Food gives us a home’
Gourmet chef Dima Sharif learnt cooking after she had her first child, went from corporate to foodie — and never looked back
As part of my promise to inspire you to realise your food dreams this year, here is the first of a series of interviews with people in the food industry. I took Dima Sharif’s baking course — Dima’s Kitchen — last year and it changed my life. So here is Chef Dima talking about her culinary journey.
The first meal you cooked.
It was in 2003 and I was living in Bahrain. One day, I felt I was tired of eating out, I wanted to eat home food. There is an Arabic dish Maloobet Beitinjan (eggplant upside-down) — a layered preparation of tomatoes, fried eggplants, meat and rice, slow-cooked together in one pot. It was my first time ever to cook anything but I invited a couple of my husband’s friends for dinner that night.
How was it?
I had seen my mum cook this dish many times, so figured it must be quite simple. Not knowing a thing about cooking basics, it turned out to be quite the disaster. And I had guests invited to savour that disaster! One of my guests even said: “Not everyone is made for cooking!”
How did you first learn to cook?
My mum tried to teach me how to cook, but kind of gave up eventually. A couple of years after my first cooking attempt, I had my first child... It was the first time of my life without a full-time corporate job. My mother brought this bag filled with a tonne of files. “I have photocopied every single recipe I ever collected, written every single recipe I have ever created and put them all for you in these files… If you find yourself bored someday, or if you change your mind (about cooking), I know you have a starting point!”
One day, I took one of the files out and read through it. It took me on a trip down memory lane, I felt like I was reading something I could totally connect with. I was reading about the fabulous food I had been eating all my life. The flavours of my home! I laughed and cried just reading some recipes!
That sounded like your Aha! moment…
It was a life-changing moment. I learnt more about myself in a few of those pages than I did in years of corporate work.
I found me at that point. I decided I missed those flavours. I missed having a home. It is strange how food gives us that. A home! Just like my mum created a home for us, I wanted to create one for my kids.
I read the recipes and tried out all of them (I’d call mum when I was stuck). I’d exhaustingly research every topic. The more I knew, the more I wanted to know. I kept experimenting until I reached perfection. Even after years of cooking, and a career in catering, teaching cookery, and food writing, I still research and experiment like it is my first time, each time.
At what point in your life did you realise that you wanted to focus on food?
It started as a journey inwards, through which I learnt about myself, my likes and dislikes, my associations… In the process I learnt the joy of eating with an open mind: the exhilaration of new experiences; the goodness of ingredients and the meditative qualities of such a mechanical process. In the meantime, I would invite my friends repeatedly to sample food and give me their opinion. I would entertain at least three times a week.
By then, I was a dedicated foodie. I found that you can learn a lot about people through food, and they can learn a lot about you in the same way.
How did you make your transition into the food and beverage industry?
When we moved to Dubai, it was a new city and a new life. Between settling down and a new pregnancy, I did not want to look for a job. I started a small catering service. It felt like I could be productive yet be a hands-on mum for my kids. The rest is history!
Biggest highlights of your career?
The first catering event — I will never forget that. That was the first time, I cooked professionally — as in not for family! Then, when I catered a wedding for 500 people. That experience showed me the real life of professional chefs and the kind of pressure they work under every day.
I had catered a lady’s graduation party, a year later her engagement party, then her bachelorette, then wedding and then her baby shower! I felt as emotional as her mother, when she had her baby! Her mum and I hugged and cried with joy when I got to the hospital — you get to be a part of people’s lives, share their grandest moments with them… Food has enriched my life in so many ways!
You involve your children in the kitchen. How has that aided their development?
I cook with my kids all the time. We talk about food, and when I was catering, they made salad or cookies for themselves while I decorated a client’s cake.My children love food. They suggest spices, herbs and flavour enhancers to our meals. I believe if they can understand food this early on, they will definitely have good food all their lives.
What advice have you for parents on allowing kids in the kitchen?
Let your kids be involved in the preparation of food, and let them be involved in their food decisions. When children are not involved, they turn into passive eaters and are likely to be fussy. Handling food teaches children fine motor skills, patience and organisation, among other things.
What advice would you give someone thinking of entering the food industry?
First of all, understand it is a very tough and demanding job. Food preparation is mostly physical work, requires perfection and entails long hours. When the rest of the world is celebrating, you may be working. It is one thing to make 10 perfect pieces of canapés, but totally another to make 1,000 perfect pieces and more. But if you are a committed person who is passionate about food, you will thrive and love every minute of it!
Dima Sharif is a bespoke caterer, conducts cookery/baking classes, writes a food blog and is recognised as one of Middle East’s gourmet chefs. Dima is based in Dubai. For more information,visit her site: www.dimasharif.com
· Kari is a Dubai-based journalist and photographer of the food blog chefandsteward.com. Follow her on Facebook at facebook.com/ChefandSteward and contact her at: