MAHMOUD EFRANJYEH, A SYRIAN STAR CHEF WHO EXCELS IN THE ARAB CUISINE THROUGH EMPLOYING EUROPEAN TECHNIQUES
Chef Mahmoud Efranjyeh is a well-renowned Syrian chef and food consultant. He became one of the Arab World’s Youth star chefs after participating in Top Chef television show Middle East semi quarter 2018.
Chef Efranjyeh moved between s number of high-end hotels and restaurants in Syria and the Gulf countries, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, in addition to opening numerous successful restaurants. Currently, Chef Efranjyeh is preparing to open a new restaurant in Jeddah, KSA.
This story should put energy and enthusiasm in all those who aspire to follow cooking as a profession!
During your childhood, what did the kitchen mean to you?
I don’t recall going to the kitchen often when I was a child; but I remember when my grandmother used to make us an awesome breakfast; the number of dishes makes you feel as if it was an open buffet. I must say, seeing her cook was an amazing experience. One of the dishes my grandmother used to cook that I will never forget is “Mufarraket Batata” her recipe was unrivaled; she would make the potatoes not entirely done but so crispy. I loved it a lot!
When did you discover your passion for cooking? And when did you realize that this is the field you want to worl in?
I’ve always looked at myself as a connoisseur, and my affection towards food blossomed from an early age, precisely when I was a teenager; during the summer break, I used to work at Al-Hamidiyah Souq (a local bazar/market) and I had this knack to try a new restaurant every time I went for lunch just to try different types of food. I’m still a kibbeh and shawarma aficionado; I don’t mind eating those every day of my life.
Did your family object on your choice to major in the art of cooking?
On the contrary; my family was very supportive of my decision. Matter of fact, it all was my father’s idea actually who inquired on hospitality education/training from our neighbor’s son who was studying at the cooking school. Studying culinary arts marked the first chapter in my story as a passionate and creative cook. It is worth mentioning that at the time, I was the only one in my family who was studying cooking. Later on, many relatives of mine got inspired by my decision and pursued degrees in culinary arts as well.
In the culinary school, I was ranked the second in my class and then I studied hotel management at the HTCC then I worked at a 5-star hotel in Damascus. Later on, I packed my luggage and embarked on a trip seeking a whole new experience in Dubai so I could improve my skills. Unfortunately, my family didn’t find my choice plausible, as I had 4 sisters and I was the only son to support my father, not to mention that they didn’t think of it as a more lucrative option compared to staying in Damascus. Still, I was determined to fulfill my decision.
If we take a trip back to memory lane, what special story do you have in mind during your first year in this profession?
It is actually a funny story, it began when I tried to make some Shakrieh, meat or chicken cooked in buttermilk. While I was cooking, I realized that the buttermilk was very thin and I decided to thicken it with egg white. Unfortunately, I didn’t know how to thicken properly using egg white and I added it to the boiling buttermilk. Then the egg white got boiled and formed floating egg chunks. Guess I didn’t know at the time that this method of thickening must be done with a cold liquid.
How do you describe your cooking style?
My overall style is neo-Arabic without compromising the original flavors. At first, I excelled in the European cuisines, especially in cooking and preparing Italian dishes. The experience I got helped me work at top-notch hotels, but I barely had any experience in the Arab cuisines at the time until I started working at al Jumeirah group in a restaurant specialized in Arab-inspired fusion recipes. My role was assisting in preparing dishes that joined the Arabic flavor and European techniques.
Did you face times when you thought of quitting this profession?
Yes, I had some of those moments when I seriously considered to quit cooking due to the numerous difficulties it has; it exhausts you physically and mentally and makes you sacrifice your social life. Nonetheless, I could never quit cooking.
What ingredient do you wish to bring from home to the rest of the world?
I really love Awwas lamb meat; it can create new and amazing flavors. If I had the ability to bring it along to any country I visited, then I wouldn’t hesitate! But that is really difficult in reality.
What recipe of yours are you the most proud of?
It is actually a recipe I used when I participated in Top Chef, which I consider the best signature dish I ever made; it is grilled kibbeh with fig and apple glaze and a lamb meat sauce.
There are numerous developments in the international culinary world, what draws your attention the most to the extent that the Arab cuisine should adopt as well?
I believe that the Arab cuisine can improve itself through organizing its recipes and documenting it properly. It is unfortunate to say that it is hard to teach the right techniques of Arab dishes in hostelry institutes, given the fact that Arab cuisine veterans do not respond well to the idea of organizing recipes into written texts. Instead, they monopolize those recipes and keep its secret for themselves.
There is also another point which I deem important which is the presentation; presenting a dish should be well studied, logical and elegant without compromising the flavor and taste.
Is there an aspect about cooking and cuisines that people should pay more attention for?
Absolutely! You see, a cuisine is as important as architecture when it comes to identifying how well cultured and civilized a nation is; that includes the methods of food serving and the traditions associated with the cuisine. Furthermore, the diversity of a cuisine projects the richness of a country in terms of resources, nature and climate.
What makes Syrian chefs more distinguished than others?
