Mo­ham­mad Or­fali, guardian of Alep­pian cui­sine, makes the case for in­no­va­tion

Friday - - Contents -

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 fri­day­ 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 Plat­inum­

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

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