CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with CHEF RABAH SAMRA
I have to say, I am a bit embarrassed to admit that I am not very well versed with Emirati cuisine having lived in the Emirates for as long as I have and so it was with great trepidation that I went to Seven Sands to meet Chef Rabah. My idea of Arabic cuisine was limited to what is served in Dubai very often under the guise of Lebanese cuisine. What Rabah is trying to do at Seven Sands is ambitious – he is trying to introduce the Emirates to its own cuisine although in a contemporary way while retaining the ingredients and taste. Rabah is passionate about Emirati food which he believes can trace its roots to Al Ain and is influenced by South Asian cuisine which makes sense considering the Emirates was on the silk route and is fairly a new country.
Name: Rabah Samra
Restaurant: Seven Sands, The Beach
From (Country): Lattakia, Syria
Culinary School: Lattakia Hotel Management Institute
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I ate everything. I am a good eater.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an Engineer – I wanted to pursue ship engineering. But my mother worried about me being in the middle of the ocean, and at that time we did not have mobiles, so she worried about how she would keep in touch with me, so she asked me to think of something else. When I was about 18 and had to figure out what I wanted to do, hospitality was new. My uncle was a singer and I would go with him to 5-star hotels and saw chefs moving around although I had at that time no idea what Chefs did. I watched them and like their job. I loved the eye communication between the Chefs and for me that was intriguing. The first dish I cooked for my job in Dubai was Lamb spinach and I called my mom to ask her how to make the dish – so a lot of credit goes to my mother.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
In 1997, there was the first camel race in Europe in Germany and dignitaries from all over the world came to Berlin Intercontinental Hotel for a diplomatic function. President Sheikh Zayed and his son Sheikh Hazza were also present at this lunch function. I was sent by Intercontinental Dubai to Berlin by Intercontinental to help prepare for the function 1 month before the function to do the preparations which included resourcing the produce, creating the menu based on the ingredients available, and allocating the buffet. We were not allowed to take any ingredients from Dubai into the country so we had to create menus using only locally sourced products. It was a platter to plate silver service lunch promoting Arabic cuisine. We had trained the staff on how the dignitaries from the Gulf like to be served, how the food needs to be presented, how they should be spoken to etc. Suddenly, when the time for serving came the servers felt nervous and so I had to personally take the platter and serve the food myself. It was a huge privilege for me.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Catch of the day – sheri fish with fouga rice which is aromatic basmati rice infused with bezer and coriander.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I go often to Shabestan the Iranian restaurant at Radisson Blu at Dubai Creek. If I have to choose one dish that I eat there often it is the rice and kababs like minced lamb kofta called Chelo Kabab – E – Kubideh and Ghormeb Sabzi which is tender cuts of lamb with spinach, coriander, parsley and bay leek chutney saloona with red beans.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
I love lemon. It’s inspiring, refreshing and aromatic and can balance your palate. You can refresh any salad or saloona with a squirt of lemon.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would go home to my mother, to my parents in Syria and would eat anything that has been made on that day by my mother. Whatever is on the kitchen table will be more than enough for me – there is no comparison.
Most exotic vacation destination?
I enjoyed Palawan and Boracay in the Philippines. I loved the cool, calm and welcoming people, fresh food and natural resources. I would love to go to South America and the Caribbean – to Brazil, Colombia and Jamaica – this is a place to discover.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
This was when I was working at the Intercontinental at Deira Creek and we had a cooking class to teach a Japanese Women’s Association delegation about Syrian/Mediterranean cuisine. I wanted to make it a fun event and put on a show. So while I was slicing very fast, I dipped my finger in the red food colouring I had on the side and showed it to the delegates who thought I had cut my finger. They were not happy. Since then I have stopped doing drama.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Aishu Laham. It’s like lamb biryani. It has rice, lamb and dal which is a little bit sweet sour flavoured with ginger, garlic, dried lime and saffron along with Arabic styled yogurt. It’s a complete meal. It’s a very well balanced meal for me.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
My food philosophy is balanced, by this I mean that you eat everything in the right quantity. Very refreshing where everything is fresh and healthy.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Crocodile tail at the Intercontinental. There was a special cocktail party and I was the Arabic cuisine chef at the event. The Continental chef made the deep fried crocodile tail and I tried it and it was delicious. It’s like squid. I had a small bite, and I liked it and then took another bite.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
In Syria and I was invited by one of my Shadi, my friend to his farm. We had fresh lamb ouzi with barley. We boiled it over charcoal in barley and it becomes soft and starchy. It was very natural, we only used salt and the taste of the meat was wow. The reason why it was memorable was because I was eating with my friend after 15 years.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Kunafa – I love it . For me its something I have eaten since I was a child. For me it’s one of the main sweets.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
My father told me to help whenever you can.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
A ship engineer I guess.
Most underrated ingredient? Ginger. The aromatic ginger can go with the base of either onion or garlic and is one of the five ingredients which is good for the heart. Its an ingredient if not included I feel the dish is missing something, and when its included I feel it balances the dish.
Best culinary tool? Cooking pan. It’s open cooking pan and you can cook anything in it – you can sautee, deep fry etc.
A chef that inspires you? Eric Fettke the chef at Sandton Sun Intercontinental in Johannesburg. He was open to ideas and welcoming. He set a good example in terms of his approach to people, his techniques, the final touches and managing the kitchen.
Favourite cuisine? Thai. I love their mixed vegetables, I like the ginger-garlic onion paste. They have deep fried, grilled and steamed – they have different kinds of cooking methods and 1000s of ingredients to mix in front of you.
One dish you can’t live without? Tabouleh. It’s described as one of the healthiest salads in the world. It has parsley, onion, tomatoes, olive oil, lemon juice.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. I am a sweet eater. I’m from a big family of 6 children. When I was young, when my 5th sister was born I used to be asked to make Mahalabiya. It is a dish made with rice powder, milk and sugar and rose water and I fell in love with it as I used to taste it while cooking it.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? My fridge is way too clean.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Planned, balanced and to-the point taste-wise.
THIS OR THAT
Food on a skewer or food in a tiny spoon?
Hot curry or haute cuisine?
Buffet or sit-down dinner?
Mints or gum?
Soup or salad?
Greek yogurt or labneh?
Butter or olive oil?
Chicken breast or chicken thigh?
Baked or fried?
Waffles or pancakes?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!