WHAT FAWAZ SEES AS A LOGICALLY ORGANIZED DISH MIGHT GET SEEN BY OTHERS AS A JUMBLE
Fawaz H. Al Alomaim takes pride in being called cook, rather than chef, for all chefs started out as cooks and it takes loads of experience and practice to be called a chef. We have put together a thrilling interview with this distinguished, and somewhat eccentric, Kuwaiti cook, who contributed to establishing a number of restaurants in addition to managing some of them with Chef Asmaa Albahar, including Smat restaurant in Qatar, which received a “best Qatari restaurant” award. Moreover, Fawaz also manages “Gahwetna” a Qatari café and breakfast restaurant, and Jwala restaurant as well. Additionally, Fawaz Alomaim owns a food prepping company called Numnum Chef, which he is currently re-establishing.
Here goes the interview!
By Hadeel Atalla
FIRSTLY, WHAT WAS THE SPARK THE IGNITED YOUR GIFT FOR COOKING?
I studied marketing in the USA. So, I spent a long-time living in Miami, Florida, as a student. During that time, my love for cooking emerged and I was known among my American and Latino friends for my passion for cooking as I worked as the mosque cook during my last years in my area. A large number of Indian, Pakistani, African and Arab mosque goers loved the Majboos and chicken Kabsa I made and they also loved my Ouzi as well! This way, I gained a reputation for my good cooking skills.
Then, when I got back to Kuwait, I started cooking at home so much that my wife convinced me to start a blog. At first, I was not so sure about the idea, but she took it on herself to make it work, and that was my intro into the culinary world. I have garnered a reputation for a recipe that everyone liked even though I was planning for a whole different recipe; a mistake that led to creating my special Dijon chicken recipe, a recipe that everyone liked that I started selling and it was the reason why I became famous. Later on, I managed to open 18 restaurants as a consultant chef in addition to designing the menus of each restaurant.
WHAT WAS THE MOST MEMORABLE SITUATION YOU HAVE OF THAT TIME?
When I was in Miami, I decided to cook Majboos for a “multicultural” potluck my friends and I arranged. That time, I asked my late mom, God bless her soul, to give me the recipe. Then, I went out and purchased the ingredients and started cooking. Unfortunately, I ended up tossing it in the garbage and made a quick Biryani dish instead and everything went great!
WHAT IS YOUR COOKING STYLE?
My cooking style is quite eclectic; simply, I would either take an old recipe and make it differently or pick different aspects from different cuisines to come up with something new. Still, I always make sure that my dishes have a sense of familiarity and authenticity without compromising to the extent my dishes look bizarre, repulsive or uncanny.
This style of mine comes from a gift I was blessed with; the ability to construct dishes logically and make my own recipes through inspiration rather than imitation or simply following some written recipe. All I do is just imagine a dish, and build it up with the ingredients I feel confident and the results are always great. Still, this gift of mine needs to be nurtured constantly; my biggest enemy is inaction, because it kills innovation and makes all that I have built in vein.
WHY DON’T YOU LIKE WHEN OTHERS CALL YOU “CHEF”?
I know for a fact that real chefs hate it when others call themselves chefs even if they lack the simplest requirements to hold such a title and I respect such perspective. On the other hand, it should also be noted that those who are not proud of the title “cook” do not deserve to be called chefs later. Originally speaking, we are all cooks and we must not renounce such title.
DID YOU LEARN COOKING OR DEPEND SOLELY ON YOUR TALENT?
I have never learned cooking, attended a culinary institution or even have a training session. I’m simply self-taught.
Anyway, my love for food and restaurants traces back to my childhood; even the most basic sandwich was so precious to me. When it comes to cooking, I have educated myself via the TV and later through Instagram where I found my first chef acquaintances who influenced me immensely and then I started learning things my own.
However, there are some things that I don’t know, and I hate to be put into a position when people call me a chef then I look to them like a total ignorant for some info I don’t know, hence the reason why I insist on calling myself a cook. I don’t feel embarrassed to say that there are some recipes that I still haven’t managed to master yet.
The idea of studying culinary arts and cooking doesn’t seem like a bad idea, but frankly I don’t see myself going in that direction. It just suits me to work my way without any restrictions or going by the book whenever I make a recipe and exclusively add this ingredient with that or simply stick with stringent procedures to pick the highest quality there is. I can use everything and anything as long as my food tastes good and grow to my customers liking; this is my golden rule.
Many people studied cooking and then became so full of themselves, while others like me who gained experience because they love this job act so humbly yet achieved commendable success, and there are many examples for brilliant chefs who didn’t attend cooking schools, such as Jaime Oliver, the richest chef in the world. He didn’t study cooking, yet he is a trailblazer!
