The most fun rising young Emirati Chef Khaled Al Saadi from Dubai has with cooking is when he gets to tell you the name of an Emirati dish but plate it in a way that you’d never recognise it.
Take the machboos, the traditional Emirati dish that’s similar to a pilaf. At an event in Abu Dhabi recently, Chef Khaled served the machboos - a dish that depends heavily on rice - with rice making up just 10 per cent of the whole dish, even presented not as rice but as a rice cracker. It met with quite some awe, with diners immediately recognising the flavours and identifying the notes, but being unable to put their finger on exactly what they were eating. “And then when I finally mentioned the dish it’d be this ‘aha’ moment,” he said.
Same with the ouzi, traditionally a dish with a whole lamb on rice, but Chef Khaled’s adaptation consisting of canapé-sized cubes of lamb meat braised in spices of ouzi, topped with a chutney powder. And the thareed, a casserole with bread soaked in it, deconstructed by Khaled into carrots and potatoes and bread, and plated as an amuse bouche.
At best, fusion is a word that invites extreme reactions, but as an aspiring chef, adopting this new approach to Emirati cuisine was the only way forward according to Khaled. After all, why – and how - could he play around with what had already achieved perfection?
“If I was to cook traditional Emirati cuisine, no matter what I did I wouldn’t be able to beat the average home cook. People like my grandmother for instance - I can never top that. So I knew all I could do was take her dishes and the same flavours and just plate it differently,” the owner of Fae cafe in Abu Dhabi told Gulfnews.com.
Keeping the nostalgia
It helped that he’d seen his share of Emirati-inspired dishes botched in the name of hybrid food, and was determined to not fall in the same trappings of fusion. “You have to be able to identify a proper balance where you can still call the dish Emirati,” he said. “I mostly just play with the presentation, but stick to the main ingredients to keep that flavour and nostalgia. I modernise the presentation to cater to individual dining, to showcase that Emirati cuisine is not just about the big plates with a massive whole roast lamb placed on it.”
This approach to rethinking Emirati dining and making the ingredient shine on its own started when Khaled returned from the US a few years ago after studying at the University of Tampa in Florida.
In the US, Khaled would go out to eat often, and is candid about his struggles with obesity. “To cope with the life in a new country, I ate. Juggling a new life with a lot of studying wasn’t easy, and I’d just go out a lot to eat. When I came back to the UAE after graduation I was told I had to go through military service and had to lose weight in order to be part of it. I joined the gym and had a personal trainer working with me on a daily basis. I had to change my eating habits.”
Well into that journey (by the end of which he had lost 70kg), Khaled soon realised he didn’t enjoy food served in healthy restaurants. So he decided to have a go at it himself. “I just wanted to make good clean food. So every day I would Google and YouTube for basic cooking instructions. Inevitably I ended up with a lot of raw chicken, a lot of burnt chicken, a lot of burnt everything. But somehow in the process I started to develop a passion towards working with ingredients and learning how to perfect them.”
From grilled cheese sandwiches to fine dining
After military service, Khaled decided he would dabble in food full time. And despite his healthy slant he veered towards a grilled cheese sandwich shop: “My main food to binge on in the US was grilled cheese sandwiches. Yes, this wasn’t in line with my fitness goals, but I just wanted to make something simple and something that people could enjoy fast, and that was cheese, bread and butter.”
So he opened Grilled Cheesery – later called Krust – with: “The tackiest sign in the world. I didn’t know anything about the industry, I had zero Food and Beverage background, and I wasn’t ready to accept people’s feedback. A customer would say there wasn’t much cheese in their sandwich and I’d be like ‘but I put so much in there!’ When you’re starting out, you perceive things differently and I’m so much more mature now. I realised attention to detail really goes a long way.”
Despite its subsequent closure, Krust got the ball rolling. His daily interactions with customers made Khaled realise he loved nothing better than the feeling of providing good food to people. And riding high on that wave of passion, he was discovered by the team from Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development.
“They asked me to represent the UAE in Paris. And I said ‘but I’m only here making grilled cheese’. To represent the UAE I would need more, I would need professional training.”
This led him straight to Chef Gregoire at Ossiano restaurant in Atlantis. Khaled sat himself in the dining area of Ossiano and told Gregoire: “I wasn’t leaving his restaurant until he gave me a shot there to try and learn something. He was generous enough to open his kitchen for me and teach me everything I needed to know to create the menu I served in Paris.”
His association with Atlantis wasn’t a one-off stint. After the success of the Paris event the team at Atlantis opened their doors for Khaled to all their restaurants: “To be able to learn from the diverse kitchens they have here. It took me some time to develop the confidence to work in their kitchens and serve guests. You really have to know what you’re doing to maintain the standards of Atlantis. After about two years of rotating in Atlantis kitchens I felt capable enough to work on my own projects freelance – creating menus, developing concepts and so on.”
Spices and big flavours
Khaled was then offered a space for a restaurant at the Abu Dhabi Youth Hub, for which he approached one of his personal role models and Food and Beverage pioneer and entrepreneur Alia Al Mazrouei. “I proposed the idea and menu for Fae café, and she just said ‘let’s do it’.”
Fae, which Khaled now devotes most of his time to, is a test kitchen: “Where I get to create and constantly change the menu. We try to keep it seasonal, with local ingredients.”
While his restaurant keeps it low-key (there are a lot of burgers), Khaled’s favourite cooking styles are a bit more multifaceted, and vary from French to Asian. “I love Asian cuisine’s diversity of flavour, cooking style, and the versatility you get to enjoy in the kitchen – it gives you so much room to do whatever you want. I love its spiced elements.
“I also really enjoy executing a French style of cooking, but being Emirati I wanted to try and utilise my experiences around the cuisine I grew up with - all the spices we are known to enjoy, all the big flavours. Some of my favourite cooking memories revolve around that – me annoying my grandma in the kitchen, sticking my fingers in all the pots, getting burnt, getting yelled at by her… fond memories that make me sentimental.”
Khaled says while expectations are high for him to be opening another restaurant or expanding his current one, his vision is different. “Dubai offers up a diverse platform where chefs from all over the world get to come and work with any cuisine they like, and still get a diverse population who will try it. The calibre of chefs makes it fun and challenging for chefs like me to come up with dishes. And while opening a restaurant and providing good food to such a huge chunk of people is a great thing, my focus is on contributing to the sustainability of food in the UAE using Emirati resources. I want to establish something that could help the UAE with more nourishing food that’s locally grown and sustainable.”
Khaled advises aspiring chefs to stay dedicated to their food journeys through it all.
“You’ll definitely get hit across the face a lot and if you let those moments and all those different variables of failure get to you, you won’t reach anywhere. It might sound like a cliché but you just have to persevere and stay on top of what you want and eventually it will just happen, your cooking dream will materialise.”
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