From kitchen mishap at age 7 to supper club maestro: How chef Sheikha Hesa Al Khalifa is redefining Khaleeji cuisine

Redefining modern Emirati cuisine with innovative flair, the Bahraini-Emirati chef aims to take Khaleeji culinary traditions onto global platforms

by

Somya Mehta

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Published: Sun 14 Apr 2024, 6:19 PM

Last updated: Tue 16 Apr 2024, 4:41 PM

With a childhood marked by kitchen mishaps turned into moments of inspiration, Sheikha Hesa Khalifa Al Khalifa’s culinary odyssey began at a young age. Guided by her mother's expertise and fuelled by an insatiable curiosity, she embarked on a journey to master the art of cooking, finding delight in the alchemy of transforming ordinary ingredients into extraordinary culinary creations.

“When I was 7 years old, I almost burned down the kitchen. Since then, I've been learning all the cooking tricks from my mother, who is my number one chef. This childhood incident ignited my passion for cooking, as I found myself fascinated by the magic of transforming ingredients into delicious meals,” says Sheikha Hesa, a member of Bahrain's royal family and a resident of the UAE for many years.


Born in Bahrain to a father who is a member of the country's royal family and a mother who is Emirati, Sheikha Hesa, now 43, has called the UAE home since the age of eight. Today, as a celebrated chef, she continues to captivate palates with her inventive dishes, blending flavours from around the world while staying true to her cultural roots, giving Emirati and Khaleeji cuisine a modern twist.

From her earliest memories of culinary experimentation to her illustrious career as a self-made chef, Sheikha Hesa’s journey has remained far from conventional. Choosing to curate menus for various restaurants rather than climbing up the ladder within a single venture has allowed her the freedom to explore diverse cuisines with innovative flavour combinations and showcase her creativity in a multitude of culinary settings. And that for her, is the greatest reward, she mentions.


At the Abu Dhabi EDITION, where she recently led the kitchen in curating a special iftar menu for Ramadan, the chef's dedication to culinary storytelling shone through as she presented guests with a modern interpretation of Emirati cuisine. In a region where food is more than just sustenance—it's a celebration of culture and community—Sheikha Hesa aspires to weave stories through her dishes, inviting diners to embark on a journey of culture, taste and tradition.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

From home cooking to curating menus in prestigious restaurants, what motivated you to pursue a career in the culinary arts?

The desire to craft delicious food and explore the diverse cultures of the world through various cuisines has been my driving force. From the humble beginnings of home cooking to the bustling environments of prestigious restaurants, my motivation has always been to share my love for food with others—an ethos that permeates through each of my dishes.

How would you describe your culinary philosophy and approach to creating dishes?

My culinary philosophy is rooted in the belief that behind every exquisite dish lies a story—a passion that transforms ingredients into an unforgettable culinary journey. I approach the creation of dishes with a profound respect for ingredients and techniques, always striving to evoke emotions and memories through every flavour and presentation.

In your opinion, what makes Khaleeji cuisine stand out?

Khaleeji cuisine refers to the culinary traditions of the Gulf countries, including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. It is renowned for its aromatic flavours and hearty dishes. A distinguishing feature lies in its utilisation of aromatic spices and flavour pairings, crafting a distinctive taste profile. However, the most distinctive aspect of our cuisine is the warm hospitality, an integral part of Gulf culture. It's not solely about the food; it's about the entire experience of sharing meals with your loved ones.

Can you tell us about any traditional Emirati ingredients or cooking techniques that you incorporate into your special menus?

For the most recent menu creation at the Abu Dhabi EDITION, I infused several dishes with Emirati spiced oil as a substitute for other oils, such as olive oil, which imparts a different and unique texture to the food. Incorporating traditional Emirati ingredients and cooking techniques into the Ramadan menu was essential to honour the culinary heritage of the region.

I always aim to present Emirati cuisine in a unique way by creating fusion dishes that would provide our guests with a memorable experience. Prioritising elements such as authenticity, innovation, and flavour, I craft menus that honours the spirit of the occasion while also offering a modern twist on traditional dishes.

Sheikha Hesa's special iftar menu curation for the Abu Dhabi EDITION
Sheikha Hesa's special iftar menu curation for the Abu Dhabi EDITION

Innovation seems to be a key aspect of your culinary style. How do you balance preserving tradition with introducing new and innovative elements into your dishes?

Balancing tradition with innovation is a delicate process. My approach involves creating dishes that honour tradition while offering fresh perspectives and unique flavour experiences for diners. This requires creativity, experimentation, and a deep appreciation for both the roots and the evolution of culinary traditions. At the Abu Dhabi EDITION, I applied this approach by presenting international dishes with an Emirati-fusion twist, ensuring that each meal tells a story that resonates with our guests.

Community and storytelling are central to your culinary philosophy. How do you integrate these aspects into your menus and dining experiences?

I believe in engaging the senses by utilising traditional flavours that can evoke beautiful memories or emotions. Incorporating storytelling elements into menus and dining experiences adds depth and meaning to the culinary journey, fostering a sense of community and connection among diners. Ultimately, these are the elements that help make the meal memorable.

There's been a rise in supper clubs in this region over the last few years. What's the most unique part about organising supper clubs?

The most important lesson I have learned from supper clubs is the importance of community building and bonding through the beautiful conversations around the table. These experiences have taught me the power of food in bringing people together and creating lasting memories. Organising supper clubs can be a very rewarding experience, as curating special menus and providing unique experiences enhances the chef's skills from all aspects. The most unique aspect is creating an intimate dining atmosphere where guests can connect with the chef and each other over a shared culinary adventure.

As a self-taught chef, what challenges have you faced along your journey, and how have you overcome them?

As a self-taught chef, the main challenge I faced along my journey was a lack of time. However, determination played a crucial role in overcoming this challenge. Through dedication and perseverance, I continued to refine my skills and pursue my passion for cooking.

somya@khaleejtimes.com

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