At the tender age of 14, there was one thing that Mohammad Ali Yazdi would do every day without fail – join his mother in the kitchen, and watch bright-eyed as she worked her magic in this abode of delicious aromas, sizzling food and his favourite dishes. After, it was time for his own play there – mixing and matching flavours and spices for ambitious creations made from scratch – Emirati Machboos, Salona, pizzas, burgers…
There was one special success.
A mysteriously delicious dish, that he would take to school for his classmates to try, telling them it was chicken. The delight was instant – a chorus of: “Wow, this is amazing chicken! Thank you so much.”
“But no, it was egg,” laughs Chef Ali. “I used to play mix and match with egg. I just did an egg scramble with a spice mix I created – but the technique of scrambling it was in thick chunks. It was like chunky pieces of egg that they used to get the picture of chicken, but it was an act. It’s a trick at the end of the day.” It was his signature at the time.
Now, 14 years and some business ventures later, he stands at the helm of an award-winning homegrown burger joint chain in the UAE, SLAW, poised to expand into India, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and more – experimenting in the kitchen every day to bring new and innovative burgers to the food scene here.
An explorer at heart
“The dream I have until till today is to serve good food, quality food around the world, not only Dubai. To give good food to people, what they deserve, give them value for their money,” says Chef Ali. “We always bring brands from out of the country to the UAE. Why don't we get a brand from UAE, from the heart of Dubai, to somewhere else – New York, London to Tokyo.“
His is a tale of passion, grit and daily reinvention. For his studies – he juggled culinary courses with a biomedical engineering degree, running a small side job to sell cookies.
“I stopped it after like two years of opening – I keep on changing because I love to explore different things,” says Chef Ali. “I kept on exploring, different places, different restaurants – which I opened pop-ups, I did some catering businesses, I opened another restaurant business.”
The dream I have till today is to serve good food, quality food around the world, not only Dubai. To give good food to people, what they deserve, give them value for their money. We always bring brands from out of the country to the UAE. Why don't we get a brand from UAE, from the heart of Dubai, to somewhere else – New York, London to Tokyo.
Including culinary courses here and in the UK, he opened a waffle station at 21, a coffee shop in Abu Dhabi, worked at an Iranian restaurant and even managed a franchise of Charlie’s Philly Steak - earning a livelihood, testing the waters across the country and making sure not to repeat mistakes.
“I had one professor who told us that a human needs to be an ocean of information, but to the depth of one meter,” says Chef Ali. He took that advice fully to heart. “I try to grab and absorb information from every restaurant I go, every place I travel, I try to get different inspiration, experience different cultures, different foods, different senses, advancing my level in culinary arts..
“My personal view is that we need to learn from masters and get bits of it from everyone… it’s experience more than books, that’s why I didn’t go for degrees, I went for the joy of food…. Then, I unleashed my dragons with SLAW, of all the experience, all these years of my journey.” His love for burgers stretches back to his childhood, when crispy, fried chicken from a fast food restaurant would sometimes be his reward. “You know, if I studied well, my mother would take me there so I have a special love for (it)…That’s why I was like okay, I know what I’m going to do – add both of my favourites – a beef burger, and crispy chicken, and make them together.”
Despite the challenge of opening a week before the 2020 lockdown, and having to reopen the next year – SLAW has served over 250,000 burgers to almost 70,000 customers, growing from a staff of 7 to 45.
Reimagining burgers – a language for all
“I always tell to my customers - a burger a day keeps the doctor away,” says Chef Ali. “… that’s a joke, yeah.”
Meet some of his innovations - a classic beef burger, except with strawberry chili jam and pickled okra, their Mama’s burger, which was a special hit with customers, he tells me. A fried chicken patty coated with fire noodles and the notoriously spicy ‘buldak’ mayo sauce – Slam Yum. On his Instagram food blog, he makes sushi-inspired burgers with a fried rice patty and a raw fish in sauce mixture on top.
