BAHRAIN — I ask a man who offered me his seat at the bar what he had for dinner. With great enthusiasm, he says, “I had the Philly! Cheers!”
In the kitchen, the expediter calls out to a team of fine-dining line cooks from Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, France, and Bahrain. “Fire six Philly! Fire four Philly!” A chorus of “yes, chef” punctuates the sizzle of meat on a flat-top grill, ladles clanging against bain-maries filled with cheese sauce.
The scrape of spatulas makes the kitchen sound like Reading Terminal Market, but I’m at Wolfgang Puck’s CUT Steakhouse in Bahrain, a small island in the Arabian Gulf almost 7,000 miles away from Philadelphia.
Brian Becher, 39, is executive chef of two Wolfgang Puck restaurants at the Four Seasons Bahrain Bay: CUT, and re/Asian. It’s surreal for this Delaware County native to be responsible for crowds of Bahrainis, expats, and Saudi nationals who make the 16-mile trek across the King Fahd Causeway to visit his restaurant and eat his Philly cheesesteak.
In October 2014, Becher, his wife, Alexis, and their two dogs moved to Bahrain from Atlantic City, where he had been executive sous chef at the Borgata’s Wolfgang Puck restaurants. Because his staff in Bahrain hailed from all over the world, he and chef de cuisine Joshua Wetshtein — a native of Akron, Ohio — would assign a different cook to make staff meal each day.
“It was both for team-building and because I was curious about the food of my staff’s home countries,” Becher says. “It dawned on us that we should do the same for our staff, so Josh … made Skyline Chili from Ohio, which everyone called ‘American curry,’ and I made cheesesteaks. The response was overwhelmingly positive.”
The impetus to put the cheesesteak on the menu came from Sheikh Rashid Khalifa Al-Khalifa, general manager of Peninsula Farms, which supplies CUT Bahrain with local produce.
Al-Khalifa, a regular at CUT, attended Valley Forge Military Academy in the early 2000s and would visit Philadelphia on weekends to have cheesesteaks. He and Becher connected over their shared Pennsylvania connection and came to be friends. Becher made repeat trips to Peninsula Farms, where tomatoes, peppers, and many varieties of lettuce are grown hydroponically, and where goats are kept and milked.
Becher raves about the fresh goat milk that Peninsula Farms turns into cheeses and labneh; he brought Wolfgang Puck to visit, as well.
The friendship between Becher and Al-Khalifa developed from there. Six years on, Becher still expresses surprise, “I met a sheikh with a Philly accent!”
Al-Khalifa interjects, “My accent is definitely D.C. I went to middle school there.”
“Anyway,” Becher says, “I asked him if Bahrainis would like cheesesteaks and I cooked one up for him to try.”
“It was a game-changer,” Al-Khalifa declares. “I took a bite and just kept nodding.”
CUT Bahrain now sells between 50 and 95 cheesesteaks a day for about $34 each.
The sandwich has gained such a reputation in Saudi Arabia that Becher reports when newcomers place orders, “we often have guests from across the bridge that arrive at the restaurant and simply show me a photo of our cheesesteak a friend had sent them. Then I assure them that they are in the right place.”
Saudi nationals and expats living in Saudi Arabia frequently drive across the bridge to Bahrain to indulge in more affordable alcohol, movies, coed dining, and generally more freedom.
“Bahrain is Allah’s blind spot,” Becher says, referring to its relatively relaxed religious restrictions in contrast with those of Saudi Arabia.
“The Philly” has made CUT Bahrain, a 30-minute drive from the Bahrain entrance of the King Fahd Causeway, even more of a draw. Dining out in Bahrain is frequently a glitzy affair. CUT is considered one of country’s best restaurants, tucked into the Four Seasons, which occupies a private man-made island that juts out into Bahrain Bay. International chain restaurants abound here. You can see neon signs lighting up the facades of Katsuya by Starck, a branch of the Turkish Emirgan Sutis, and a Cheesecake Factory across the water from the CUT terrace.
“The signature dish … is undeniably the Philadelphia-style cheesesteak. This lowbrow hometown comfort food has exposed our restaurant to more people than anything else we have done,” Becher says with a laugh. “It’s truly amazing. For all the accolades CUT Bahrain has received over the years, my dad, a South Philly native, is most proud of the fact that we are sharing this with the people of the world.”
Becher uses halal-certified USDA prime rib loin for his cheesesteak. (All beef that enters Bahrain must have a halal certificate to clear customs.) The roll is a hoagie roll-brioche bun hybrid and, like all the bread at the Wolfgang Puck’s Four Seasons restaurants, is made in-house. The Cheez Whiz is made using a blend of Vermont white cheddar and yellow American cheese.
The sandwich is served with caramelized onions on a porcelain plate with a side of fries, a tiny ramekin of ketchup, and carefully arranged pickles.
As upscale and luxurious as this presentation is, Becher tolerates few modifications from guests. “In true South Philadelphian spirit, we don’t take kindly to people who compromise the integrity of our cheesesteak. I will allow a ‘no onion’ modification. We don’t serve the sandwich without cheese. We won’t serve it on a different type of bread. If that is the request, we find it best for everyone to guide the guest to enjoy one of our other offerings.”
Becher beams when he describes introducing guests to their first cheesesteak. It’s a way for him to bond with his guests before even meeting them. “I will meet people, both in and out of the restaurant, for the first time, and they will sing praises to me regarding the sandwich. It is very interesting that we as humble cooks can create joy for those we have yet to meet. It’s really quite powerful.”
“I usually tell guests that the cheesesteak is the ‘indigenous food of my people.’”
Al-Khalifa glows when describing Becher: “Brian is truly loved on this island. He’s a good guy who does right by his staff and right by his food. I know this because I like to snoop around.”