ALAA ALMORAI, THE EXECUTIVE CHEF OF SYRIA CHEF RESTAURANT
Located in Muscat, Oman, Chef Alaa Almorai works passionately in his own restaurant after a long and successful career of working in different restaurants and hotels back in his home country, Syria.
Chef Alaa’s most significant milestone was establishing the Syria Chef project; an integrated project that includes a restaurant that serves a myriad of Syrian dishes along with Mediterranean and International recipes, in addition to a TV show and an active website.
WHEN DID YOUR GIFT OF COOKING EMERGE?
Since I only have one sister, I used to help my mother with all household chores, including cooking. When I was 15 years old, I attempted to cook potatoes with meat and onions in a different way, compared to mom’s recipe, and everyone liked it.
My beginnings were not bereft of funny moments though; one time, I cooked rice without washing it first. My mom still reminds me of it until this day just for a good laugh.
SINCE YOU COME FROM THE CITY OF HOMS, WHAT DISTINGUISHES THIS CITY FROM THE REST OF SYRIA?
Homs recipes are known for being highly dependent on vegetables given the richness of the agricultural lands here. Therefore, it is accurate to say that Homs recipes have some sort of a pastoral and homey feel to them.
WHAT WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT LESSON YOU LEARNED DURING YOUR FIRST YEAR AS A CHEF?
Since the beginning of my career, I have learned to put my heart and soul into my work. Then, I realized that this is what distinguished me from my peers. To become a good chef, is to be a passionate one!
WHERE DID YOU COMPLETE YOUR CULINARY EDUCATION?
After finishing my preparatory school (junior high), I attended the Hospitality Vocational Academy, then I joined the Average Hospitality Institute then I received a Diploma in International Culinary Arts from Cairo, Egypt.
I attended culinary arts institutes out of my full belief that cooking is a real job; honestly, the reason why I chose this career is that a good friend of mine, who joined the institute before me, referred this field to me and gave me all the details I needed to pursue such a career. Then, I passed the same passion to my younger brother and then my older brother established Syria Chef.
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOUR COOKING STYLE?
I always try to think unconventionally and add new and innovative touches to my dishes while maintaining quality and craftsmanship; I made effort in adding new touches to the Syrian cuisine, which can be demonstrated in two of my hummus recipes; the basil hummus, which has a unique and fragrant aroma, and the beetroot hummus. Additionally, I also tried adding my own touches to some of the Italian recipes, given the fact that it is a Mediterranean cuisine and shares many ingredients with the Syrian cuisine. Generally speaking, the Mediterranean cuisines are so vibrant due to its amazing organic ingredients. I plan in the foreseeable future to have a more inclusive style to make at least a recipe from each country.
ESTABLISHING A RESTAURANT IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY IS CHALLENGING AND REQUIRES A LOT OF COURAGE. WOULD YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE WITH SYRIA CHEF?
Sure! I humbly believe that Syrian chefs can succeed no matter where they go. Besides, The Gulf countries have a taste for the Syrian cuisine. On the other hand, Oman stands out, in comparison with the rest of the Gulf countries, with the abundance of agriculture, which gives chance for having a rich and diverse cuisine, even though it is quite different from ours. Still, the Omani cuisine has an edge over the Syrian cuisine with their amazing and unique barbecue and grill cuisine (Showa).
Back to your question; I faced difficulties in finding experienced manpower; there was no way to get a work permit for Syrians. Still, I managed to gather a staff of Syrian chefs and workers whose contracts expired before the violence in Syria erupted.
Thankfully, I managed to tackle the challenges I faced and my restaurant became a household name in the Sultanate. I successfully managed to represent my country strongly through my restaurant.
WHAT INGREDIENT DO YOU ENJOY COOKING WITH?
Actually, it takes more than one ingredient to distinguish a chef and help him stand out from others, such as chili, olive oil, specific meat cuts and chicken. As for spices and seasonings, I use some of them in the way that suits me, including wild thyme, rosemary and basil.
WOULD YOU TELL US WHAT DISHES EMBODY YOUR UNIQUE STYLE?
Of course! There are many dishes that represent who I am, such as my minced beef-stuffed chicken rolls recipe. I also participated in making menus for one of Oman’s famous Italian restaurants. Those recipes include fusions of Arab and Italian dishes which met customers’ liking. There are also some recipes that carry my name, such as Alaa Alfredo Alfaromio; I merged the Italian and Omani cuisines together, which can be shown in adding Omani grill with spinach to the recipe.
WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF BEING A CHEF AND WHAT IS THE MOST CHALLENGING PART?
Being a chef is no easy business; a good chef is an innovative, works clean and has strong leadership skills, meaning that he or she must manage their team well and be a good role-model to them.
Our profession is so wearisome, especially since we have to endure working in high temperatures under the scorching Gulf sun. Also, one of the challenges we face is working during holidays, which deprives us from spending time with our families during such occasions.
