Mohammed Jalal, Executive Chef at Trans- Oceans Company, and the pleasure of cooking on ships
Mohammed Jalal, an Egyptian chef, who had the fortune to work aboard ships on the high seas when he joined a Greek company.
He began his culinary career at the Hilton Worldwide Hotel Chain, and received his master’s degree in Kitchen Management from the University of Oregon, USA. This interview is truly sea-flavoured.
When did your passion for cooking begin?
I remember it all happened when I was very young. I was in the kitchen with my mother as I always wanted to help her, and I’ll never forget how supportive she was. She was asking me to try and not to give up. I remember that one day we wanted to prepare an Egyptian keftah from rice and there was no modern meat grinder. There was only a “hun”, which was a long wooden handle and other hollow pieces that could accommodate the components: Sprinkle rice, coriander, parsley, meat and onions and from that time until this moment, I have not found anything that tasted better than food prepared with hand tools. On that day we did not have enough time to prepare it that way; I told my mother to use the cooked rice rather than the raw dough; the result was wonderful and we experienced something amazing and new.
Did your family support your decision to be a chef?
When I decided to study tourism and hotels, specifically cooking, my father was strongly opposed. He wanted me to become a teacher and have a secure job and he did not want me to be hundreds of kilometres away from him, where I had to work in hotels far away from my hometown.
Over the course of a year, my father remained angry until I made the first order on the oath. Then he attended the ceremony and he looked proud of me.
I would love to mention the first people from whom I learned so mucht. They are the Academic Chef, Massad Al-Tlabs and the Pastry Chef Shukri Abed and I am so grateful to them.
When did you realize you were on the right path?
One day we were preparing a buffet of foods from different countries of the world. On the Indian Buffet, I prepared “chicken Masala” and there were Indian guests, when they tasted the food, they asked to meet the chef who prepared the dish, and when I came they thanked me and said they are living in America and that was the first time since leaving their country, they had eaten such delicious food. The most amazing thing was when one of them told me that I prepared the chicken with the same flavour his mother does.
When I was looking for a new experience, I went to an interview and met the Greek Khawaja (in our Egyptian dialect). He looked at my certificates and when he found out that I worked at the Hilton he decided to hire me and he said that the Hilton appoints the best chefs. He directed some questions to me, and after answering, he smiled gently and said, “We’ll be lucky to have a chef like you”.
What about your journey into cooking?
At the beginning, I was interested in the Italian cuisine and when I travelled to Greece my passion turned towards seafood dishes and I combined them with meat.
My travels around the world have allowed me to combine different cultures and introduce our Arab cuisine in a modern way. I always take the advice of a German chef named Peter to cherish of every recipe.
What is the most important characteristic of the Greek cuisine?
Greek cuisine is characterized as healthy, fat free and rich in nutritional value because of the use of olive oil and fresh herbs. It loves everything that comes out of the sea, but the main dish on the table is fish, and I noticed that it has many dishes in common with the Egyptian cuisine and Mediterranean countries in general. For example, in Egypt the “Musakaa” and in Greece we find it under the name of Musaka but cooked in a different way.
In Egypt we find “Luqmat Alqadi” and in Greece Lokomadas, so I never felt strange in Greece.
How does it differ to be a chef on the sea regarding the challenges and the needed skills?
Before a chef becomes qualified to work on ship, he must receive training on emergency procedures and study theoretically and practically within the Naval Academy. He must have a maritime passport and international certificates, as do all seafarers in the world. Every person on the ship has duties in addition to his original work; when you hear the siren you have to completely forget your career and go immediately to pick up the life jacket heading for the emergency meeting point.
Cooking on the water is not like working on hard ground. You can imagine when the weather is bad how cooking is difficult as the ship swings between the waves, right and left. This is not an easy task.
Do the customer’s choices in food differ when they travel on a ship versus when they are on land?
In normal weather it doesn’t differ, the ship is usually a floating hotel where all kinds of food are served throughout the day, but when the weather is bad the passengers get dizzy and here we offer lots of green apples and bread because they help to counteract sea-sickness. In case they still feel dizzy, they are given medicine for their safety, however, those working on board ships should not take medicines in order not to get used to them.
The life of the sea is beautiful but difficult when it gets rough, then you have to obey orders and abide by the laws of the sea.
You are working at the moment writing about the Egyptian cuisine. What distinguishes your kitchen?
