RECIPES Mohammad Orfali shares the secrets behind his appetite for Aleppo
Middle Eastern celebrity chef Mohammad Orfali tells us about his culinary heroes, top cooking shows and why Syrian flavours never go out of favour
His always-smiling demeanor -- not to mention spectuacularly plated, delicious dishes -- make him a real favourite on food channel Fatafeat. After heading to Taste of Abu Dhabi, chef Mohammad Orfali tells us about his top ingredients, those whose recipes he respects and why we might soon be able to sample his cooking in Dubai...
Where do you get your inspiration from?
My first inspiration comes from the cuisine of Aleppo, which is my hometown in Syria. I have fond memories growing up and eating a variety of traditional cuisine that is native to the land. The rest of my inspiration comes from day-to-day experiences.
You’ve managed to popularise the food from your hometown across the world -- what makes Aleppo’s dishes so special?
It is the cuisine of the oldest inhabited city in the world, with an extraordinary backdrop of civilisations and characters, cooks and traditions, ingredients and techniques spread over centuries.
Have you had a mentor who has shaped your career?
Yes, I have more than one. Firstly, my mother and my grandmother. Secondly Chef Wassim Mustafa, from the Institute of Hospitality Scienes in Aleppo. He was one of the few who emphasised local as well as international recipes. And Chef Marc Kendakji [with whom
Mohammed worked during his first stint in a professional kitchen in Kuwait]. Thirdly, I learned the saying: “Honesty is the beginning of creativity” from Ferran Adrià. I love this saying because it is very important for creative chefs to be sincere and honest when using or applying techniques they’ve picked up from other chefs. Giving credit to the owner of an idea is honest and transparent. Learning from another chef’s style, not simply copying, is part of the beautiful exchange of ideas that contributes to the development of the concepts of cooking.
How do you ensure your food keeps evolving?
The greatest part of my experience comes from reading books and keeping up-to-date with the works of the great chefs whom I learned from while following the progress of their careers. At no point am I content to stop learning. When it comes to knowledge and searching for all that is new, or perhaps even older, I maintain an insatiable appetite to develop and improve my skills.
Those chefs I have learned a great deal from include all the greats: Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz, Pierre Gagnaire, Joan Roca, Andoni Luis Aduriz, René Redzepi, Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Massimo Bottura, David Chang, Alex Atala, Daniel Humm, Grant Lee Crilly, Chris Young, and Daniel Patterson. I thank them for sincerely for sharing information and techniques - they never withhold new discoveries from those eager to learn and grow. Each and every one of them had a unique message and spirit that inspired me and a host of other chefs across the world.
You are beamed into our homes on Fatafeat TV and the Discovery channel. Do you watch cooking shows yourself?
Of course, not only cooking shows but also documentaries such as Huston Blumenthal’s programmes, The Mind of a Chef, Chef’s Table and
Have you ever been to a restaurant and wished it was yours?
Yes, Noma in Copenhagen.
Do people invite you over for dinner?
Yes, a lot. It’s an honour to taste food cooked by friends and family.
Any restaurants you would love to visit?
It is not a specific restaurant, but I would love to experience cooking in the wild with Francis Mallmann in Patagonia, Argentina.
Are you more of a fine-dining connoisseur or do you prefer casual spots?
Both. A little bit of everything makes me understand food better and I think it’s how it should be.
What would be your dream dinner party guest list and who would cook?
I would like to host all of the chefs who have inspired me. It would a big table of food cooked with my inspirations from Aleppo to all the modern tastes I’ve picked up along the way. hosted in my hometown.
What cookery tomes should be on every aspiring chef’s shelf?
A Pinch of Salt by Bethany Lopez.
Your signature dish?
I have many. ‘Octopus Dancing in Mutabbal’, and ‘Come with me to Aleppo’, which is a kebab made with a sour cherry ketchup and topped with cinnamon and pine nut crumble.
Your ultimate comfort food is?
Burgers and kebabs.
The five ingredients that you love to use?
Natural MSG, onion, garlic, fat and aubergine.
Anything you don’t like to eat?
I don’t think so... I’ve recently eaten bugs such as ants and grasshoppers and they were delicious, too.
The most underrated ingredient is?
Water. Unfortunately, most people do not consider it as an ingredient but water is vital in the creation of many core sauces and stocks.
The person you would most like to collaborate with – in any field – is?
My brothers Wassim and Omar, who specialise in the fields of pastries and boulangerie.
What’s next in the pipeline for you?
I was very excited to be back at Taste of Abu Dhabi and enjoyed the fantastic line-up of chefs and entertainment over the weekend. I am actually working on another project to open my own restaurant in Dubai with my brothers.