As a small boy, watching his mother cook in the kitchen was his favourite pastime – the aroma of ghee (clarified butter) as it melted in the warm pan, the spluttering of the spices, and how everything came together in the end to make a delicious meal. Even at the age of seven, Mussabeh Al Kaabi knew that the kitchen is where his heart lies. But, little did he know that he would grow up to be the first professional Emirati chef in the UAE.
Born in 1976 in Hatta, the now 45-year-old chef told the Food by Gulf News team: “At the young age of seven, I would spend hours watching my mum cook. As I grew older, I started learning recipes and tips from her. My biggest inspiration has to be my mum.”
“But, cooking was not for men at that time,” Chef Al Kaabi explained.
“It was not common for men at that time, in Emirati culture, to enter the kitchen to cook. It was something the women of the house or village did. Girls as young as 12 and 13 would start helping their mothers and learning how to cook. It would eventually help them find suitors, as the other women from extended families or neighbouring homes would notice their skills in the kitchen and spread the word.”
But this did not deter him. Away from all the attention, young Al Kaabi was putting his love for cooking and tricks he had learnt from his mother to good practise. “Gradually, I started inviting my friends over and preparing dishes that mum had taught me,” he said.
Cooking for friends
Chef Al Kaabi recollected: “During my teenage years, my friends and I would go out and camp in the deserts. Mum was strict. She insisted we return home by 6pm. So, we would all return in time to prepare supper. We would collect money and distribute tasks. Some would get the groceries, one would collect the firewood, one of us would wash the chicken, and another would chop up the vegetables. But, I always had one task, my favourite – the cooking.”
The first ever proper dish I made was machboos. We called it fogga back then. It is a delicious and nutritious one-pot dish with layers of rice and meat.... my friends loved it whenever I cooked machboos.
“The first ever proper dish I made was machboos. We called it fogga back then. It is a delicious and nutritious one-pot dish with layers of rice and meat. The rice is cooked in a rich meat broth and aromatic spice mix. The dried lemons were the essential ingredient, never to be skipped. Though it took me many tries to perfect the recipe, my friends loved it whenever I cooked machboos,” he added.
In 1992, soon after finishing school, Mussabeh Al Kaabi joined the UAE army. He continued to serve the country’s armed forces for seven years before resigning in 1999.
Back to the kitchen
A year later, it was a career fair that reunited Al Kaabi with his old culinary passion. He said: “In 2000, a career fair took place in Dubai. My friends and I had never been to one, so we went to find out what the hype was all about.
“At the career fair, we saw many private companies had put up stalls with job offerings of all kinds. All they asked was for two things – language and a CV (Curriculum Vitae). We were not very fluent in English, and we had no idea what a CV was.”
That evening when we returned, we contacted other friends who had gone out of Hatta or abroad for higher education and had found jobs. They explained to us what a CV was and even helped me make one. I had only one thing to add as my work experience – the army.”
On the second day, Al Kaabi returned more confident, with a CV in his hand. He said: "After going through many stalls, I was offered two jobs, and surprisingly, one of them was as in a hotel, for the vacancy of a chef."
Two weeks and nine interviews later, he joined the Oasis Beach Hotel as a Commis III chef (Commis chefs assist different station chefs in a kitchen) before moving to Jebel Ali Golf & Resort Spa.
Chef Al Kaabi recalled how a French chef named Patrick became his first guide. "He promoted me to a Commis II chef. Chef Patrick, who still works in the UAE, suggested I work in the butchery section. He said it would help me become a better chef," the Emirati chef added.
Back home, the young chef’s decision was met with resistance. “Coming from a well-known family, my elders asked me why I needed to work in a kitchen serving or assisting people. But, this did not stop me. I had to follow my heart.”
It was Chef Patrick’s confidence in him that helped chef Al Kaabi continue. A year and three months later, he was promoted as a Commis I chef.
“I was now placed in the cold kitchen, where the salad, sauces, and cheese were prepared and plated. But, just a few days into it, I realised that I am not a cold kitchen person. I needed to be out there in the hot food section, cooking, tossing a pan, adding spices.”
Chef Al Kaabi requested and finally got a chance to work in the main kitchen, where he helped prepare buffets. His mentor soon recognised Chef Al Kaabi could do much more if trained right.
