Growing up as a young girl in an Emirati household, Sumaya Alzaabi recollects fondly the aroma of delicious food and the bustle of loved ones gathering around to savour it. The memories from her childhood is what inspired her to seek out a career as a chef and today she is among the select group of Emirati women who are proudly carving a spot for themselves in fields that have long been considered male bastions.
A hotel management graduate from the American University of Ras Al Khaimah, Sumaya found her perch soon afterwards when she got a placement at the Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah. Having started off in the Pastry Kitchen, she then went on to expand her repertoire with Italian, Levantine and Japanese cuisines with a focus on sushi, sashimi, ramen and tempura. Harbouring dreams of travelling the world to discover secret recipes and ingredients across the globe, she is today happy to champion the Glocal by bringing global cuisine to the emirate of Ras Al Khaimah. Excerpts from an interview with the Chef on the occasion of Emirati Women’s Day on August 28.
What does Emirati Women’s Day mean to you?
For me, it’s a day I cherish because – quite simply – it makes me feel proud to be an Emirati woman. Emirati Women’s Day gives us a chance to pause and recognise all the amazing women in the UAE who have gone before us and laid the foundations for future generations. It’s a day that makes me feel thankful.
There are some voices out there that believe you don’t need a special day to celebrate women. How do you feel about it? Why is this day so special to you?
I believe that celebrating people – whether it’s men or women – is a positive force that can inspire lives, build bridges and strengthen communities.
Growing up, who was that one strong woman who inspired you?
My mother is a strong woman who inspired me as I was growing up.
Emirati women have broken barriers and boldly ventured into fields that were male dominated. What gives you the courage to pursue your dream?
I am greatly inspired by His Highness Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice-President and Prime Minister of the UAE, and Ruler of Dubai, who I feel leads us in the right direction. Following his remarkable vision and bold leadership gives me the courage to pursue my dreams and achieve my goals – and I am inspired to also offer a helping hand to the next generation of women.
What's your earliest memory of food that inspired you to become a chef?
My mother is a fantastic cook and I have beautiful memories of spending time in the kitchen with her when I was a child, watching her make Harees. When I was growing up, our house would often be busy with family members coming to visit. My mother loves to host and would always cook big plates of Emirati Machboos and Luqaimat for anybody who came through our door. The smells of the delicious food, the chatter of our family, and the feeling of happiness in our home are very special memories for me and I think that sense of people coming together over food is what led me to become a chef.
You are proficient in Japanese, Italian, and Levantine cuisine among others. But what's your idea of comfort food - what is the first dish that comes to mind when you want to eat for your own happiness.
Indian biryani is my favourite comfort food.
Today social media has taken over our kitchens, with 'influencers' telling us what to eat, when to eat and where to eat! What's your opinion on this trend?
As we all know, food is an amazingly popular topic on social media and our feeds are inundated with pictures of people eating an amazingly diverse array of foods every day. I think social media is a great tool to help people learn about dishes, ingredients, cultures, restaurants, chefs and culinary traditions that they might not otherwise hear about. Obviously, as a chef, I’m passionate about food and so anything that spreads the word about what I love is a good thing in my opinion.
What are your hopes for your future?
I believe that being a chef is all about learning every day. There are so many world cuisines out there to understand, so many ingredients to experiment with, and so many techniques to master, that a chef’s education is never complete. I’ve been at Waldorf Astoria Ras Al Khaimah for seven years and I’m very happy here because I feel it’s a great place to flourish and hone my skills.
What message would you give out to young girls on how to chase their dreams based on your own experience?
I believe young women today should study hard, talk to mentors and family, and try to experience as many different things as possible to help them discover their passion. There are so many career opportunities out there that perhaps it can feel overwhelming, therefore I think gathering research and exploring all the options is crucial to finding your path.
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