that always supports local sourcing whenever possible. That’s the kind of thing I want to go to. When I have a whole bunch of invites, I’ve got to decide which is best for me.
P: Absolutely. Courtney, I know you’re working on a lot of things, so whether it’s a television show, a podcast, writing another novel, or something along those lines, I’m curious – what does Perlu do to contribute to your success?
C: What I like about it is as a platform it’s very, very user friendly, and I have seen in my time many a platform come and go, where it’s tried to connect people from all over, but Perlu’s been more successful than anyone because the level of people that are on the platform are very high quality. They’re people that I want to work with; they’re asking for requests that are of an interest to me.
Whenever I see a notification in my inbox pop up, I’m always clicking on that, because I always think, “What’s this person do?” or, “What’s that person doing?” I think more so than just about any of the places I’ve been, I can see the longevity of this site because it’s attracted such a like-minded crowd, as it were. I can log in, I can see what’s going on, I can reach out … But I love it for all those reasons.
P: Wonderful, that’s great to hear. What advice would you give to a blogger who is just starting out?
C: I was having this conversation last night actually. I think that the biggest thing you can do if you’re just starting out is to be consistent. You don’t have to be an amazing writer or photographer, you just need to be in a place where you consistently write, or post, or create content in some way. So you need to be able to be a resource that people can go, “Oh yeah, this person is week-in, week-out reporting about something.”
I think that, even on A to Za’atar, blog posts from the beginning when they started in 2016 to what they are now are very different. I think that’s for the best, and I think it’s okay to evolve. But I think if you’re just starting out, go ahead and make a plan to have a content calendar, put that together, and then stick to it. Because if you don’t stick to it, I think it’s really easy to make excuses. I say that of course procrastinating with a blog post I’ve been trying to post for three days.
Real life does get in the way. For example, of course I’m going to post every day on Instagram, at a minimum. I try and supplement that with anything from Pinterest to Google Maps to TripAdvisor. There’s a lot of places you can put your content, and deciding where to focus that and you could find a niche for yourself.
P: Very cool. Your Instagram is beautiful. I was doing some creeping. I’m going to skip ahead and just ask you – what is your favorite food, Courtney?
C: My favorite food – and I think about this question a lot – I could eat sushi at any time of day, any day of the week, every day of the week. So even now, it’s five o’clock-ish my time, and I’m thinking … I have a number of favorite sushi places in the city, but Sushi Art is my favorite delivery. It’ll be salmon sashimi, which I know is kind of a very basic thing, but I’m never not interested to see an Amakaze menu where they make different kinds of creations or just a typical bento box. I’m there for that.
P: That’s a great choice. Sushi is awesome. What has been one of your favorite experiences as an influencer?
C: Actually, it’s access to people and places that I would never really think or maybe even afford to go to. I was fortunate enough twice to travel now to the Maldives as an influencer and as somebody who’s creating content for other sources.
This one place I went, I was there with another influencer friend and we were doing the math to figure out what the cost of that trip would have been, and it was absolutely outrageous. I would never spend this kind of money on this thing, but I’m sure that there are people out there who would.
In Dubai, we have a lot of celebrity chefs, and I’ve gotten to meet some of the best chefs in the world just by getting to the place that I have – of being a respected food writer. So I find that I’m constantly flattered that I’m invited to meet, and speak with, and just to be able to watch some of the best chefs in the city. It’s like, what life is this? I don’t really understand.
P: So, tell me a little bit about the projects that you’re working on right now. I feel like you’re doing a lot all of the time.
C: I am. I wish more of it was getting paid. But I’m constantly a freelance writer. I just placed an article this week with Curiosity magazine, which was my first for them. As an author, I’m involved for the first time with the Emirates Airline Festival for Literature, which for me was a goal for 10 years, I’m so honored to be invited to be one of the authors this year.
So that’ll be in March. I’m on the radio every other week with Dubai Eye 103.8, which is our big talk radio station here. That was another thing that came up late last year. To be invited to be the food person was … I love, obviously, talking, and it’s fun to connect with people on a different medium.
I’m always reviewing still, and going out, then volunteering, then working on a book or two. My other project I’m trying to launch this year, I’m calling it “CSR of One,” which is Corporate Social Responsibility. I think in 2019, we all have these individual platforms, and I’d really like to see people do more on an individual level for others.
For example, even though you might see a lot of food on mine, every now and then you’re going to see dogs as well because K9 Friends is something that I’m very passionate about. So what I’m asking is people will post once a month something that might not have to do with them, something that won’t have anything to do with what you’re interested in.
Even if you’re a travel influencer, or a fashion person, or whatever, there might be something adjacent to the kind of career that you’re in that you can support. So even if the engagement isn’t good, and it doesn’t look right in your feed, I want people to kind of forget that and do something for someone else.
C: Yeah, that’s the podcast I’m working on. For example … there’s this woman who’s not a travel agent, but she puts together boutique travel, and she’s doing this amazing NGO work in Pakistan. There’s always people in the community that are just like local people doing their thing, and then they’ve got this other side that is just doing something that’s life changing. So I’m trying to get those stories out there.
P: That must be one of the best parts about your job is getting to tell great stories.
C: I was lucky to connect with a producer who does podcasts, so he and I have been interviewing people, and hopefully we’ll get the series started in March.
P: How exciting!
C: It’s funny because it’s really nice weather here, because half the Earth’s really not. It’s really, really warm here. My first travel of 2019 isn’t going to be until, I think, April. I’ve got a trip booked in the Seychelles, which I’m very excited by. Although I have to ride home to the states – #expatproblems – to renew my drivers license. That was a big pain that I was supposed to deal with last year and now … My parents are excited … I still have to go to the DMV like everybody else.
