Ali Al Bourji gets food on the ta­ble for 2,000 peo­ple a day as the man be­hind At­lantis The Palm’s mega-if­tar at Asateer

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Chef Ali Al Bourji, the man be­hind At­lantis The Palm’s mega-if­tar that feeds 2,000 peo­ple, tells us about the dish peo­ple can’t get enough of.

How did you be­come a chef? Ever since I was a child I have been pas­sion­ate about cook­ing, es­pe­cially when watch­ing my mother in the kitchen. I used to taste her food while the dishes were be­ing cooked. I re­mem­ber when I was train­ing as a chef, I would sleep at school and then stay three days in my vil­lage. I would come home and work as a chef on my days off. Ev­ery­one thought I was look­ing for money, but I was look­ing for ex­pe­ri­ence. What is cater­ing at the ho­tel like be­fore Ra­madan? Be­fore Ra­madan, we have a lot of func­tions, es­pe­cially wed­dings – ev­ery­one wants to get mar­ried be­fore Ra­madan. It’s al­ways busy, but I can feel that just be­fore Ra­madan we are busy. Some wed­dings have 1,200-1,800 peo­ple, some­times there are two wed­dings at the same time, and we have the Asateer tent all the year for wed­dings. So it’s not that dif­fer­ent once Ra­madan starts, then? But dur­ing Ra­madan there is more re­spon­si­bil­ity and it’s more dif­fi­cult. When the guests ar­rive they have been fast­ing more than 15 hours. The food has to be on time with no mis­takes. You need to or­gan­ise ev­ery­thing prop­erly. The chal­lenge for me when we fin­ish is that the peo­ple stay un­til 9.15pm. At 9.30pm, the guests for suhour start to ar­rive, and they eat à la carte – which is dif­fer­ent from the buf­fet. How many peo­ple do you feed ev­ery night, and how do you cal­cu­late how much food is needed? Ev­ery night we cater for 2,000 guests on av­er­age. We al­ways stand on last year’s num­ber of cov­ers to as­sess how much food is needed. How do you make it hap­pen? We have a strong team. At­lantis has staff from 82-84 na­tion­al­i­ties, and in the kitchen we have more than 30 na­tion­al­i­ties. More than 500 staff work in the tent, be­tween culi­nary and ser­vice. Some peo­ple are Mus­lim and fast­ing, so we need to look af­ter them. The chal­lenge is that all the food has to be on time. You need to be ready for the guests; they are com­ing for a buf­fet, but at a nor­mal buf­fet, the guests come slowly. I have an ear­piece with me, if I am far from the kitchen, so I can speak to my guys in there, say, to re­fill an empty dish. When do you start plan­ning for the next year? Ev­ery year we have some­thing that we learn. Af­ter Ra­madan fin­ishes, the next day, we start plan­ning for Ra­madan for the next year, be­cause ev­ery­one is fresh. All to­gether, with all man­age­ment, ev­ery­one talks about the pos­i­tives and neg­a­tives and how we can im­prove for next year. What are the most pop­u­lar dishes at if­tar? Whole lamb ouzi – peo­ple like it be­cause it’s a live chef sta­tion. The peo­ple are all very hun­gry, and when they see the meat, which is very soft, and the chef cut­ting it, they all come. We get through 360 whole lambs dur­ing Ra­madan – that’s 12 a day. What are the most chal­leng­ing, time­con­sum­ing dishes to make, and which ones are sur­pris­ingly sim­ple? Mezze is very sim­ple as it’s pre-pre­pared. Bar­be­cues are the most chal­leng­ing be­cause they need to be pre­pared on time and al­ways served pip­ing hot. How of­ten do you change the menu? This year, I changed 40-45 per cent of the food. I added Ara­bian sushi; ev­ery­one likes sushi, but raw fish is not good for the stom­ach, so the rice will be the same, but I put falafel and shawarma in it. I try to al­ways do some­thing new. For ex­am­ple, ev­ery­one does la­ban ayran – I do it with gin­ger. Do you fast dur­ing Ra­madan? If you do, does your work cre­at­ing meals af­fect your fast­ing? Yes, I do fast. It does not af­fect me be­cause cook­ing is a pas­sion more than tast­ing. I know when it’s right. What do you eat for if­tar and suhour? I al­ways break my fast with dates, then I have lentil soup fol­lowed by my favourite salad, fat­toush. At suhour time I al­ways pre­fer to have some light bites such as man­ak­ish and shawarma. What are your top tips for hav­ing a big group of peo­ple over and feed­ing them on time? My tip is to al­ways have a proper mise en place [prepa­ra­tion of a dish’s com­po­nents] when you have big groups. I al­ways rec­om­mend healthy food for if­tar be­cause af­ter long fast­ing hours our body needs healthy and fresh food to re­cover from all the lack of vi­ta­mins and pro­tein that we lost dur­ing the fast­ing time. Lentil soup, fat­toush salad and for mains, fish and lamb to re­cover all pro­teins.

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