AHMAD AL FAKIER, “BEST CHEF IN THE MIDDLE EAST” FOR 2015. A SUCCESS WITHOUT A CULINARY ARTS EDUCATION
When he was 18 years of age, Ahmad Al Fakier’s days as an underprivileged farmer at the town of Da’el, Syria were ending. As he undusted his hands and went to the UAE, carrying a preparatory (junior high) school degree, Ahmed never thought, in his wildest dreams, that he would be voted “Best Chef in the Middle East”. However, he has indeed left a positive impact on numerous hotels and high-end restaurants and now occupies the position of executive chef at Verdura Restaurant and the newly-opened Bab Al Mansour.
If you are into stories talking about how hard work and determination pays off, you are going to love this story for sure!
By Hadeel Atalla
Let us begin with a big question; what distinguishes you from other chefs?
What discerns me in a way, is that I have never attended a school of culinary arts nor a hotel training institute. Also, I don’t come from a family of chefs and I don’t think I’ve inherited some cooking genes. I didn’t have a background regarding this profession, I used to spend my time in farming and did not have enough time to discover any talent, not to mention that the circumstances at that time restrained me from completing my education.
I don’t recall that I had an inclination towards cooking or spending time in the kitchen for that matter, it did not even cross my mind that I would become a well-renowned chef as I am today.
Despite achieving what I am today, I still long for the past, when I used to enter my childhood house and smell the tannour bread that my mother would make. This is why I love Marcell Khalifa’s song “I long to my mother’s bread” (Ahinnou Ila Khubzi Ummi).
Since it was all a coincidence, what is the story behind Ahmad Al Fakir, the chef?
Beginnings are always rough, mostly due to financial reasons. I was looking for any opportunity to leave my home town and travel for better opportunities in life. Thankfully, I made it to the UAE but I started from a humble beginning. I have got to say, working as a cleaner in restaurants is not a piece of cake. Later on, I started working as a kitchen porter and my tasks included cutting onions and parsley. I was also trying to make something out of myself, and it took me five years doing those simple tasks until I got the opportunity to become an assistant to the chef, more like a commis chef. Even though the chef wasn’t a fan of teaching others, I always had the initiative to learn and develop myself. Then, after the chef quit, the management gave me their trust and I started cooking 5 meals a day.
I strived to learn despite the lack of learning materials and resources, whether it was cooking books, magazines or websites. My true start was when I realized that I needed to evolve.
Is there an unforgettable memory from your first year as a chef?
As a rookie, I used to cut my hands repeatedly and I used to have a lot of issues with onions; once I peel an onion, my eyes flood with tears. I still hate onions till this day that the mere glance brings back old memories.
What is your cooking signature?
I am very keen on the classic flavours of dishes but with a simple and modernized representation. This way, the dish can retain its origin but with a modernized twist.
Moreover, I’ve never been hesitant to mix between different flavours and cultures. For instance, Arabic dishes can be cooked and garnished in a western way without compromising the use of Arabic spices.
You said you had been influenced by the Japanese cuisine. How did the Japanese culture bring out your best?
I have moved between many high-end restaurants and five-star hotels, but I would positively say that working at Kahraman, Siraj and Verdura were among the most significant milestones in my career as a chef. Most specifically, working at Kahraman helped me mature my cooking signature, which is infusing the East Asian cuisine with the Arabic cuisine as well as giving me the platform to show my skills and create a fusion between Japanese and Arabic culinary cultures. For instance, I came up with a dish, which I named after my daughter Nour, and it includes some ingredients that complies with the general theme of the Japanese cuisine, such as hot chilli pepper and garlic puree, and I presented it exquisitely with an assortment of Japanese rolls.
Throughout your career as a chef, have you ever thought you would tap out?
I have never known defeat and hardships have honed me well even though I have suffered fatigue, exhaustion, and despair, which are pretty standard in this profession of ours. However, you know what they say, hardships can bring out the best of you.
In which phase of your career did you started to feel it was all coming together?
After spending a considerable amount of time learning and innovating, I felt the need for having people believe in my abilities and rely on me, I needed people to have faith in me. Luckily, I found such people while working in Siraj and Kahraman. The folks there trusted me fully. In return, I had to choose good employees to perfectly implement what I worked on.