Still, all those challenges become nothing once we achieve success with our patrons; when they thank us and commend our efforts. Such moments make me feel proud of who I am and where I come from and drive me to learn, evolve and give more to my profession. It fills me with joy to hear well-acclaimed Syrian people saying “you have held the name of our country high!”.
WHAT IS YOUR MOTTO?
“Assure quality with everything you make”. The attention I give to quality has made food suppliers consult me specifically whenever they have a new product to offer since I prioritize quality over price, while most chefs seem to have an inverted perspective.
YOU HAVE A TV SHOW, TWO BOOKS AND A WEBSITE. WHY DID YOU DIVIDE YOUR ATTENTION IN SUCH MANNER?
I personally believe that I have to make an integrated effort to cover the needs of a large demographic of cooking aficionados. Of course, that yielded me a good reputation. At the end, my restaurant is the crown jewel of all the efforts I make.
IS THERE A RECIPE YOU’D LIKE TO SHARE WITH US?
How about my Penne Primavera! Here is a 4-people recipe:
Firstly, the ingredients are a box of penne pasta, 0.5 kg of broccoli, tbs butter, small tbs minced garlic, 2 cups of bechamel, half a cup cooking cream, 0.25 Cups grated parmesan cheese, 100 g beef bacon, salt and white pepper.
In order to prepare the penne primavera, you need to boil the pasta well then strain it and cool it immediately. Then, dip the broccoli piece by piece in boiling water for 2 minutes only to preserve the nutrients and keep it fresh and green. Next, put the butter in a hot skillet on medium temperature then add the beef bacon and the garlic and stir fry for one minute only. After that, add the pasta and stir it then add the bechamel sauce, the cream and the broccoli and stir the mixture for 4 minutes. Add the salt and pepper while you stir. Finally, pour the pasta and add grated parmesan on top and serve the dish with garnish.
CURRENT FOOD PRACTICES ENCOURAGE PEOPLE TO EAT HEALTHY. HOW DO YOU APPLY THAT TO YOUR RECIPES?
I always give attention to the slightest details in my cooking. For instance, I change the frying oil on a daily basis, use extra virgin olive oil and never use counterfeited olive oil, never cook with frozen meats and I always check the expiration date of food products, especially cooled items. Moreover, I avoid using food products that has chemicals in it and I use WHO-certified plasticware whenever I need to store food items.
HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR PASSION ALIGHT?
I am hysterically passionate about my job. Yet, there are moments when this passion falters a little, but I manage to pass such moments through researching and updating my recipes in addition to getting inspiration from bright ideas offered by international chefs via their social media accounts. Also, having some fun with the family never hurts; it gives some R&R to return to work strongly.
ARE THERE LIMITATIONS TO A CHEF’S INNOVATION?
My personal style defies some rules no doubt, but there are lines no one must cross, especially when it comes to traditional dishes; no one must mess with its authentic flavor or it will lose its essence and value.
WHAT IS THE MOST REQUESTED DISH BY YOUR OMANI CUSTOMERS?
Syrian grilled dishes are the most popular here no doubt.
IF YOU HAVE A FAMILY OCCASION, WHAT DISHES WOULD YOU CHOOSE TO COOK?
My family’s love and happiness are my number one priority; hence I chose the dishes they like the most. I would adorn our dinner table with panna cotta, tabbouleh, hummus with basil, fried kibbeh, Texas fries, cheese cake, and many other dishes.
WHAT ACTIVITIES WOULD YOU FEEL HAPPY TO DO?
I wish to make a lot of food and invite people and chefs here in Oman so I can introduce them to the Syrian cuisine and point out to what distinguishes it from other cuisines. Also, if I had the chance, I would go back to Syria to cook for displaced people, especially children residing in refugee camps.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU LIKE TO GIVE TO PROSPECTIVE CHEFS?
Our profession is not easy, but it is more than wonderful; the more care you give, the more love, profit and recognition it will return.
WHAT IS THE NEXT TARGET YOU WISH TO PURSUE?
I am looking forward to opening a restaurant in Syria so I can fulfill my dreams and utilize my true potential for many reasons. Also, I would be more than lucky if the financial circumstances were available to open a restaurant in Istanbul, Turkey.
MILESTONES IN THE CHEF ALAA ALMORAI’S CAREER:
Worked in the five-star Safeer Hotel Homs, 4-star Homs Grand Hotel, 4-star Al Wadi Hotel, Auto Grand Restaurant, and the Pharaonic Village Restaurant.
Received a letter of gratitude from Danesi Italia for developing its products.
Received a golden medal in a live cooking contest in Sharm Al Sheikh, 2012.
Received a golden medal and the first position in a live and mystery box cooking contest within Oman Food and Hospitality Expo, 2018.
Thank you Alaa.