From nurse to Dubai chef: Luisa Fernanda Caicedo's inspiring journey
Luisa talks about her passion for cooking and how she battled the odds to pursue her dream.
Not everyone is lucky enough to do a job that they love, but Luisa Fernanda Caicedo, Executive Chef at Mondoux, a European inspired restaurant and cafe in Dubai Creek Harbour, counts herself among the fortunate few who have had the determination to battle odds to pursue their true passion.
Luisa, a native of Medellín, Colombia, had trained as a nurse upon the advice of a senior family member before finally deciding to enrol in cooking school. Graduating with honours from the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, Luisa has not looked back since and after a wealth of professional experience with upmarket restaurants in the United States and Indonesia, she found herself in the dazzling metropolis of Dubai where gastronomical experiences are as rich and varied as the city’s populace.
In a chat with City Times about her inspiring journey, Luisa shares that working in a different country is “always a novel experience”. She is all praise for the multi-national crew at her new workplace which she joined in March 2021, and says it’s like working with “family”.
“If I’m not mistaken, we have a total of 12 nationalities on the team, and it’s always interesting to work with and learn from different people and cultures,” she adds.
Excerpts from an interview with Luisa, who lives in Dubai with her husband and baby daughter.
How long have you been in Dubai and what are your thoughts on the varied culinary experiences here?
I arrived in September 2020, so it’s been almost a year. I have a young daughter and the working hours of a chef are pretty long, so I don’t have as much time as I’d like to experience everything that the city has to offer. But I’m slowly working my way through the different culinary experiences. I’ve previously worked in Jakarta where finding good food options was always a bit of a challenge. The UAE, and Dubai especially, is such a melting point with many nationalities. You have so many different types of cuisines at different price points. Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but so far I haven’t had a bad meal.
As someone who worked as a nurse before following your passion to become a chef, what was it that drew you to cooking? When did the interest first start?
I was always passionate about cooking and spent many hours with my mom and aunts in the kitchen as a child. My grandfather, whom I loved to bits, raised me. He was very old school and believed that the restaurant kitchen was a man’s domain, and wanted me to follow a different path. I followed his advice and enrolled in nursing school.
Then I moved to New York City, and while I was earning a degree in biotechnology, I also worked part-time at my university’s clinic. As luck would have it, the school decided to drop the biotechnology program and I ended up getting a temporary job at a restaurant. At that point, it just hit me — why don’t I just do what makes me happy? Why go about things the roundabout way? And that’s how I decided to enrol in culinary school.
You have worked in New York and Jakarta earlier. How do you find Dubai in comparison considering the multi-national clientele?
New York is quite similar to Dubai when it comes to having a multi-national clientele because it is such a cosmopolitan city. Jakarta is quite the opposite. Even though you have tourists, the restaurant that I worked in was in a financial district, and most of the clientele were local businessmen and finance professionals. The wealth inequality in Indonesia is very high, and for many people, the ability to afford certain restaurants is considered a bit of a status symbol.
In the UAE, the clientele is very diverse. Many people are well travelled, they have seen the world, or have tried many culinary experiences here in the UAE. They have different palates and are often looking for something specific. I’ve had a good experience with our guests at Mondoux — they are always willing to try the different options on the menu.
As a modern-day chef is it important to keep yourself updated with the latest trends and adapt your dishes accordingly? Or do you believe in doing things the old-school way and sticking to tried and trusted favourites?
It’s definitely important to stay informed about the latest industry trends. Whether you use them all is a different question. I like to keep things simple and to taste the natural flavour of ingredients, but even when you keep things simple, you can still use new techniques and technology. For example, although I’m aware of the science behind the trend, I’m not a fan of molecular gastronomy.
This could be just my personal preference, but I believe that if I were to use molecular gastronomy, the real essence of the wholesome food will be lost. My philosophy is that I need to adapt the technology so that it’s part of the dish, but not the dish. But again, to each their own.
What’s your favourite item from the Mondoux menu ?