Additionally, I believe that good cooking relies heavily on one’s passion, or soul, for cooking, which is not something that can be taught, it should be passed from one to another. Whenever I get hired to prepare a menu for a restaurant, the owner strikes a deal with me to work with his cooks until I influence them with the passion I have, and of course they also add their own personal touch to the food they cook.
YOU SAID THAT THERE ARE NO STRICT LAWS WHEN IT COMES TO COOKING. THEN WHAT MAKES COOKING WORK?
You can become innovative through trial and error and learning from others. You are not necessarily forced to follow someone’s advice that this works or that doesn’t. And sometimes, those who we thought were wrong have proven to be the best teachers we have ever had. Just bear in mind that you may not know everything, but practicing will help you find what you are looking for. Without practice, you will not be able to create, mix, nor assemble. Furthermore, practice brings out new ideas and new dishes to make. We are lucky that there is a wide variety of methodologies to follow and innovation can be done within a controlled environment. But back then, innovation was born of mere coincidence.
DOES THE KUWAITI COMMUNITY STILL PERSIST ON STEREOTYPES THAT DECIDE WHO MUST CHOOSE COOKING AS A CAREER?
It is unfortunate to say that the Kuwaiti community lacks progressiveness when it comes to this type of work and many families still refuse to the idea of their sons or daughters choosing cooking as a job. Personally speaking, my mother utterly disagreed with my decision to become a cook. Ironically, that was a good thing; after all, the protagonist in any movie will not become the hero/heroine until the script writer puts challenges in his or her way to tackle. My mother’s objection tested my love for cooking, was it real or just a passing phase? Then all of a sudden, my passion towards cooking blossomed and became known for it.
My mother insisted that I should get educated first, and so I fulfilled her desire. I was miserable to be honest, but I got my degree then went after my passion. I became responsible for all the decisions I chose or made.
Honestly speaking, cooking or culinary arts is not an appealing career here in the Gulf area, compared to the Levant region where they have numerous cooking schools and institutions. We don’t have even a single cooking institution here simply because no one here takes this job seriously.
SOME THINK THAT YOU REBEL ON THE TRADITIONAL CUISINE WITH YOUR COOKING STYLE. WHAT DO SAY TO THEM?
It makes me chuckle when people say that I am ruining our traditional cuisine. In my personal opinion, traditional cuisines are very important, including on the international level. Traditional cuisines are the base which innovative chefs base their works on and progress further. Through traditional cuisines, we can explore people’s taste, mix ingredients together, and create stories, shapes and drawings with each dish we make. Luckily, we have the opportunity to assemble different cooking techniques, flavors and presentations according to preset methodologies.
What I have observed is that there is no such thing as an independent cuisine. For instance, the Syrian cuisine depends in some of its dishes on the Turkish cuisine, meaning that every cuisine depends on the other and all those cuisines are created by the cultures it associates and interacts with. If we look at the Kuwaiti cuisine, we can see that it has Indian, Levant and Turkish origins and all cuisines must have borrowed something from other cuisines. If people of African origins become a significant percentage of the Kuwaiti people, then our cuisine will change and it will become familiar to us.
THEN, WHY DO SOME PEOPLE HAVE RESERVATIONS ABOUT YOUR COOKING STYLE, WHICH SEEMS QUITE BOLD TO THEM?
They utterly refuse my cooking style and call my dishes “jumble” or “chaos”. Those who don’t understand the depth of my recipes will definitely barrage me with criticism. However, I intend to reply back with a cook book that I will call “Barabis Fawaz” (Fawaz’s Jumbles) and I plan to have a cooking show with the same name too. I will prove to them that my jumbly recipes are so organized and logical. As for what comes with what, Italians, for example, serve eggplant with chocolate. Even though I wasn’t the person who came up with it, a guy cussed at me when I served it to him.
I am no crazy; people in the Levant region make eggplant jam, and we eat a dish called “Mahmar Shakar” which consists of fish and a side of rice with sugar. The whole deal here is that there are some dishes that we are not so familiar with; people in Kuwait have no problem eating sugar with rice and fish, but eggplant and chocolate is absolutely sacrilegious. Either way, I managed to intimidate them with my well-calculated risks and that is a good thing.
Our biggest problem is that we underestimate the power of our palates; God created our tongues with the ability to identify five distinct tastes; bitter, acidic, salty, sweet and spicy. Once we mix all the tastes together, each item will fall in its own location.
