Chef Marco Smerilli works at Concordia Research Station in Antarctica
Dubai with its ever-expanding culinary scene is a magnet for restaurateurs and world-class chefs. The city boasts of some of the world’s best Michelin star restaurants, but lately, a new breed of Emirati chefs are carving out a niche in the country’s gastronomic scene.
Khaleej Times spoke to a few hotshot chefs who are cooking up a storm in their kitchens and on social media.
Chef Faisal Naser, Lento
Living far away from home in a cold city in Northern England, Faisal Naser, like any other university student abroad, used to feel miserably homesick. Fed up with takeaways and pizzas, he started trying out some of his mother’s traditional Emirati recipes which had many takers among his equally homesick friends from all over GCC.
“That was our weekend bash. Cooked biriyani, Machboos and Thereed. I realised people love it when you cooked for them,” said chef Nasser, who owns the newly-opened Lento restaurant in Dubai.
A graduate from Leeds in Genetics, Naser said he is a born artist and loves playing the guitar, keyboard and harmonica. But he had to pursue science under parental pressure. Those three years of college didn't just give him a degree. Nasser says he bloomed into a chef who could cook Spanish, Italian and French dishes like a pro.
“I was the happiest when I was in the kitchen. Hence, I wanted to learn more and started working for a small restaurant in London,” he said. “I even enrolled myself in a summer programme at a cooking school. My parents had no clue what I was doing.”
After the graduation, Naser came back to Dubai and got a job as a technician in a Dubai lab. “But my heart was in the kitchen. I started posting recipes on my social media and I was suddenly popular. For me, it was not about gaining popularity, but sharing my passion and also several techniques I learned,” he said.
He soon started participating in cooking shows and hosting workshops. “It is in Dubai that I learned more about the business of gastronomy. In 2020, I was ready to take the plunge and opened my first outlet ‘Lento’ in Abu Dhabi."
Naser said his cooking is all about simplicity. “I do not like complicated dishes and dressings. I am a minimalist in the kitchen. But it is slow cooking,” says the chef, who believes his signature dishes must have ingredients that age slowly, such as black garlic and fermented condiments. “It tastes better when it takes longer,” he said.
He uses Emirati condiments and applies French techniques to create unique dishes. “For instance, I like to use Mehyava (fermented fish) in Ramen. You don’t always have to be a traditionalist... Cooking is as much an art and a science. You have to experiment. I strike the right balance between my head and heart when I am in the kitchen and that reflects in my cooking,” says Naser.
Sumaya Obaid, Emirati chef
Sumaya Obaid grew up in an Emirati household where food connected people from all over the world.
“My mom is an excellent cook and she would make every cuisine; she had friends from different nationalities who enjoyed her cooking. I grew up watching how food is a glue between cultures, families and friends. I naturally became a foodie,” Obaid told Khaleej Times.
But as an Emirati woman growing up in a society with traditional values, it was not easy for her to pursue cooking as a profession. “Our society expects us to be engineers or doctors. Becoming a chef is not considered a big deal. But now, my family is so proud of me and that they do not miss a chance to tell others that I am a chef,” said Obaid.
Speaking about her journey as a chef, Obaid said she studied culinary science in Australia where she was living with her husband. “I had to juggle between my studies and my family duties as I had a baby to take care of.”
When she returned to the UAE, she got the opportunity to be a Nestle ambassador and travel around the world to support women entrepreneurs. She also became a household name as the host for a daily morning show called ‘Sabah Aldar’ on Abu Dhabi TV.
“I used to drive every day from Dubai to Abu Dhabi and present a new dish. That pushed my creativity, and I would present fusion dishes like Payeya with Jareesh (a dish made with crushed wheat) or Tom Yum soup with rice and shrimp,” said Obaid, who also went on to present shows in MBC Arabia and Sharjah TV. “I did not want to work full time. But I have worked with many international brands in Dubai and helped them improve or launch new menus,” said the mother of five.
Obaid said cooking is a form of self-expression for her. “It is a stress reliever... like being with family. You feel at home. And there is no better way to people’s hearts than food.”
Faisal Al Naqbi
Faisal Al Naqbi can rustle up a perfect steak with the same ease as he flies a Boeing 777 airplane. A commercial pilot with Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, he has the same passion for cooking as he has for flying.
“Cooking is like engineering. You are engineering flavours to get the right taste. It is also an art that requires passion,” he said. Naqbi revealed he became a connoisseur of food thanks to his profession that allowed him to travel the world and taste various cuisines.
“I do not just eat from restaurants around the world. I do my homework and research about the cuisine and stand-out eateries,” he said.
He calls himself a self-taught chef. He has recently clinched the top prize in a popular cooking competition which will be aired on Dubai TV later in October this year.
"I cannot talk about the show yet. But that is a big achievement for me as a chef," he said.
Speaking about his love for cooking, Naqbi said he inherited it from his mother, who he described as a great cook. “Unlike many Emirati households, traditional cuisine was not our everyday food. My mom cooked Italian, Chinese and Mexican. She was so professional that my dad’s friends used to send chefs to get trained under my mom.”
Naqbi took on the mantle from his mom and started cooking for his friends. “They loved it because I used to present it like in any fine dining restaurant. I believe food is for the eyes first, then for the stomach.”
Naqbi once owned a restaurant called Wolf and Friends located in JLT. It was closed in 2018 due to financial reasons, but Naqbi says the cosy restaurant was a big hit as they made everything in-house from scratch, including ketchup and mayonnaise.
The unexpected closure of his restaurant did not dissuade him from cooking.
Naqbi turned to social media. His Instagram account @emirati.nomad, where he shares his recipes and travels, now has 47,000 followers. According to him, Emiratis are showing interest in offbeat professions, and he hopes the younger generation will follow their passion — whether it is cooking or flying.
Aysha Al Obeidli
Aysha Al Obeidi is not your regular teenager. When other 13-year-old girls are busy gaming or hanging out with friends, Obeidi is busy cooking up a storm in her kitchen.
Dubbed the UAE’s youngest Emirati chef, she has teamed up with the JW Marriott Maldives Resort & Spa for a unique collaboration with the resort’s Maldivian chef, Aminath Abdul Rasheed. The goal? To present a culinary fare with an ensemble of Arabian and Maldivian flavours.
Last year, Aysha had also partnered with Etihad Airways to create a special in-flight menu. As part of the UAE’s Year of the 50th celebrations, she created UAE-themed pancakes crafted in the flag colours of black, red, green and white, to be served to children flying with the airline on December 2.
A popular food influencer on social media, Obeidi's success is inspiring a new generation of Emirati children to take up cooking.
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