P: Do you have to renew your license in the US and then you’ll use your US license in Dubai? Is that how that works?
C: No, I’ve had a UAE license since 2007. So sometimes, it depends on the country you live in. For example, in the UAE, if you have a US driver’s license, I think as of 10 years ago or 5 years ago, you don’t have to take the test. You just have to pay a fee. So you have to get something translated and then it just translates over. There’s certain countries you’d have to go and take a test, and do all this stuff, but with the US it’s just automatic. You have to take an eye test, that’s what you have to do.
So it varies in different countries. In Doha, for example, when I was living in Qatar, it didn’t translate, but my UAE license translated, so all my US colleagues had to take the driving test, but I didn’t have to because I had a UAE license.
P: Oh, okay.
C: All these little things that you wouldn’t know about or know to question … I was working at Georgetown in Doha and there’s this guy whose job it was to help people take care of those sorts of things.
P: Very cool, wow. Remind me how long you’ve been living in the Middle East?
C: We moved in fall 2007 to Dubai, and then in November 2011 we moved out to Doha, and we were there for two years. We moved to Abu Dhabi in January 2014, and then we moved back to Dubai in 2016. We’ve been fortunate to make friends to go and come back, ’cause everything’s quite close here. Our best friends for example, they happen to be American.
We lived just above them in Doha, then we moved to Abu Dhabi, they moved to Dubai, then we moved to Dubai, and now we live really close to each other, and we get to see each other all the time. We travel with them every year. They’re just awesome.
P: Very cool. I wanted to speak a little bit about the contrast between moving from Atlanta, Georgia, all the way to the Middle East, and the difference in cuisine and all of that. Could you speak to that a little bit?
C: Sure, I think it’s funny because thinking back to my 20s and just not having any money, I feel kind of really like I didn’t do myself a service because LA is home to so many cultures and all this kind of food, and I didn’t take advantage of that, and I really should have.
Like, yes, I eat locally at local restaurants, but mostly I was a chain restaurant person. I wasn’t living to my fullest food potential, let’s say, in LA. Now, it’s just regular. We’re absolutely spoiled here. Last night was mediterranean; I had Italian at this beach resort I was at on Sunday night. It all kind of blurs together.
I think one of my favorite stories here is you take the humble hamburger. I’ve been fortunate enough to really connect with this restaurant, it’s got five seats, and it’s a burger joint, and it’s called High Joints. The owner is local, so he is Emirate. He worked on this recipe for this burger for years and years and years, and it’s absolutely delicious. It’s the best burger in Dubai, hands down. You go into this tiny, tiny restaurant, and it’s kind of in this … I’m not going to say back alley, but it’s in a location that you wouldn’t expect it to be.
But I kind of like how the burger translates across everything, because everyone knows what a burger is. For people who don’t eat beef, that’s fine – they have a chicken burger which is just as good because I’ve eaten the whole menu, and I would know.
Now we have this relationship where they did a limited edition run last Wednesday and Thursday, and they literally had a car bring me the burgers so I could try because I’m out of their delivery zone … Then we were chatting about how I would add a pickle, and I would do this and whatever.
But I think for any kind of cuisine, here we pretty much have it. There’s literally not one [cuisine] I can think of that doesn’t have some representations somewhere in the city. It goes from high end to low end, so if you want Indian for example, obviously you can get an amazing Thali for very cheap. One of the coolest places is called Chestnut Studio, it’s 20 seats and it’s 16 courses, and it’s on the level of global fine dining, and it’s just a really, really amazing experience. You can go from the really humble to the very high end, and everything in between.
P: Very cool.
C: It’s often difficult to decide where to go.
P: Yeah. How do you decide? How do you find these new places?
C: I’m fortunate I have a very good working relationship with a number of PR companies. Also, I just know a lot of chefs and stuff. When things are happening I just get invited ahead of time. Especially because having radio access, and having my 20,000 followers or whatever, it’s not a huge number but it’s enough that people are at least like, “This is going to connect with people.”
I try and stay in touch with people who are maybe a caterer, Middle East magazine for example, or different magazines to see when things are opening. But more often than not, and as a suggestion, I think it’s fine for content creators to approach directly. Some of my best relationships have always been when I go directly to a place rather than go through a PR person.
P: Great. That sounds really valuable to have those kinds of connections, and that sounds like a dream job to just get to eat.
C: I wish budgets were a little bit more here is all. They’re really tightly squeezed right now, and I know that. It is lovely to dine out and stuff, but I would like to see a little bit more of a budget over here.
P: I have to ask because you have done a fair share of traveling – where is your favorite place to visit?
C: I have two, I’m going to kind of cheat. I would spend my time, if I could, between here, Amsterdam, and Cape Town. Amsterdam I just love because we’ve been here 13 years, I think we’ve been seven or eight times.
We always try to break up the flight back to the states … so we just go to Amsterdam. The culture, the food – sometimes it can really be the antithesis to Dubai, but in all the best ways. It’s not that Dubai doesn’t offer those sorts of things, but Amsterdam’s just like the complete opposite.
Then Cape Town – we have a number of South African friends there. Not only does the dollar or the dirham go very strong against the rand, but the natural beauty, and their approach to produce and wine and everything there. It’s an eight-hour flight from here, and they’re only one time zone off from us. If it was five hours, I think we would be there all the time basically.
P: That’s wonderful. Thank you so much for speaking with us today. It’s been a real treat.
C: It’s my pleasure. I hope people reach out to either contact me on the Perlu platform, which of course I’m trying to be more active on, but I’m definitely always monitoring it, or I’m @atozaatar on pretty much everything. You could find me in one of those two places.
P: Wonderful, awesome. Thank you so much. Take care.