WHAT DISTINGUISHES THE KUWAITI CUISINE IN COMPARISON WITH THE REST OF THE GULF CUISINES?
The Kuwaiti cuisine shares the same origin with the other Gulf cuisines. Yet, Kuwait is known for having the largest number of restaurants and its cuisine is the most progressive. Kuwait has around 111 thousand restaurants and coffee shops, not to mention meals sold from homes. We also have numerous food marketing and selling applications.
Additionally, we are known for using less spices in our dishes, and even though the Gulf restaurant is known for its fattiness and dependence on carbs and meat, we may seek healthier alternatives, although the taste may differ a bit.
WHAT INGREDIENT DO YOU LIKE THE MOST THAT YOU FEEL IS THE CLOSEST TO YOUR HEART?
I love sumac very much that I would use it in sweets if possible. To me, sumac is as important as black pepper and I really wish to add it as a table condiment. I prefer the reddish variant of it due to the citrusy taste it has. If possible, I would make myself a sumac perfume!
WHAT IS YOUR SIGNATURE DISH?
I didn’t master any of the Gulf dishes yet, but my work is to match between different cuisines and mix it together to come up with a totally different fusion. Whenever I make a dish solely or with a team, I do my best to make it look tricky; simple yet hard to make. Once our customers look at it, they will feel curious about how did we come up with such a dish! I’m not just an innovative cook, but I am also well versed with many cuisines; I am a jack-of-all-trades, I must know something from everything, but such knowledge may fluctuate from a subject matter to another, still I try to learn something different from each cuisine or I will not be as innovative as I am now. I learn things on a daily basis for many reasons like presenting my dishes in a stylish fashion.
YOU HAVE ACHIEVED SIGNIFICANT SUCCESS IN QATAR, WHICH IS BECOMING A NEW DESTINATION FOR COOKS AND DIVERSE CUISINES. HOW SUCCESSFUL HAVE YOU BEEN THERE?
Qatar is doing its best to develop tourism on many levels, including the formal one, through throwing out annual festivals like the food festival which was my gateway to work there and they have given me a nice opportunity to manage three important restaurants there. I feel honored that the Qatari people have embraced me as one of their own.
Everyday a new restaurant opens in Qatar, which gives it a good reputation as an attraction for different ethnicities and cultures. Later, all those customers will give their feedback on dishes which will be tweaked constantly to appeal them more. In my opinion, Qatari restaurants are successful and that is evident on numerous levels.
WHAT COUNTRY DO YOU WISH TO WORK IN?
That would be England! I feel a weird chemistry towards it and I would love to learn from English chefs. Challenging countries do open my appetite to compete. I would love to work in Egypt as well, but Gulf food may not grow to their liking since it may seem weird to them. Still, I can see potential there, even if it seemed quite slight. I hope to make something significant in both countries.
WHAT DOES YOUR RESTAURANT, NUMNUM CHEF, MEAN TO YOU?
Numnum chef is my most favorite among the restaurants I worked in; it is my home, it is the place were my “jumbles” came to life, and good work was my prize. I am not so hasty about it, but I am looking forward to the day when I will be called “Chef”. It would also be marvelous to open a restaurant in Europe.
IS THERE SOMETHING THAT YOU PREFER TO EAT THE MOST?
After being diagnosed with diabetes, I am no longer allowed to eat sweets or carbs. However, my job as a cook dictates that I must taste dishes. Anyways, I really love eating meals full of proteins as long as it doesn’t hurt me, such as eating crispy cheese, which is a cheese that I fry until it fully melts and become crunchy. Then, I eat it like chips after it cools down.
WHAT SPOOKS YOU THE MOST?
Fire, I am afraid of it. I always ask other cooks to ignite the gas top for me due to a previous incident that I had, even though many people tried to help me overcome my phobia.
LASTLY, IS THERE A RECIPE DO YOU LIKE TO SHARE WITH US?
Ok, how about trying our labneh and zaatar pudding? It can be eaten as a main breakfast course or a side dish with other meals.
The ingredients are sumac, zaatar pastries, labneh, lemon, an egg, heavy cream, mozzarella or cheddar, black pepper, and salt (as much as you prefer).
First, mix the labneh, egg, lemon juice, cream and black pepper in the blender until it makes a homogenous mixture. Then, turn the zaatar pastry into small or medium size pieces and pour the mixture over it until it is fully soaked and sprinkle cheese on top. Next, put it in the oven until its surface becomes brown and crispy. Take it out of the oven and pour olive oil and sumac mix over the pudding. You may add boneless chicken pieces or chicken shawarma or beef to make a juicy entre.
Thank you Fawaz.