“I love burgers. A lot,” says Chef Ali. “It’s just my love, and I believe it’s a simple choice. Whenever I go to any restaurant, and I don’t know the restaurant, and I see a burger, I order a burger. I believe that’s the spot – you cannot go wrong with it - beef, cheese sauce and a bun.”
He prioritises local resources as well. One of the burgers on his menu is made from UAE’s very own Hammour fish sourced from local markets. He says, “Hammour fish and Shaari fish – these two are much loved by Emiratis, and they are available in the Arabian Gulf, so it’s been consumed on a regular basis by our people.”
What makes a perfect burger?
First and foremost, fresh and high-quality ingredients. He explains for both a chicken and beef burger: “A perfectly golden fried chicken fillet, perfectly fresh chicken and dill pickles and sauce – to balance the flavour of acidity and crunch, and the texture.
“For me, a perfect beef burger is a proper balance of fat and proper meat, lean meat. With the right amount of pickle and American cheese.”
Back in 2020, exactly one week after SLAW’s launch, the lockdown began. All the time that Chef Ali was home, he made burgers every day with his small fryer.
“I remember I gained almost 10 kilos because of trying loads of food, exploring lots of flavours to master this burger, especially for the customers – I was happy with the outcome.”
Every morning, he prepares the special sauces for the burgers before entrusting the cooking to his staff, and in the evening is his time for coming up with unexpected recipes for the monthly special. It’s been 16 months of the business, and 16 specials so far.
“Burger lovers are increasing every single day – the demand for burgers and burger spots are increasing. The number of burger joints are increasing as the competition is getting tougher. There’s a national hype for burgers. It’s the food for the heart that everyone likes,” adds Chef Ali.
A kitchen in the back of his mind, and UAE flavours
Being able to reinvent a beloved dish hasn’t come easy. There’s a secret – a personal kitchen he can go to for trying new recipes, anytime, anywhere.
He says, “Sometimes, I’m sitting, and people think I just blank out, but in the back of my mind I have a kitchen. I prepare the food there – I add this, I chop this, I add the sauce, and I serve it.
“Most of the inspiration for my food, it comes right before I sleep - once, I launch a burger, El Camino, I literally made this burger while sleeping, in a dream.” He once went into his monthly special photoshoot, and a made the burger straight away – which even became a bestseller.
It is this drive for a perfectly balanced, new burger that motivates him. He says, “Since I know the knowledge of flavours and spices, I mix and match flavours – that’s what helps me keep on moving forward.”
Sometimes, I’m sitting, and people think I just blank out, but in the back of my mind, I have a kitchen. I prepare the food there – I add this, I chop this, I add the sauce, and I serve it.
He also looks at local resources and Emirati flavours for inspiration. “There are some notes of like Emirati culture, traditions, spices, understandings, sensing, feeling, because we have lots of spices … sometimes, when I get time I go to the Deira spice market, I explore the spices, I smell them, I taste them. I sense them – sometimes, I take it in the palm of my hand, I add black pepper, rosemary and this and that – I create an aroma, and use it in one of my dishes.” Coriander, black pepper, cumin feature in his spicy fries recipe.
However, there are times when his mind lab’s creations take a mischievous turn. Inspired by his seemingly evil laugh, a social media series titled ‘Burger Nightmares’ sees influencers take a quiz and try a strange burger by Chef Ali if they lose.
He says, “One of the things I did is – cheese sauce is famous, I added some kiwi puree to it and some green food dye so it makes it like some weird, gooey, green slime burger sauce.” Lamb feet without spices, jellied chicken feet with pickled eggs, and boiled camel eyeballs are some other versions.
For the last one, the influencer had said, “No, you’re too extreme. It was a real nightmare of my entire life.”
Being the man of the show
Nevertheless, being in charge of multiple business – the branches of SLAW, the Next Door Café and The Next Door Kitchen (which is currently franchised out) has meant a 365-days-a-year work life, one where he dons many hats to keep the show running.
