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Dubai: It’s a question we hear a lot: How do I break into a certain industry? How do I get my first job without experience? Who do I need to talk to? How can my CV stand out? What should I say in my interview?

Gulf News speaks to two Dubai based professional chefs on how they succeeded in the UAE food industry.

Meet Sahar Al Awadhi

She is a young Emirati Pastry Chef working in the kitchen of the Burj Al Arab, one of the most famous and luxurious hotels in the world. Today, Sahar is Burj Al Arab’s first Emirati chef.

Chef Sahar in Burj Al Arab
Chef Sahar

Meet Sebastian Popp

He is a German Executive Sous Chef at the Kempinski Hotel Mall of the Emirates, one of the leading hotel brands in the world.

Sebastian Popp
Chef Sebastian

Here is what they both had to say on breaking into the F&B industry as chefs:

1. Being a chef has to stem from passion

Standing in a kitchen for 14 hours isn’t easy. You have to be motivated by your love and passion for the job.

Did you always know you wanted a career in the kitchen?

Sahar: I always knew I loved to cook, especially when it came to making pastries, but I didn't realise it was a passion until I started working in the kitchen. Everyone scared me though, they told me that it was so hard and that my hours would be crazy. They said I would never have time for my family. Food was such a big part of my childhood, my parents are both excellent cooks with great palates and love to explore new dishes; they definitely instilled that philosophy in the house.

Sebastian: Growing up, my parents were always back and forth between work and home. From this experience, cooking automatically came to me, from family cookouts to it then becoming a daily habit. Cooking regularly and just doing it in all these different scenarios allowed me to be more passionate about it, pursue it further and then join the industry.

2. Your university degree wont often be in the culinary arts

Even if you don’t study culinary arts in university, you can still get into the industry without a degree. But it is recommended that you further your education after you make sure that cooking or baking is your passion. Most chefs in the industry started in the profession by just doing odd jobs in the kitchen. Sahar has a BA in Mass Communication and Design Management from the American University of Sharjah, while Sebastian focused more on practical work.

What did you study in university and how did you prepare for a chef job

Sebastian: I had an interest in the more practical experience, so this is what I dove into first. I had to really try the job before investing time studying. I then moved on to getting my professional chef studies and a three-year cross exposure course within multiple restaurants.

Sahar: After graduating from high school, I went on to study Communications and Design Management at the American University of Sharjah. My first job was at Zayed University where I handled social media, communications, marketing and branding for four years. I loved that job! I got to work on their social platforms and start them from scratch. It was amazing and creative and wonderful, but deep down I knew that I wanted to work in the restaurant business. It was at La Serre Bistro and Boulangerie, where I worked with some of Dubai’s top chefs. I then decided to further my patisserie education and spent some time learning bread baking in Paris.

3. Networking is important, but it takes time before you can do it properly

You have to somehow be seen and heard in the industry in order to start networking. Sahar grew up in the UAE, so she had an established network of friends and family, Sebastian on the other hand, had to fight his way in.

How important was networking in you breaking into the food and beverage industry?

Sebastian: My initial plan was moving from place to another and getting as much experience as possible and I wanted to do that by working at multiple places. Once I had an understanding of the industry and gained the experience, that’s when the actual networking began in UAE. Therefore, networking is quite important at a certain stage to attain the recognition and to grow and excel in the industry, but you have to sometimes do the heavy lifting yourself.

Sahar: Networking is extremely important. I was referred to my first kitchen job interview at La Serre through a catch-up phone call from a friend I hadn't spoken to in years. You never know where your next opportunity might come from.

4. Link your professional life with your personal one

You shouldn’t always wait for a position to open up and for you to apply. Just approach the places you love and see if they are looking. Sahar hunted for work at restaurants where she personally liked to eat. Sebastian used his personal attributes like positivity and perseverance in his professional hunt.

How do recommend people start the job hunting process?

Sahar: I looked for jobs in places that I liked to eat at and hang out. When it was time for me to interview, I made sure to prepare questions ahead of time. My chef said I asked all the right questions and was attentive during the whole process.

Sebastian: Being positive minded and honest will make the whole difference and are key factors to success, as well as of course, seeking out new challenges which helped me to move and grow. When it came to my interview, my positive attitude has always been one of my important qualities that made me stand out the most. Even today, the right attitude and state of mind is a key factor to success. Skills can be developed throughout the years with experience however, having the right attitude and confidence cannot be taught and they come from not fearing to be wrong.

5. Understand that the job will be hard, but rewarding.

Working in the Food and Beverage industry can be very difficult. You have to know what you are getting yourself into.

What are the hardest and favourite parts about your job?

Sahar: The long hours. So, it's important to be organised and prioritise aspects of your life to give them the attention they deserve. But on the other hand, my job comes with so many positive parts. The pastries, the recipe tastings, the menu development, the moment when you have been working on a recipe and it comes out exactly the way you want it. I am lucky enough to work with an amazing team as well.

Sebastian: The hospitality industry is one of the toughest industries in terms of long working hours and being able to maintain a healthy balance between your work and personal life. But overall throughout my journey so far, I’ve been able to follow my passion, experience various places and position myself where I would like to be.

6. Use your younger years wisely: That’s when you can move around easily

You need to have physical energy to stand all day long, chopping, cooking, sizzling and baking. Your youth is when you can take on the longer hours and hotter temperatures. Use that time to further your career.

How did you recommend people use their younger years?

Sebastian: Within the hospitality industry the key is to see many places and experience them as much as possible in the early stages – mobility is much easier while you’re young than later on so you can be more flexible. Use that time to be experimental, keep up with the trends and adapting to them as much as you can.

Sahar: Explore all your interests as much as possible. When you are young it is easier to switch jobs and try out everything, so that you can settle in on what you love as you grow in your career.

7. Any last bit of advice?

Sebastian: If you want this job, you have to be passionate about what you want to do along the way and be experimental while keeping up with the trends and adapting to them. Stay true to yourself and follow your dreams. It could be a tough journey but if you set targets and work towards them, you shall be a shining star.

Sahar: If you work passionately, everything will work out. Never stop learning. I believe cooking is constant learning journey that will never have an end and I look forward to continuing to develop my style and techniques, working with some remarkable chefs to share knowledge and keep growing.