Dubai: A supportive family, a scholarship to pursue his dream, a graduate from one of Dubai’s prestigious institutions, an artist, a chef, and a son – the never-ending list goes on for 20-year-old Emirati chef Ahmad Fardan. But here’s what anyone who speaks to him really sees, a hat of humility beneath his chef’s toque.
The budding chef may have graduated from Dubai College of Tourism, but all it took was his father’s secret recipe of an Emirati Chicken Mandi, cooked in an underground oven buried somewhere within the Arabian sands, to give him his vision into the culinary arts.
But before we look into what he is today, here’s a peek into how he got there…
The eureka moment
Ahmad’s first choice was never to be a chef. Born into a family of artists, each member has explored the field of art one way or another, and that’s where he believed his future lay.
He mentions – while growing up – the field of art definitely had an influence on him, especially because his house was filled with artwork, sculptures and clothing designed exclusively by his family members. “I grew up in a household with art on the walls, sculptures near the windowsills and tastefully designed architecture, which was really minimalistic,” he said.
So naturally, he was inclined to pursue a career in the field. As a kid, Ahmad found himself in the halls of Emirates International School in Jumeirah, where he envisioned a future in the video-game designing industry, especially because he studied visual arts in high school as well. However, like everyone’s first options, things didn’t turn out for him the way it wanted to, despite being skilled at illustrations: “I didn’t find any enjoyment in trying it out, first hand.”
So what changed?
His father – that’s where and from whom Ahmad drew his inspiration.
“He is the most hospitable individual I have ever seen. From always being the host of our family gatherings (pre-pandemic), to inviting family and friends to join us on camping trips in the desert, to making sure everyone is accounted for with their dietary and other needs… when they say ‘you can’t make everyone happy’, I can say that my father has found a way to do just that,” said Ahmad.
Ahmad remembers a time when his father, Mohammad Fardan, organised camping trips for the entire family. It was a time where they would drive into the deserts of Dubai under the scorching sun, only to camp out there for the night, where the heat was replaced with a cool breeze of the Arabian sands.
“We learned to set up the tents and collect logs and twigs for a campfire to roast our marshmallows. My father would always (as still is) be in-charge of the heart-warming main meal for dinner. Upon waking up from sleeping under the stars, an aunt of mine was always in charge (and still is) of preparing her coveted Chai Haleeb for everyone to enjoy. Another aunt was in charge of our early morning breakfasts, which featured Emirati dishes, right before our departure back to the city as the sun would start to rise,” said Ahmad.
Hospitality isn’t just about being nice or saying the right things
At 17 years, Ahmad began his journey by waiting on tables, and that was before he was given a scholarship by the Ministry of Education in the UAE, to pursue his dreams of being a chef.
He started with an internship, like many teenagers seeking work experience anywhere they might find an opportunity. It was a turning point. As a shy child, he developed his social confidence by being the point of contact between the guests and the chefs at the J5 Hotel in Deira. This, also laid the foundation for him to understand customer service and satisfaction better.
Soon, he found his place at the heart of the hotel – the kitchen, which fuelled his passion to learn how to prepare culinary delights.
Today, Ahmad continues to fulfil his passion by pursuing his Master’s degree in International Management Institute (IMI), Switzerland, where he’s learning about hotel management, contemporary cooking techniques, molecular gastronomy and European cuisines. He is presently in Dubai, interning at Emirates Towers Hotel.
With a busy schedule for the six months that Ahmad’s here, the one thing he doesn’t compromise on is his Thursdays, where he spends his time with family. He told Gulf News what they’re usually up to: “I always spend time with family every Thursday to stay in touch my family – be it aunts, uncles, or just a trip with my cousins, within the confines of the COVID-19 protocols, of course.”
But Ahmad isn’t just limited to his time out with his family. Chances are, you could catch him practising a few new recipes at home, discovering new shops for equipment used in professional kitchens (to try and emulate that experience at home), or even finding new ways to make home-cooking easier and consistent.
