Mohammad Orfali, guardian of Aleppian cuisine, makes the case for innovation
Both Mohammad Orfali and Gary Rhodes have plans for their take on food. Meet them at Taste of Dubai.
WWhen Mohammad Orfali talks about food, his language doesn’t drip with buzzwords and unctuous descriptions. Instead, he references history, spirit and heart, respect – and progress.
He’s a specialist of Aleppian cuisine, acting as a guardian of the style while at the same time being unafraid of developing it. The Syrian city is known for its specific style of cooking, featuring spices and fruit. ‘As Arabs, we have a limited outlook of our cuisine, especially within recent history,’ he says. ‘We consider Arab cuisine as a traditional cuisine, one we shouldn’t change or develop dramatically. We like to eat hummus with tahini and nothing else. But the problem isn’t with the ingredients, it’s with us!’
When he returns to Taste of Dubai, the food festival now in its 10th year, at Dubai Media City Amphitheatre from March 9-11, he’ll cook two dishes that remind him of his childhood, but that also tell the story of the cuisine. By preserving its memory, it can then be adapted.
‘No one thought of studying the nature of this rich cuisine or documenting its progress and how it blossomed into what it is today,’ says Mohammad, the head of culinary content at Fatafeat, the pan-Arab cooking channel, where he’s become known for using modern technology in cuisine, including molecular gastronomy techniques.
Unlike their ancestors, modern Arabs did not care so much for the culture of food and drink until recently, he tells Friday. The idea of ‘developing’ recipes meant ‘updating and altering the very identity of our cuisine’.
‘But the truth is, Aleppian cuisine hasn’t been faithfully preserved. With no new developments or additions for many years, it has instead experienced severe neglect.’
Mohammad’s two dishes for Taste of Dubai – which he will cook on the main Chef’s Theatre stage, and in a culinary contest for those who want to showcase their own skills – are a response to that neglect and fear of change. He says he is freely rebuilding Aleppian cuisine, ‘but without sacrificing any of its spirit and heart. ‘It is not a rebellion against what came before it. Modern cuisine wouldn’t even be possible without understanding the fundamental bases and classic techniques of traditional cuisine.’
A dish, therefore, isn’t simply a piece of meat or a meze; it’s a tale. Firstly, there’s ‘All The Ways Lead To Aleppo’, a recipe inspired by kabab bel karaz, or cherry kabab – ‘the signature kebab of Aleppian cuisine’. (Want to make it yourself? We’ve got the recipe on fridaymagazine.ae.) Or the evocative ‘Roots of my Backyard Forest’ – labneh with muhammara and roasted baby carrots.
It’s impossible to discuss Aleppian cuisine, its history and future, without being conscious of the ongoing battle for the city, and the destruction that the Syrian war has wrought on lives, property and thousands of years of preserved memories.
Mohammad takes us there – you can almost smell it – as he talks about why he chose to specialise in Aleppian cuisine. ‘Growing up in Aleppo and living in the midst of a great ancient city has to leave its mark on you,’ he says. ‘The centuries-old market with the aromas of spices; laurel soap and
‘Syria is in war and our AMAZING Aleppian cuisine is at RISK of falling into EXTINCTION. Now is the right time to understand, explore, document and SPREAD its RICH and beautiful HISTORY’
Aleppian za’atar; the vibrantly coloured and remarkable hand-embroidered fabrics; the call for prayer emanating from the Umayyad Mosque on one side and only the best music the city has to offer (muwashah, qudud, and mawal) on the other. These images and memories create a rich and deeply emotional portrait of a city and civilisation.’
His family, he says, was influential; ‘my father, an engineer, and my mother a teacher, both played a role in Aleppian pride.’ He did too – beyond everyone’s expectations, he says – when he chose to focus on the centuries-old culture in a cooking show and a book, I Am Aleppian, as he turned 30.
‘The Aleppian people, including myself, did not know how to describe our cuisine in a manner that clearly resonated with other people,’ he says, describing the curiosity that drove him. ‘I have always imagined civilizations and characters, cooks and traditions, ingredients and techniques spread over seasons and centuries.’
Does cooking Aleppian cuisine make him feel closer to home?
