HAMDAN AL SHAYEB AND HIS LOVE-INFUSED ARAB SWEETS!
Chef Al Shayeb is the executive pastry chef at W Hotel, Amman Jordan. He is one of Jordan’s best pastry chefs who didn’t only succeed in his country, but also secured himself a prominent position internationally, especially after winning the Horeca Middle East contest, which gave him access to many opportunities to travel abroad and add a new dimension to his experience!
In this exciting interview, you will find outstanding determination for creating love-infused flavors!
Did Younger Hamdan find something that sprcifically lured him to work in the kitchen?
When I was a child, I felt a responsibility to help my mother since she had some health issues. Despite her health conditions, she has never spared a moment to make us sweets. I’ve always wanted to help her and learn from her at the same time. Thanks to my mother, I cultivated an affection towards cooking. I remember when I used to help her with the house chores so she could take a rest or a short nap at least.
When she used to make kunefe in the afternoon, I would always be at her side. I remember begging her to let me grind the pistachios, and I always liked putting ghee on the cooking pan and preparing the kunefe’s dough.
Without any bias, I can say my mother was the best when it comes to making sweets compared to other women in our family, and I recall when our neighbors asked my mother to make them some kunefe and puff pastry (Kullaj in Arabic). Her sweets were the best thing I’ve ever tasted and I will never forget how great it was.
So, it is safe to say that your passion for cooking started at an early age?
It all started when I was ten. Frankly, my school performance was not that great and I faced some difficulties at school. So, I made a decision to learn how to make pastries by joining a 3-year vocational training program and studying at a specialized institution afterwards. Subsequently, I had the opportunity to work in numbers of bakeries and pastry shops. Later on, I had the opportunity to work in hotels and I managed to learn the English language. I had the opportunity to work with many chefs, including Arab and French chefs as well. All of that gave me a significant amount of experience, and I owe this success to God, my parents, prayers and support.
Did your family support your decision?
My father has always encouraged us to tread our own path, he even offered us guidance once we hit the workforce. He has been there for us the whole time, so I can say my family welcomed my decision to become a pastry chef despite the stigma associated with cooks and bakers in our society; some may get rejected if they propose to marry just because of their profession as sweets makers because the society doesn’t think highly of our profession. Thankfully, this stigma has shifted and our profession has evolved to the extent that is has its own academic major. Today, I am confident to say that I made the right choice!
Can you recall a funny mistake you made at the beginning of your career?
I couldn’t distinguish between bicarbonate and baking powder that I used bicarbonate instead of baking powder.
How do you describe your cooking style?
My cooking style relies basically on the commitment to the use of Arabic ingredients and flavors in my sweet dishes to add a pleasant taste, along with a cautious addition of European flavors. Generally speaking, each chef has his or her own charisma inside the kitchen, and all of us seem to agree on the fact that cooking with love guarantees uniqueness and originality, and that is what makes a chef standout from others and achieve success.
Because it fills me with the desire to challenge and innovate; making sweets involves the use of special ingredients and requires very unique skills. Besides, the smell of sweets fills me with joy, unlike the smell of onion and garlic which I don’t like.
What is the hardest aspect and what is the most beautiful aspect of your profession?
Making sweets is very challenging and requires high levels of accuracy and precision, but the loveliest aspect is that you need to constantly taste sweets. Personally speaking, this is the most beautiful professions ever!
Did anybody challenge you in regards to making a recipe before? And did you win the challenge?
Yes! Back in 2006 while I was working at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh, someone challenged me to make a wasabi cheesecake recipe. What is so challenging about this is that wasabi has a strong and hot spicy taste and it is usually had with sushi, which is a savory dish. That person challenged me and doubted that I can make wasabi cheesecake work, and I got to say, it wasn’t easy. However, I managed to make it work; its taste was amazing and people loved it. My challenger was surprised that I did it so well!
What is your slogan?
Mastery and devotion to the craft are not to be comprimised; the Holy Quran says: “and say unto them Act! Allah with behold your actions and so will his messenger and the believers”. Moreover, I always avoid gloating and when I always abide by my own personal slogan: making food with love will land you a prominent position among your peers. That was an advice given to me by a senior chef at the beginning of my career.
Have you ever felt burnt-out and considered leaving the profession?
Never! I enjoy competitions and tackling challenges; I’ve worked under stress a lot and I used to stay up at night and work for 18 straight hours. One time, I worked in two places and did a day and night shifts back to back, all that to make the most delicious sweets and with the highest quality.
Among your dishes, which one is the fruit of your innovation?
That would be the Arabic Opera Cake; the normal opera cake is usually made from butter cream, while mine has 16 different Arab ingredients including pistachio, hazelnut and herbs like sage and mint, not to mention rose water, saffron licorice and other ingredients. Common wisdom says that adding too much ingredients would spoil a dish, but I have mastered it through making all those ingredients work together in harmony while maintaining an authentic flavor.