Of course, like every other 20-year-old, Ahmad does make time for himself by playing video games, catching up on social media, and pop culture as well. But here’s what makes him unique…
An attitude of gratitude
Ahmad’s chest swells with pride knowing that he was one of the students who received a scholarship from the Ministry of Education in 2020. “Being eligible for a scholarship meant I had to be a high achiever in high school and apply to be accepted like any other student. Being one, if not the first, student to go on an International Culinary Arts Scholarship at the Dubai College of Tourism (DCT), meant that it took a while after my acceptance by the University before finally being granted the scholarship and having it take effect. I am forever grateful that the UAE provides its students with great opportunities with education, making it easier for us to follow our passions.”
Graduating from DCT was a rewarding experience. Ahmad said that his first culinary instructor, Chef Christian Biesbrouck, was an excellent teacher, and he went beyond the books of culinary techniques, business management, health and safety, to teach each and every one on how to improve one’s wellbeing, habits and will to learn, which further motivated him to think about setting up a business in the future.
When asked if he’s ever questioned this career path, he said that most chefs question their career path during the initial five years they work in the field, and that’s what determines if it makes or breaks the chef. The key to sustaining in a hands-on industry is to stay passionate about what they do. Ahmad, has completed three years and he said: “I will definitely be amongst those that call themselves a chef and truly embrace the lifestyle and profession, even after the five years are over. You will be seeing a lot of me in the future.”
Stereotyping is common, and the hard truth is that it still exists one way or another. Although Ahmad personally doesn’t know anyone who has followed their passion for culinary to an industry level, he feels it is mainly because of the stigma that surrounds the profession, where people often associate being in the kitchen as a woman’s job, and not a role they could play as part of their actual job, which could be anything they want to do.
“It is because of this [stigma], which made it difficult for people to talk openly about their interest and express it in a manner that was meaningful. Being in the kitchen has been looked at as feminine, which meant most males were not exposed to it when they was younger.
“I do not want the profession and the interest of a chef to be exclusive to females just because it is seen as feminine by some people. Even though at an industry level of restaurants and hotels there would, at times, seem to be an imbalanced ratio of males to females working at the establishment, but this somehow does not sway the narrative away from that it is a feminine profession,” said Ahmad.
One of the main talking points of everyone’s lives is food. Be it stories surrounding food, events with great catering services, weddings with glamorous meals and cake designs, work meetings with snacks, birthdays with amazing home cooked meals, etc., culinary and food is at the essence of what it means to be alive.
“One of the main talking points of everyone’s lives is food. Be it stories surrounding food, events with great catering services, weddings with glamorous meals and cake designs, work meetings with snacks, birthdays with amazing home cooked meals, etc., culinary and food is at the essence of what it means to be alive.”
Today lot of students in Ahmad’s age group aren’t given the chance to follow their passion for culinary arts, which is why he aims for a massive change towards a more accepting future for all.
“To deny someone the opportunity to follow their dream of being proficient in this field simply because ‘they do not fit the gender stereotype’, is to deny them the freedom to express their passion and live their life. To be in service of others and making sure others have an experience of a lifetime should be everyone’s job. Learning more about what makes us human and what allows us to continue living makes sense for everyone to learn, not only those that found a passion for the culinary world.
“Rather than expressing through words how I feel about being part of a ‘movement’ of a man entering a profession which ‘socially’ was seen as a feminine path, I would rather let the test of time show how far I can go in an industry that was not much explored by Emirati men,” added Ahmad.
A humble goal for the future
His main goal is to remain humble while expanding his reach as a chef, and as an individual within the culinary industry: “To be an expert in my craft yet never lose the drive to learn something new every day, because the moment a person refuses to learn I believe they have stopped living.”
Finding comfort amidst the chaos
Like most people, Ahmad does find comfort knowing that he’s coming closer to his goal. His true ‘comfort’ is actually when he steps out of his comfort zone, whilst staying true to his roots. Because he yearns to learn every day and seizes each opportunity that comes his way.
“There is no good or bad food,” said Fardan. “Enjoy everything in moderation to keep yourself safe and healthy. I encourage everyone to learn basic culinary techniques to use in their everyday lives. Who knows, maybe you will find a passion for it just like I did. Keeping a few basic recipes in your arsenal can be a lifesaver when you need to quickly whip up a meal.”