Syrian chefs’ power stems from the everlasting diversity of the Syrian cuisine; you will never get bored from our cuisine, as we have a wide assortment of savory and sweet popular dishes which you cannot simply find somewhere else. That should guarantee us success no matter where we go. Even those who are not very well-versed with cooking can learn from their relatives and family members and open successful restaurants. All those factors must get paired with the use of high-quality fresh produce and meats along with the right spices in addition to mastering culinary best practices.
How did cooking influence your character?
Working as a chef has taught me patience and the capability of working for long hours; I have learned that the more patience you have the better the results you get and vice versa, patience is a key for success.
Do you have special rituals when you cook?
I love listening to music and spreading a healthy sense of humor among my work team, except when things get stressful because I get really temperamental.
When it comes to new and modern cooking trends, is there something that provokes you?
It bothers me to see some chefs creating dishes just for the sake of change; making dishes like saffron hummus, hummus with pomegranate molasses, hummus with basil, I mean they mix a traditional dish with a whole different ingredient to make some sort of a fusion! I’ve also noticed how some chefs use dates hysterically, especially in Arab Gulf dishes; imagine hummus with dates! This is absurd!
Why did they name you the king of kibbeh?
It was the Lebanese Chef, Mr. Marwan Shadeed, who honored me with this title. I first learned how to make kibbeh from a person named Khaled Dawoud back when I was working at the Sheraton Hotel along with other well-experienced individuals; I learned making many kibbeh recipes and from different regions, whether it was Damascus, Aleppo, or other Syrian regions. Either way, Damascus kibbeh varieties are sacred to me, whether it was grilled, fried or cooked in buttermilk. Whenever my family and I gather around a meal, I like to prepare my most favorite dishes, including buttermilk kibbeh (kibbeh labanieh) grilled kibbeh, meat shawarma, Indian kebab, and buttermilk zucchini.
When it comes to cooking, the lack of continuous learning is risky. Do you agree with this statement?
Absolutely! Regardless of the profession we choose, we have to learn and develop our skills to meet the market’s demands. And when it comes to cooking, the lack of continuous learning will render a chef outdated. Therefore, coping with new and emerging technological advances in cooking is not some form of luxury, it is necessity if one needs to maintain a place under the spotlights.
If you would write a cookbook, what topic would you choose?
It would be about the traditional Arab cuisine and would include all sorts of dishes; hot, cold, savory, sweet, you name it. I would also write a book about neo-Arabic cuisine as well.
How did traveling impact you?
Travelling is one of the best things that ever happened in my life; I chose to travel out and about, aiming mainly to develop my skills. Until now, I didn’t settle in one country and I still have a high potential for mobilizing further; I always welcome opportunities no matter where I go. However, I’ve always considered Dubai as my station point because it copes up with everything new, not to mention that it is the cradle for many emerging food trends in addition to how Dubai interacts with other cultures easily and freely. Working in Dubai is one of the most significant turning points in my career which helped me hone the skills I started with after leaving my beloved country.
What fills you with joy?
It is a simple thing actually; craving for a dish that I didn’t eat for a really long time, preparing it, and enjoying it. For me, this is the pinnacle of happiness.
What inspires you the most?
My muse comes from the people around me and my customers. I will tell you something weird; I don’t do well with dishes I don’t like, but when it comes to the dishes I like, I excel at making those.
What would advise people considering to join this profession?
My advice to them is to learn the basics in real kitchens where they can find the best staff and right techniques and ingredients regardless of the financial outcome, even if it was working for free. They should also consider learning new ideas from social media posts and what not, bearing in mind that this is not sufficient to make them good chefs. Lastly, I just want to say learn the basics and start with your traditional cuisines. Once you learn it well, you can move on to master other cuisines.
What city do you wish to work in?
London, I wish to open a prestigious Arab restaurant there.
If you had the opportunity, as chef, to do whatever you want for a whole year and regardless of the expenses, what would you do?
Travel around the world to try new dishes and learn about different cultures. I also wish to subscribe in a gym and swim too.
At what extent do you rely on technology in your cooking?
I use it with precaution in order to avoid abusing it. In my opinion, traditional cooking techniques leave a good influence on a dish’s flavor. Think of it like plastic surgeries; we refuge to it when necessary, and the same goes for augmenting cooking with technology; use it when you have to and not so excessively or you will mess up the shape and essence of a dish.
What is your highest expectation?
I will always be ambitious to work with the best company, the best team and the most famous restaurant. Whatever God chooses for me is good.
Highlights in Chef Mahmoud’s career:
Chef Efranjyeh worked in many high-end restaurants, including:
- Jumeirah Zabeel Saray, Dubai- Al Nafoorah Restaurant – (Best Middle Eastern Restaurant Food and Travel Dubai 2016(Al Nafoorah)
- Jumeirah at Etihad Towers, Abu Dhabi–
- Armani Hotel at Burj Khalifa, Dubai- The tallest tower in the world-
- Four Seasons Riyadh at Kingdom Center Hotel-
He also managed to successfully develop and deliver 6 local brands into the UAE market, ensuring the project is delivered in line with the individual brand and meeting the agreed terms whilst remaining in regulatory boundaries.
As part of the growth strategy, Chef Efranjyeh also has successfully led further development of Homestead and bakery, street food venues, and drive thru’s, throughout the UAE. He also oversaw the menu development and recipe engineering, HSE compliance, licensing, menu tastings, marketing, packaging and design.
Thanks a lot, Mahmoud!