“The other day, a customer was like, ’I see you in the bar, I see you at the cashier, I see you in the kitchen… who are you?’” says Chef Ali. He had answered then, laughing, “… I need to be everywhere. The bar is busy, I go help them, cashier’s busy I go help them, waiters, cleaners, you can see me sometimes taking a broomstick and cleaning the floor, sometimes in the kitchen, cooking a burger, and anywhere else. “
He’s up at 7 am sharp, out for a jog, swim or even a horse riding session first thing in the day. After his morning cooking, he addresses the staff. “I talk to customers to welcome them, ask their experience, try to serve them myself trying to maybe cut the burger for them and try to be around them as much as I can, and try to be a motivation for my team members.”
Part of his daily routine is talking to suppliers, checking the new prices of food items after inflation, reading books…
Chef Ali adds, “I have my golden saffron tea, and it keeps me moving till the end of the night. After I finish here sometimes I go to the Khawaneej branch or I check on the items to make sure everything’s ready for the next day operation. Almost, everyday I am the last person to leave the restaurant.” It is 2 or 3 am when he finally heads to sleep.
He had faced a lot of opposition at the start of SLAW, when people told him it was going to fail, to pull back because the pandemic was starting.
“Sometimes they give you great constructive comments. Sometimes they give you destructive comments. All are welcome, I love everyone. I would love to see you back again, give me a chance and I’ll make it up to you.”
The pillars of his journey
“My mother is my number one inspiration in cooking. She’s a very good cook – I love her food,” says Chef Ali.
In the arduous journey of being a food entrepreneur, family support and encouragement has been key – as has the mentorship of his business partner, Mohammed Al Hathboor, whom he sees as an older brother. “My family plays a very important role. And with the help of Mohammed as well, we put together - we brainstorm the days where I'm very tired, I'm very low.”
Did he face any taboos? Chef Ali immediately says, “No, no, it was unique. As an Arab family we love always to have the older child to be like doctors, engineers so being a chef was a little hard to digest or adjust. But, it was quite accepted when they saw the results – because they loved the taste. They used to love it.
“No, but some people used to make fun of me – like, ‘what is he doing, go out and play some football, what do you want in a kitchen. But, I love this thing.’”
He has also received support from Emiratis and Arabs. “75 – 80 per cent of our guests are Emirati and Middle Eastern,” says Chef Ali.
The next stop is going international – which means more time developing recipes to suit the flavours of different countries.
Opening a food business in the UAE?
It took 13 months of preparation to launch SLAW, and Dh3.6 million initial investment – which he funded privately from previous businesses, along with his partner, Mohammed Al Hathboor. For each branch, it costs roughly Dh90,000 to Dh100,000 monthly to run it, for two branches a total of around Dh200,000.
What are some financial challenges he faced? “The rents are high, depending on the location of stores. The construction - custom items made specifically for my purpose, also cost more.”
Tips to run a successful food business:
1. Consistency: Selling a good item? Maintain the same quality throughout
Chef Ali says, “Well, if they want to enter the food and beverage business, I really suggest – if they start something, continue with the same. If they start with selling a good item, please continue selling the same throughout your life throughout the journey of that restaurant or brand or process.
“Never, ever drop your quality no matter what. Make the item out of stock or shut down temporarily if it’s not available on the market. But don't reduce the quality. Don't sacrifice for the money, your product. Keep up the … consistency.
“There are lots of fast food brands I remember when I was maybe 10 years old till this age, they are the same flavour. No matter whatever happened, when you start with the certain standards in your business. Keep the same forever, throughout all this to be successful.”
2. Re-invest profits into the business for at least 5 years
“I believe that at least for the first five years you need to invest back into the business to make it grow and become stronger and stable in the market… make sure it is a sustained success,” says Chef Ali.
3. Have a sound social media strategy
“It is a new thread of life,” says Chef Ali. “TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, Facebook, Youtube – they help a lot because they spread the word to a massive number of audiences. It helps us a lot – visual things, they see it and want to sense it and they come first to try them.”
- With inputs from Falah Gulzar, Assistant Social Media Editor, and Justin Varghese, Your Money Editor
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