“I left after a month and was sent to the Jumeriah Emirates academy, where I received professional chef training. I stayed with Chef Patrick for three years. I was doing well, and he and other seniors in the field were proud of me. At professional gatherings of chefs from across the country, they started introducing me as an Emirati chef. There were no other Emirati chefs at that time,” said Chef Al Kaabi.
“In 2004, I made my first headlines in the Arabic newspaper Shabab Al Khaleej, as the first professional Emirati chef.
“During one such gathering, Amal, the head of Emiratisation for the Jumeirah Group, approached me. There was no turning back from here. I joined the Jumeirah Group in 2006 and worked for three years at Jumeirah Beach Hotel. Here I helped Arabic chefs and learned more about Arabic cuisine. Later on, I became the Sous Chef De Cuisine at Dubai World Trade Centre, where I worked for almost a year and a half in local cuisine. Here I properly learnt Emirati cuisine. I then went on to become the Head Chef at the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates.
Representing the UAE
“In 2011, I got a call to participate as a judge in a TV show called Arab Top Chef in Lebanon. It inspired me further to take Emirati cuisine out of the UAE. I realised that if Emirati people do not come forward, the UAE cuisine that has so much to offer would remain within Emirati homes.”
So, from 2012, to bring Emirati cuisine to the world, Chef Al Kaabi travelled across the world on a culinary mission. He added: "From Kentucky to Spain, I made my way to numerous food festivals across the globe representing the cuisine of the UAE. Meanwhile, I continued to appear as a judge on some food-based TV shows in the region.
"In 2015, I was sent as a UAE representative by the Abu Dhabi government, for World Expo 2015 hosted by Milan, Italy. It was a proud moment for me.
"After holding the positions of Concept Consultant Chef for the pre-opening of a restaurant in Abu Dhabi and the Executive Chef at the Cassels hotel, I moved to Jumeirah Zabeel Saray. I started as Interim Executive Sous Chef before being promoted to Executive Oriental Chef in 2016.”
Chef Al Kaabi continues to judge cooking shows on television and do consultation for many hospitals, government institutions. He is proud that it is now acceptable for men and women to pursue a career in culinary arts. He said: “This is a massive change compared to when I started. The idea of being a chef was a novelty in the past. But, now, there are many culinary academies around the UAE. Food is a legitimate career choice. Being part of this change is something that I am incredibly proud of.
“Where earlier people dissuaded me from working in a kitchen, now they take pictures with me, invite me to events, and tell me they are proud of my work. It makes me happy.”
So, what does Chef Al Kaabi cook at home? “I enjoy cooking for my family. Three dishes I like preparing are Lamb Harees, Jasheed with white rice, and Chicken Machboos.”
Recipe: Chicken recipe
Chef Al Kaabi shared the authentic recipe for chicken machboos, for those who want to try making it at home.
Cooking time: 1 hour 15 minutes
Prearation time: 15 minutes
- 1 kg chicken on the bone
- 600 gms basmati rice
- 100 gms tomato sliced
- 60 gms red onion sliced
- 20 gms garlic chopped
- 10 gms coriander chopped
- 80 ml local ghee or clarified butter
- 10 gms ginger paste
- 3 whole dry lemons
- 2 gms cinnamon sticks
- 0.5 gms bay leaves
- 0.5 gms cloves (whole)
- 1 gm cardamom (whole)
- 1 gm black pepper corns
- 1500 ml water
- 15 gms salt and pepper
- 4 gms spices mix
To make the spice mix grind the following together:
- 8 gms black pepper kernels
- 15 gms turmeric powder
- 15 gms cumin seeds
- 20 gms coriander seeds
- 10 gms cloves
- 10 gms cinammon stick
- 15 gms cardamom
- 10 gms dry red chilli
- 6 gms bay leaves
The recipe required only 4 grams of this spice mix, the rest can be stored in a dry jar, in a cool dry place.
1. Heat the ghee in a deep pot.
2. Grind the whole spices and add them in the ghee along with the onion and garlic, and sauté until you get golden colour.
3. Add the tomato and chicken then cook it for 25 minutes.
4. Now, add the ginger, spice mix and 1 liter of water.
5. Mix well, then let it cook for 30 minutes.
6. Add the coriander, dry lemon, rice, salt and pepper. Let it boil until the water level is the same or slightly lesser than the rice.
7. Cover it and leave it for 15 minutes on a low flame.
8. Garnish with chopped coriander leaves and serve with some raita (yoghurt-based side dish).