Mohammad Jamaluddin is the executive chef of Abyat Restaurant, at Palm Jumeirah, the UAE.  Abyat is a Lebanese restaurant that packs all middle eastern flavors into its menu. Chef Jamaluddin has been awarded the best Arab chef in Dubai for the year 2008 through the Seal Dubai Food Festival.

 

Before Abyat, He worked in many high-rank restaurants, including Al Kamal restaurant, which is one of the oldest and most prestigious restaurants in Damascus, and Sargon restaurant as well.

 

What is so unique about Chef Jamaluddin is that he began his career at the age of 14 and worked with two different generations of chefs. Let’s hear his story!

 

By Hadeel Atalla

 

What was the spark that led you to become a chef?

My father worked as a chef, and I remember when I was child the chats we had about food and what recipes and dishes he made in addition to talking about his daily life back in the kitchen. Living in such an atmosphere made me determined to follow my father’s footsteps, and being the great mentor he was, my father helped nurture my endeavors to become the chef I am today!

On the household level, the smell coming out of our kitchen was alluring and made me rush to help my mother with cooking. One of my funny early cooking incidents that I recall happened when I came back home and I was very hungry. So, I decided to make myself some scrambled eggs. To my bad luck, the frying pan got scorched along with the eggs and I tried to hide “the evidence of my crime”. However, when my mother came back home, the “crime scene” was contaminated with a plume of smoke and the odor of burnt eggs.

Today, and even though I grew up and became the man I am today, I still feel nostalgic to my mother’s and grandmother’s cooking; whenever I sense the smell of a good meal, especially authentic Syrian dishes like Kibbe Labania[1], I go back in memory to the good old days. I can tell if I’m cooking well just by recalling the smell of their cooking.

 

How did you come to the conclusion that this is the career you want to pursue?

I used to accompany my father to his restaurant especially during school breaks. At that time, I wasn’t 10 yet; I remember waking up at 6 a.m. so we could catch a cab to the restaurant. I remember a funny situation when we missed the cab and had to ride on top of a bus.

At the beginning of my career, i spent quite some time working for free, and throughout that time, it was certain that I was going to make a good chef. My father saw that in me and he touched me with words when he told me “you will become a great chef one day” for the first time. It is so sweet how our names are connected together, and it is my utmost honor to have my name, Mohammad, next to his, Mohe Al Deen. It is funny that even though I’m 40 now, I still feel petrified from cooking in front of him; he is such a fussy connoisseur.

 

Where did you receive your formal training and when did you have the opportunity to work in famous hotels and restaurants?

I studied at the Hotel and Tourism Training Center. There, I learned that a person must do what he likes the most. Other than that, it is all just a big waste of time. Being said, I realized that cooking is not just a profession to me, it runs deep in my veins. Even if I ever decide to leave cooking, cooking will never leave me. I am ready to do all it takes for the sake of cooking and I get very furious if anyone belittles the reputation of this profession.

After training for quite a time, and after showing great commitment, passion and ambition towards cooking and working as a chef, the opportunity to work in famous and well-acclaimed hotels and restaurants presented itself. In Damascus, I worked in the famous Meridian, Al Sham and Gemini Hotel Chains. Then, I moved onto other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and many other hotels in Dubai, including the InterContinental Hotels. Now, I am honored to work with Abyat Restaurant, which is a Ginza Restaurant Group franchise; a group that joins numerous well-known international restaurants, including Michelin star-awarded restaurants.

 

How do you classify your cooking style?

Home cooking, this is my style. I just do my best to make the flavor of my dishes similar to home cooked food, even though I try serving some certain dishes in a way that meets new and emerging techniques in the industry. Yet, I never attempt to change the flavor of traditional dishes since tampering the originality of those dishes is sacrilegious; in the Arab cuisines, there are certain flavors we cannot tamper with no matter the experience we acquire.

 

 

As a Syrian chef working in a Lebanese restaurant, what differences can you identify between both cuisines?

It is needless to say that the Syrian cuisine is very well rooted and coincides with all the cultures and nationalities in the region; when we talk about the Levantine cuisine, we don’t exclusively talk about the Syrian cuisine, but we also talk about the Levant region as a whole including Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine. There many mutual aspects that join between those regions, such as the soil type, the predominantly grown vegetables, the meat quality and the cooking methods. Being said, both the Lebanese and Syrian cuisines are similar and delightful as well.

But generally speaking, the Lebanese cuisine is well known for its simplicity and depending on olive oil, fresh produce, beans (chickpeas, fava beans, lentil, etc.), in addition to tahini which can be used in many cold and hot served dishes and even sweets. Furthermore, this cuisine is so flexible that there is no problem introducing relatively new ingredients, such as quinoa, Chia seeds and tropical fruits.

 

In a city in the size of Dubai, how can a chef achieve fame?

Dubai is a beautiful city that attracts tourists from all over the world. Therefore, chefs are expected to be excellent in everything. Good chefs here are like movie stars, but each chef has his or her own style and techniques which manage to help achieve success and draw attention.

 

What are the spices and vegetables that you usually use?

I use fragrant herbs in my cooking, such as thyme and rosemary in addition to dried lime, not to mention the spices I prepare in my kitchen on a daily basis. I also use some ingredients which I bring from my hometown, such as olive oil, which is a staple in the Lebanese cuisine, and I also bring tahini and grains.

 

Would you tell us about dishes that you have added your own touches to and what ingredients they have?

Of course! I am glad to share with you my slow cooked mutton dish which I cook for 24 hours in an oven with a smooth sauce and a side of mashed potatoes to give a combination of flavors; once cooked, the meat becomes very tender and soaked with the herby sauce.