What ingredient you can never work without? And what common Arab ingredients do you always use?
Rose water, it is my number one ingredient. As for my other favorite ingredients, those would be cinnamon, halva, cardamom, dried apricot jam (qamar deen) and lemon flower.
Where do you get the inspiration to come up with innovative ideas for your dishes?
I get inspired every time when I go to the spices shop and indulge my senses with the great smells and when I inhale the incredible aroma of authentic Arab sweets. I also get new ideas from following social media accounts of various well-acclaimed chefs; once I catch an appealing idea, I use my imagination to come up with something beautiful. Sometimes I would catch a simple and cool skill through dealing with chefs from different cultural backgrounds; one time, a chef taught me how to peel a kiwi with a spoon instead of a knife!
Through observing different cooking experiences, what cuisines do you like, yet seem a little bit underrated?
I love the Indian cuisine very much; it is very close to our cuisine and I was lucky enough that a friend of mine taught me its basics. This specific cuisine is so deep-rooted and inspired many other cuisines like the Yemeni, Qatari and Saudi and uses its spices in many recipes, such as kabsa and what not. One of the Indian sweets which I love a lot is Gulab Jamun, which looks pretty much like Arab Awwama, both are small ball-shaped dough deep fried sweets. Gulab Jamun consists of a milky dough and has a lot of cardamom, which explains its strong fragrant aroma. I made my own rendition of it by stuffing it with bananas and serving it in a French style.
I’m also fond of the Mexican cuisine; they have a sweet called churros which looks like our Halab sweets; while Arab Halab gets soaked in sugar syrup, churros are coated with coarse sugar and cinnamon. Mexico is also known for its milk cake; a cake that gets soaked in milk after baking. Those two amazing cuisines are a bit underestimated require people’s attention to know how classy it is.
What techniques do you use to ignite your guests’ senses?
Using additional materials such as liquid nitrogen, dry ice and edible flowers and rose petals along with serving the dishes in a glamorous presentation.
What is the latest addition to your menu?
My latest entry is Salted Caramel Chocolate Mousse, which consists of white chocolate which I scorch in the oven and use in sweets. If you add it to salted caramel, then you’ll have a delicious taste.
How do you maintain healthiness in your dishes?
I rely 70% of the times on dark chocolate, quinoa, and oatmeal as the base for my cakes. As for the cake itself, or the mousse, I prepare it using soymilk or other similar ingredients that has natural flavors.
What aspects makes you feel worried when it comes to the Arab cuisine’s current status?
That would be work ethics. Currently, chefs’ compliance with work ethics is not bad, but certainly insufficient, chefs nowadays are money driven, although this profession of ours runs on love, passion, and respect. Those values are what make a chef a good chef. It is unfortunate to say that it is seldom to see chefs teaching their counterparts correctly or have interest in nurturing incoming chefs. Those aspects are not to be compromised or tampered with.
What priorities should the Arab and middle eastern cuisines take into consideration?
Strongly participating in expos and international contests. This should give us the opportunity to sell our Arab dishes and present our authentic flavors.
What country do you wish to work at one day?
I wish to work in Australia; the Australian cuisine is very diverse and joins numerous cultures. I believe I can achieve something good there.
If you have the chance to do whatever you want, no matter the cost, for a whole year, what would you do?
I would make a tuition free training center to teach others how to make sweets and pastries.
What was the most pleasant news you’ve ever had since you started working as a chef?
That would be the moment I was informed that I won the Horeca international contest, although I won other contests before, my participation took place in three main categories; small sweets and three sweet dishes – one of them was made of chocolate and the other fruits, and the third was a local sweet dish.
If you had the time to write a book, what would be the title?
Arab fusion desserts.
Give us one sentence you would like to pass on to emerging chefs.
Try, try and try and then you’ll achieve your goals.
If you have family event, what dishes do you prefer to serve only to make people burst with happiness?
Almost the same dishes we make sure to serve for our customers during the holy month of Ramadan, which are Salted caramel with Arabic Coffee, Rose Panna Cotta, Mastic Cream Kunefe, Date Cake and Pistachio Halva Tart.
What dream do you aspire to fulfil?
Have my own sweets shop, God willing!
Millstones in Chef Hamdan’s career:
- Member of Jospeaks, a Jordanian contest, judges’ panel for the third year on a row.
- Worked at numbers of high-end hotels, such as Four Seasons Hotel Amman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Lebanon, and Syria.
- Worked at Kempinski Hotel Aqaba Red Sea and Marriott Red Sea Resort, and Grand Millennium Amman.
What is your plan for your future as a chef?
Create your own free profile and see what you can do! Get ready for your new challenges!