Moreover, in Verdura, which is food specializing mainly in Mediterranean dishes, the management gave me full privilege to design and prepare menus, and I had the opportunity to mix different cuisines, knowing that the restaurant offers dishes from the Syrian, Lebanese, Italian, Cyprus, Greek, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and German cuisines.
What are some of your greatest innovations?
It is actually some of the dishes that my customers demand the most. For instance, my signature “Shangaleesh”, which consists of zero-fat cheese, Aleppo hot chili pepper, black seed, green thyme and olive oil. The difference between mine and the original recipe is that back in Syria people use a type of dried buttermilk, but I replaced it with a Cyprus cheese.
The other dish is Lobster Kibbe, which is made using fine wheat groats mixed with any type of white fish to form the outer dough, while the stuffing consists of Canadian lobster, green cilantro, parsley, carrots and celery.
Whenever one of my previous colleagues or apprentices worked somewhere or entered a competition, other chefs and contest jurors would immediately figure that those people have some connection to me. I began to see copies of my works in some other restaurants, and I’m so happy to see my signature works begin to spread further to the extent that people know my dishes before reading my name next to it!
What did you add recently to your restaurant menu?
I refresh the restaurant menu every six months, and I recently added a Kale Salad, which is a well-known herb in the French cuisine. It is highly nutritious and full of essential minerals. I used the herb in a dish with Arabian cheese, dates, Aleppo chili powder, and then I made this fusion between Arabian and European cuisines, taking into regards soaking the dates in ghee to add a middle eastern aroma.
Did your agricultural background make you extra sensitive towards ingredients?
Absolutely! Cooking with fresh produce is a very sensitive matter to me. Luckily, I’m an expert in picking up produce. I know whether a cucumber would be suitable for a salad or not just from holding it, and if I hold a peapod in my hand, I can tell whether the peas are sweet or not from texture of the pod. I also love adding some other ingredients to make my dishes richer, such as tahini and pomegranate syrup.
In full objectivity, how do you rate the Middle Eastern cuisine performance in regards to performance?
It is unfortunate to say that the Arabian cuisine is standing still and not moving forward, although many cuisines have evolved, like the Thai cuisine. Also, look at the Australian cuisine, although it formally emerged just 15 years ago, it is very famous now!
If we look back to Arabian cuisines in the Levant region, Egypt, or North Africa, we can see cuisines with deep-rooted origins, not to mention that it is full of bold flavours and invigorating aroma. Still, I always admonish my fellow Arab chefs who don’t leave their comfort zone to do more and do better. My Egyptian colleagues, for example, never bothered to develop the Egyptian cuisine, which is a thing that I would definitely pursue! I mean, their Molukhia Aranib (Rabbit Moloukhia), it is a wonderful dish that we can absolutely present in a subtle way.
Even though there were some attempts to develop and improve the Levant and North African cuisines, those attempts are not bold enough and lack the basics and it has been that way for the last 10 years. I believe that any effort to develop the Arabian cuisines must be done without misunderstanding the concept of development or drifting from the basics. If a chef doesn’t have the willpower to innovate, then he must consider tapping out of this profession. Lacking the courage to innovate and to improve are the reasons why we are holding still and never moving forward.
Since you do not have a degree in culinary arts, are not you thinking about joining a cooking school?
When I left Syria, the highest degree I had was the preparatory school certificate, and I took my school books with me when I moved to the UAE. I tried to pursue school there, but the efforts were futile due to the workload. Then, I tried to attend Al Jumeirah Cooking School to learn the essential techniques, but I did not have enough time to do so.
There is no doubt that academic qualifications are important, but work experience is more crucial, whenever there is a job interview, I put the CV aside and concentrate on the candidates personal experience in addition to observing how they move in the kitchen and how they keep their workstation clean.
Is it weird that you are now working as an executive chef in a Moroccan restaurant?
Not at all, although sharing the origin with a cuisine is absolutely important. Nonetheless, I know some Egyptian chefs who master making Italian dishes just as Italian chefs, if not more.
From my personal experience, I realized that a chef can master dishes from any cuisine as long as they have the passion, touch and spirit to realize the means to reach the basics of cuisines of concern.
If we wish to talk about the Egyptian cuisine, we must first go to the pastoral regions and see how its people cook. We must move between different places in order to realize how to develop, and I must say it is not that easy and it definitely needs effort.