Also, I managed to introduce quinoa to one of the menu dishes and made what my customers described as “one of the best salads ever”. I added quinoa with romaine lettuce, Belgian spinach, with a dressing consisting of honey mustard orange juice and pomegranate seeds. I also made a dish with halloumi cheese with wild figs and a dressing made of mayonnaise and a mixture of wild herbs. I’ve got to say, tourists were amazed by it.

Furthermore, I managed to serve Palestinian Musakhan with its authentic flavor and ingredients including olive oil, sumac, Taboon flatbread, onions and roasted chicken. I served it as nicely adorned rolls with a side of garlic and yogurt sauce.

Additionally, one of my customers’ favorites is a clay cooked chicken with mushrooms, vegetables and a lemon sauce.

 

What is the best part about being a chef, and what is the hardest part of it?

The best part of being a chef is reaching a level where the chef is absolutely satisfied with their own performance in how much they give to their restaurant. All that leads to making the chef’s reputation soar to the extent that customers would go for this restaurant or that only because of the chef who works there. Nonetheless, the hardest part of being a chef is to continuously improve your performance and develop your abilities. In our profession, new things emerge every day, and chefs must have the ability to cope with all changes and upgrades regarding modern cooking practices and presenting methods, while trying kitchenware and appliances that comply with safety and hygiene specifications. A day that passes without learning something new is a day gone in vain.

Personally speaking, I became more serious and more determined towards self-development, and that helps me to grow my ambition and area of influence. This cannot be done without being well aware of all that is new in the industry.

 

 

What is the Arab cuisine’s position globally?

There is no doubt that Arabic restaurants have become among the most prominent areas of investment worldwide. The Arab world delivered numbers of well-acclaimed chefs who managed to achieve recognition internationally; some even became very famous due to participating in international contests and this makes us very proud. Yet, we still need to do a lot when it comes to supporting local talents or they would seek better opportunities abroad, which is a sad thing of course.

 

You are truly an artist when it comes to presenting and serving your dishes. How much hard work does that take?

As every chef does, I love to see my dishes become widespread and followed on media. Hence, I take photos for my dishes and post them on social media platforms. Still, achieving a great taste depends on the base of which the dish is made of, including the use of fresh meats and produce in order to have an edge in competing with other fancy restaurants of the same cuisine. It is a two-sided equation consisting of love and effort.

 

What is your slogan as a chef?

Every customer that comes to my restaurant matters and I’m grateful for his or her trust and for choosing our staff to serve him or her. I always say this sentence in the restaurant and among my colleagues (Abyat, el bait baitak) (Abyat, this house is your house). This way, our customers or guests will sense our love towards them and feel pleased with our hospitality so they can tell their colleagues about us too.

 

Abyat, why was this name chosen?

Once you enter the restaurant, you will see beautiful photos and portraits of great artists such as Fairouz and the star of the east: Um Kalthoum, mixed with verses of poetry written in such delicate calligraphy to touch the soul and elevate the mind. I’m very happy that Abyat managed to leave such a prominent mark in the market when it comes to level of hospitality.

 

In a tourism attraction, such as Jumeirah, is it hard to satisfy a guest?

Lebanese and Arab cuisines in general are widely spreading across Europe and America, and there are many dishes that have  become well known there, such as hummus, shish tawook and tabbouleh in addition to Arab sweets like kunefe.

In my opinion, we must serve non-Arabs Arab dishes the way they recognize it and with the best quality possible in order to achieve the customer’s satisfaction. And per my personal experience, westerners give special admiration to Arab and Levant cuisines due to its healthy and delightful ingredients, and it thrills me when someone figures out when we replace an ingredient in any of our dishes with another.

 

Among international cuisines, what draws your attention the most?

The Italian cuisine, since it joins many healthy and fresh ingredients, which mix together to form delicious flavors.

 

What is the newest recipe that you have added to your menu?

I added a special variety of kibbeh, which is one of the oldest Aleppo recipes, knowing that Aleppo has one of the most famous Levantine cuisines, with almost 365 different recipes for kibbeh alone!

I will give you the recipe for Qasabi Kibbeh with ingredients for five people:

  • 500 g dark and fine bulgur
  • 1 onion
  • Green mint leaves
  • Lemon zest
  • Orange zest
  • 250 g veal meat
  • 100 g mutton tail fat
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Kibbeh spices
  • Cinnamon powder
  • Marjoram

As for the sauce, the ingredients are green pepper, red pepper, onions, salt and bell pepper molasses.

Make the kibbeh dough and divide it to smaller balls and grill it on charcoal fire then cook it with the pepper sauce and serve it hot and garnish it with pine nuts.

 

 

If you would write your own cookbook, what would be the main subject?

I would write a cookbook about the silk road cuisines, which includes all cuisines along the silk road, starting with India and all the way to Iraq and the Levant countries. It is our great cuisine which tells a very amusing story about the rich ingredients exchanged among the culture of this region.

 

What is a compliment that one of customers gave you that you hold dear to your heart?

One time, a customer told me that he guessed immediately that I work here because the flavor of the food I made. I cannot describe the joy I felt that my dishes leave such good impact on people who now can identify me through my work.

What is the most important advice you leave for new chefs?

Do not get arrogant no matter how high you go and never stop learning. Also keep in mind that our profession requires a lot of patience and perseverance and has no room for indolence and negativity.

 

What is the dream that you live for?

Opening my own restaurant so I can fulfill my most precious dreams!

 

Thank you very much, it has been a great pleasure. No matter what new dishes and recipes we may try, home cooking is indeed the best of all!

 

Share your thoughts with an international community of chefs on Cook Concern!

If you are looking for some new adventures, take a look at the international job offers.