MY WORKING LIFE
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
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.