For example, Siraj is a restaurant specialized in Emirati food, and we managed to serve there in a way that complies with its original identity. In such case, I need to spend around six months observing how experienced housewives cook and follow recipes that have been alive for centuries. In Bab Al Mansour, some guy disapproved because a Syrian chef work at a Moroccan restaurant. That was so ignorant!
Where do the Moroccan and Levant or Syrian Cuisines meet?
Both cuisines are deep-rooted Arab cuisines and have produced numerous recipes. Yet, they are both different in many ways, including the spices and cooking methods. However, a controlled combination of those cuisines can lead to remarkable results.
Some of the mutual meals I found between the Syrian and the Moroccan cuisines are “Ozy Surar” and “Bustailat al hout or Chicken” respectively. Both dishes share the same concept but the stuffing in each dish is different.
What do you have to say for freshly-graduated chefs?
While working at Armani Hotel, a chef used to tell me to pay attention, learn and write down everything because later you will find a way to utilize what you have learned. Since then, I have always been keen on listening to opinions and experiences.
I also recall working with a chef who taught us discipline. It felt like we were at an army bunker when working with him, but that also taught us how to be responsible and how to handle things properly.
Those aspects are very important in our profession, a cook must evolve and mingle with well-experienced chefs, browse web pages, try dishes in new restaurants and so on. A day spent without learning something new is a day lost in vain, especially with the now available diverse resources.
One last piece of advice, I served as a juror in many cooking contests, and my priority in any evaluation is to get the right flavour. If the base was good, then it is easy to work on the representation, meaning the final form of a dish which may require a considerable amount of time and effort.
There is a dream that never leaves you and you are determined to achieve, what is it?
Let us say it is “Ahmad Al Fakier, first Arab Chef to receive a Michelin star”. My dream is summarized by that. I know it is hard to attain, given that the middle east is not classified among the regions to get such distinction and no middle eastern restaurant has ever received it, but I will march towards achieving this goal with more passionate and hard work. Other than that, I look forward to opening franchises of our restaurants outside the UAE.
What are the hardest aspects of being a chef?
Working in this field may force you to compromise family time for the sake of work time. Therefore, being an executive chef in more than one restaurant makes it hard for me to make time for working at Verdura and Bab Al Mansour. I start my morning routine with setting meetings and doing managerial tasks. I give each restaurant 6 hours a day and I spend Thursday and Friday in one restaurant.
What is the thing that you are pursuing with full passion and determination?
We must rediscover the Arabic dishes, with its simplicity and antiquity and to break out from stereotypes. If we ask millennials about recipes from 30 years ago, they won’t recognize them. Furthermore, I would love to work on returning to the old flavours that people have forgotten. I had an idea in my mind to make a television show where I go to old communities and visit housewives in their houses, except I need to wait for things to calm down back in Syria.
You are known to be a beloved chef, what is the secret behind that?
Humility must be manifested in the way we deal with employees and cleaning workers. On a daily basis, I greet and handshake everyone when I enter the kitchen. This is a habit that can spread friendliness in the workspace, and my subordinate employees have picked up this habit after me and now everyone greets each other when arriving or leaving work.
Do you feel interested in publishing a cookbook?
Actually, I’m in the middle of writing one. it consists of two parts: the first part talks about reviving old Syrian recipes and presenting it in a modernized way, which requires travelling to many places and using high-quality techniques. As for the second part of my book, I would like to share my signature recipes or existing recipes that has my personal touch on it.
On a cozy family meal, what do you like to have with your children?
As a middle eastern man, I have no issue helping my wife out at the kitchen, and we still love to cling to our rural Syrian dialect. I really love having food with my family, especially meals cooked with buttermilk like Laban Ummo, and buttermilk kibbe. Also, I’m very fond of Kabsa.
Milestones in Chef Ahmad Al Fakier’s career:
Awarded the title of “The Best Chef in The Middle East” in 2015 through a contest set by the World Association of Chefs’ Societies (WACS) and the Emirates Culinary Guild. The contest was organized under the Food and Beverages Expo in Dubai, where he presented an assortment of dishes.
He also received the Excellence Award for 2017 and holds a membership in the oldest French Chef Association in addition to the Emirates Culinary Guild and the Syrian Culinary Guild.
Thank you for your time Ahmad.
What is your plan for your future as a chef?
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