Mondoux is a European-inspired restaurant serving an all-day international menu. So whether you are looking for breakfast, lunch, dinner or a sweet treat, you’ll find it on the menu. Eggs, crepes, soups, salads, burrata, tuna steak, risotto, cheesecake and tiramisu — these are just a few items that you can expect to see.
Our warm chocolate and coffee with chocolate also deserve a special mention since they are part of our signature offering. Everything is prepared in-house and food presentation is very important. I have two favourites on the current menu. The first is the beef tenderloin with chimichurri sauce, roasted baby carrots and potato puree. I absolutely love the sauce — it’s different and very versatile. The second favourite is the tuna tartare. It’s delicious and light and I never feel guilty after eating it!
Everyone has their own ‘comfort food’, a favourite dish they love to cook/eat. What is that dish for you?
For me, it’s scrambled eggs and rice. Growing up, there was always a pot of rice in the house and as a kid, I learnt how to cook eggs. It was always just so convenient to make. It reminds me of home, helps me get my starch and protein intake, and is easy to prepare, especially when I’m tired and hungry. People think that chefs always eat amazing wholesome food but we probably have more comfort food than most because after a whole day in the kitchen, we’re looking for something simple and convenient. My husband thinks it’s horrendous, but I also add a dash of ketchup to my eggs and rice!
Based on your culinary experience, which type of cuisine has inspired you the most?
When I used to travel — and unfortunately we can’t do much of that these days — I would always be inspired by the cuisine of the country that I’d be visiting. I love to deconstruct various dishes, making an improvement or even my own version of the dish. I love certain ingredients that are predominant in Asian cuisine — lemongrass, ginger … I experiment by incorporating them into my food, whether it’s Colombian or international. There are just so many options in Asian cuisine.
How was the experience of training to be a chef and what were the challenges?
You know, I don’t mind the hard work and I found the experience rewarding. I love working towards a goal, and starting from scratch and eventually climbing the ladder is just part of it. I was fortunate enough to begin my journey at a Michelin-starred restaurant. I started from the bottom, peeling garlic, onions and potatoes. Sure, it wasn’t the most rewarding of jobs but I moved up, got entrusted with a station, and started making pasta. And then, gradually, I was promoted to the next level, and the next. You have to do the work, there are no shortcuts.
The challenge for me wasn’t the long hours. Being a nurse before that, I was used to 12-hour shifts. The heat in the kitchen would sometimes get to me. After all those hours, it could get pretty hot and uncomfortable! Also, after putting in many hours and seeing less deserving candidates bypassing the system and getting unfairly promoted could sometimes be discouraging. I would always have to remind myself that it was all a learning curve, and that good work and dedication would eventually pay off. And in the end, it truly did.
LUISA’S RECIPE FOR TUNA TARTARE
For the ginger-soy dressing:
1 tbsp ginger, peeled, finely diced
1 tbsp......light soy sauce
3 tbsp........Japanese rice vinegar
6 tbspolive oil
2 tbspsesame oil
1 tspshallots, minced
For the tuna:
¾ cup raw tuna, diced and chilled
1 tbsp of the ginger-soy dressing (prepared from above mentioned ingredients)
Put soy, vinegar and salt in a bowl and mix until salt is dissolved.
Gradually add both oils and whisk until an emulsion is formed.
Fold in the ginger and shallots.
To assemble the tartare, combine the tuna with 1 tbsp of the ginger-soy dressing and serve.
Add chopped chives when mixing tuna with the ginger-soy dressing for extra flavour.
Tuna can be substituted with salmon or scallops.
If using regular soy sauce, remove the salt and adjust seasoning if needed.
Serve with potato chips, toasted bread or crackers
When selecting the fish, make sure it’s fresh and not slimy to the touch. Leftover tuna tartare will keep in the fridge for a maximum of two days, depending on the freshness of the fish. Leftover ginger-soy dressing will keep for a maximum of 5 days when properly refrigerated.