‘Syria is in war and our amazing Aleppian cuisine is at risk of falling into extinction. Now is the right time to understand, explore, document and spread its rich and beautiful history.’
Catch Mohammad Orfali at Taste of Dubai today at 9.30pm and at 8.30pm tomorrow, with chef Tarek Ebrahim. The duo will also be in the culinary challenge tent today at 7.30pm. Tickets for the festival are on sale now, with a discount for Friday readers who enter GNTOD at checkout on Platinumlist.net.
When Gary Rhodes took the stage at the first Taste of Dubai – back in 2007 – the Dubai fine-dining scene was dominated by a few international chefs – among them, Gary and Gordon Ramsay.
Ten years later, Gary is back at the festival, he has two restaurants here – and has even been a Dubai resident for several years.
‘I’m in no hurry to move from here,’ Gary says over the phone ahead of the food festival. Moving to Dubai ‘worked in my favour.’ He was spending so much time in his Dubai restaurants, he decided he couldn’t devote the time to his Michelin-star restaurant in London. There are no regrets: ‘Moving to Dubai has] been nothing but a plus.’
At the first TOD, the affable chef prepared his signature white tomato soup, a creamy yet light concoction that was surprising as well as classic – and the perfect expression of his cooking. It’s still on the menu, at his Grosvenor House restaurant Rhodes W1 (he also has RhodesTwenty10, a steakhouse at the Le Royal Méridien).
But taking up much of his time now is his ongoing collaboration with Vox Cinemas for ThEATre by Rhodes, serving fine dining in the movie halls at Mall of the Emirates. It launched nearly two years ago; this month will see new items joining the menu. Rhodes points out that the project wasn’t a departure for him – only for those who may have pigeonholed him.
‘I think what’s happened over the years is many people misread and misinterpreted what I am about,’ he says. ‘I love that Michelin style of food, that finesse and detail. At the same time, I am involved with all different styles of food. It’s a great way to show good food does not always mean fillet of beef and langoustines. As simple as it is, it holds the quality and the edge of fine dining. It shows there’s a little more to my repertoire.’ What are you cooking this year? I’m doing two dishes at the Chef’s Theatre. One is so simple, I think it’s going to surprise people. One is more of a restaurant dish that has a classic Britishness but with a little French twist. You’re also in the culinary challenge, where you will be judging what people cook. It’s a new addition that I like. We are doing a very simple fish dish – simple if you know how to cook fish. It will be interesting, because they’ve got 15 minutes to do it. How would you describe your judging style? It’s looking at the positives, I don’t like attacking people with a negative. Then it’s making sure that you are pointing out elements that could have been better. Detail can be easily forgotten. Does that correspond with your style as a chef running a kitchen? The team have to believe in you if you want them to follow you. I, and some great chef friends of mine, work on the same concept – making sure people see you cook. Words are very easy; at the end of the day it’s about leading by example. That’s why try and run a happy kitchen – so everybody feels they are part of a family. It isn’t about individuals, it’s a package. When it gets ridiculously busy, you can see the fear – then I say, ‘where’s the joy?’ What’s next for ThEATre by Rhodes? Later this month we’re expanding the menu quite dramatically. We have such an international crowd, so I wanted to make sure that it is more of an international menu that suits all. We want to add photographs to the menu – as if you are reading a cookery book. 95 per cent of what you eat is made on site. When we do a burger, we buy chuck steak and beef fat; every patty is handmade, I won’t go out and buy a frozen burger. You also do menus for school meals? We are doing kids’ meals for five schools [in the UAE], just to give them healthy food. That doesn’t mean it’s a diet – it’s fresh produce, cooked on the day, we don’t buy in frozen and no deep-fried. Children get three courses: Vegetarian soup, main course and a small dessert.
Gary Rhodes is in the Taste of Dubai Chef’s Theatre today at 3.30pm and 6.30pm. Find him in the culinary challenge tent at 4.30pm today.
The British chef – and Dubai resident – is back at the food festival to celebrate its 10th year
A classic of Aleppian cuisine, kebab bel karaz – a lamb dish with sour cherries – presented in Mohammad’s modern style