The Egyptian cuisine has diversity of recipes and it is considered one of the oldest cuisines on the earth. Some of the recipes are documented on the walls of the temples of Pharaohs and the idea of hotels began from the days of the Pharaohs during the construction of the temples where there was a place for the workers to eat and sleep.
In the modern era, Egyptian cuisine blends with Turkish, Syrian and Mediterranean cuisine. Egyptian cuisine has sections such as tribal and Bedouin cuisine influenced by Gulf dishes as well as the Scandinavian sea cuisine and Siwa cuisine in relation to the city of Siwa. There are many types of Egyptian bread which we seek to document in our kitchen, which is part of the heritage and in light of what other countries are doing with Egyptian dishes.
What is the hardest part of your job as a chef?
The hardest part is that I miss my family life. My wife has tolerated me being away from her and traveling from country to country. I remember her waiting next to the phone once a week to hear my voice and being assured that I was fine in my first years of work when modern communication was not available.
I am grateful for her patience when I enter the kitchen at night to prepare a new dish and make a mess.
When I am on the sea and hear that one of my children was hurt, my passion turns into a raging fire inside me that would almost make me explode.
How long does a job on the seas usually take?
A journey may take from one to two weeks, as for me though, the journey may last for eight months. Almost every day a new city is called to port. A journey can begin in the Italian city of Genoa, then onto Marseille, Barcelona, Casablanca, the Canary Islands and then back to Genoa.
Even with this exhaustive program, I see my work at sea in a better light than if I were on land because after every trip, I get a long vacation where I spend quite a bit of time with my family.
What are your most recent recipes?
Chicken stewed salmon
It is made of chicken stuffed with salmon, ricotta and mozzarella, served with a cream sauce, shrimp and dill.
Do you have a hobby that will help you relieve the pressure of your career?
I have a hobby decorating and carving vegetables and fruit. Every piece, before it is formed, is like a white canvass and with the skills of a chef it becomes a piece of art to reveal its professionalism. This gives me psychological comfort after finishing the work in a way that satisfies me.
Sculpture is generally one of my tasks in decorating the buffet and I have mastered this skill after many years of training.
You said before that your voyage aboard ships is an experiment that is being discussed in volumes. Could you tell us about a nice adventure?
I’ll never forget the adventure of Jernjer village in Nerwij with its beautiful nature, mountains and waterfalls. I felt I was in heaven. At that time, I decided to go up to the top of the mountain and after a long treck I had a souvenir. However, on the way back I realized that I would not get to the ship on time and while I was running to the port, I met a British lady who was driving a car with her daughter and they offered to drive me to the port and I was in front of the ship with five minutes to spare. Ever since that day in 2006 I have had a friendship with this family.
In my travels around the world I have been shocked by some irritating dishes, such as eating monkey brains and the like. In contrast, some new techniques astonished me and I have enjoyed amazing dishes that have brought joy to my heart such as a fresh oyster dish served with lemon drops and a little salt. I believe that some chefs deserve the title of “chefs of happiness”.
What is the next dream you are pursuing?
I hope to succeed in establishing a culinary academy that will bring together the best chefs to teach a new generation and bring it to the highest level of skill to enable it to compete globally and contribute to improving Egypt’s economy.
This is not just a dream but a useful study that contains precise details.
Can you share one of your favourite recipes?
With pleasure, I recommend one of the Salmon specialties
- 4 pieces of bone-free fillet salmon
- 2 cloves of garlic
- Lemon juice
- Lemon slices
- Chopped parsley
- Dried tomatoes
- Spoon chopped Capri “famous in the mountains of Morocco and Spain”
- Fish Stock
- 2 tablespoons flour
- Salt and black pepper
- Olive oil
- Two spoons butter
- Grape Vinegar
- Season the salmon
- Dredge it in flour, heat a saute pan with olive oil and then saute salmon for 6 minutes.
- Remove the salmon, and in the same pan, put the butter and minced garlic.
- After 30 seconds add the flour, stirring to incorporate.
- Then we add Fish Stock slowly while whisking, a cup of grape vinegar, chopped capri, finely chopped dry tomatoes and lemon slices, and then simmer for a minute.
- Introduce the salmon back into the pan with sauce for 4 minutes and then sprinkle with chopped parsley. Enjoy your meal.
Thank you a lot Mohammed Jalal.
What is your plan for your future as a chef?
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