CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with JUBER SHAIKH
The food journey of a Chef who joined a restaurant when it was first launched in 2002 as a Commi and grew in ranks and is now the Executive Chef is one that needs to be told. A love affair with food that started on a school summer holiday when visiting his hometown put Chef Juber on track for a future he was yet to discover. Learning the basics from his mother, this Chef has dreams, big dreams. He hopes to become a Culinary Director in the next 6-7 years and, hopefully, along the way help break misconceptions of Indian cuisine and introduce more people to what good Indian cuisine is.
Name: Juber Shaikh
Restaurant: Asha’s Wafi Mall
From (Country): India
Culinary School: IHM Chennai, India
Knife Hand: Right
Twitter Handle: @WafiRestaurants
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yes. I ate everything. I loved vegetables, seriously. I normally don’t eat okra, but when I mother cooked it in her style of perfectly fried I loved it. At home we mainly had North Indian cuisine.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an engineer. I watched my father, who was an engineer, work in an office at an 8am-5pm job and so I wanted to follow in his footsteps so that I could then get time with my family. The love affair with cooking began when I was about 12 years old, in the 5th standard. I remember being on my school break and my family and I visited our hometown near Kolkata. As usual, my mom used to cook, she was a good cook and I used to watch her. And the aroma of the food cooking would fill the air and I fell in love with the smell. The style of cooking in my hometown was very different to cooking in the city. In the village there is no gas so food is cooked over a wooden fire in a pit in the floor. Even the cooking dishes were different. My mom cooked in a clay pot and these two factors made the smell and taste of the food very very different in the village. It was then I started to learn how to cook from my mom and even when we came back to Kolkata I continued to help my mom. It was around this time, that I made the decision that I wanted to become a Chef.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
It was in Asha’s Marina Mall Kuwait. We were opening the restaurant in Kuwait, which would be the second restaurant after the one at Wafi to open and the first franchise Asha’s restaurant and I went there as a trainer. I was a Commi 1 at Asha’s in Wafi and I was entrusted with the responsibility of training the Kuwait team on all that I had learned in the Asha’s kitchen over a 3 month period. Whatever I learned in this kitchen I had to teach a team of 15 people on how a kitchen in Asha’s functions which was challenging. I had to teach them everything – from training procedures, train the trainer, food quality.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
I had Spanish food at Seville’s in Wafi. I had chicken and prawns Paella. I loved the flavour, the texture, the aroma and the way it is presented is very appealing.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I love street food a lot. As I work in a fine dining restaurant, we are constantly trying the food, tasking the food during the week but street food is very different. Indian street food gives me a sense of home. So you would find me in Karama – they have some nice street foo. Restaurants like Puranmal, Chappan Bhog server some really nice pani puri and chaats. I also enjoy Gujarati snacky food like khandvi and dhoklas and of course the green chutneys. I also love momos so I would have those at Yalla Momos in Karama. These are the restaurants I visit because I miss this kind of food which is very popular in Mumbai which is now home to me.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
My favourite ingredient to work with is peppers – all the colours. It gives a lot of flavour, colour and can be used in any kind of dishes. We use it quite a lot in Asha’s as a main dish.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would be eating burgers, any burgers, maybe a chicken burger with fries and a litre of cola. I just love cheese so the burger will definitely have to have cheese. I wouldn’t generally have burgers all the time, but since it’s the last weekend on earth, I don’t really have to watch my waistline.
Most exotic vacation destination?
Auckland in New Zealand. It’s a beautiful city with a lot of green and peaceful. I went paragliding over snow capped mountains which was very exciting. I would love to visit Switzerland because I have heard that the country is very beautiful and I love the weather – I love the cold and love the food especially steak.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I think I would go to the UK, maybe Liverpool. I believe that till date there isn’t a good Indian restaurant there and as a Chef I want to show them what good Indian food is all about. I also have a dream of opening my own restaurant and introducing people to good Indian food. I would most likely open my restaurant in Pondicherry or Kolkata. The food I have in mind is street food like like kababs, roomalis, basically tava food served in a nice cosy environment.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
My wish of cooking for Ashaji (Asha Bhosle) has been fulfilled. But I would also like to cook for Anupam Kher (an Indian actor). I heard he loves food and he enjoys good food. He loves tofu palak with naan so I am likely to make that for him. He had visited our restaurant, but I was not the one to cook for him during the visit. So he is one person I still would like to cook for.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
Kesar Biryani – it’s a saffron biryani cooked with lamb. It has good taste and food flavours and we make it according to Ashaji’s own personal recipe and it is also one of her favourite dishes.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
My philosophy is to use freshest of ingredients with just the right amount of fresh spices where the aromas from the dishes make the patrons fall in love with the food.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was in Auckland, New Zealand. It was a simple meal of 6 grilled lamb chops which they bring on a skewer directly to your table and then serve it directly on your plate. The meat was very tender, soft and juicy and I loved the way the entire dish was presented. I have never eaten such superb lamb chops in my career. The setting also was just perfect – it was evening, just as the sun set over the mountains. I can’t remember the name of the restaurant but it was like a steakhouse and the service was excellent.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Red Velvet Cheesecake. I just love the taste of it. When you take a bite, the taste stays with you even after you have long eaten it and very often the portions are so large that you cannot finish it.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Strawberry. Because everyone loves strawberries.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
When I was studing at the Hotel Management college, my Chef told me that when you become famous and established in your career, don’t lose your innocence and your positive attitude.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I guess I would have been an engineer, perhaps a chemical engineer.
Most underrated ingredient? Fresh coconut. Most people don’t know the many ways in which it can be used. You can deconstruct it, make it into an ice cream and can be used in most curries and even use it as a garnish. Some cuisines use dry coconut, but I believe fresh coconut should be experimented with more often.
Best culinary tool? In my kitchen I have a kit comprising of 21 different knives for different uses which I had got from Kuwait.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Russell Impiazzi, the Director Culinary of Lafayette Gourmet from Galeries Lafayette Dubai. He taught me a lot of things. He taught me how to cook and understand Indian fusion cooking, he guided me and prepared me on how to be an executive chef right from etiquette, kitchen systems which I use even today.
Favourite cuisine? Indo-Chinese. I love Chinese food but it has to have the Indian touch. The ingredients give you a different taste and the flavour changes as soon as you add Indian spices. It’s has the best of both worlds.
One dish you can’t live without? Dal Makhani. It is very tasty, very rich and it’s awesome. You can eat it with everything, either on its own, with bread or with rice.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? I don’t believe there is any particular food trend that needs to end. I believe that the food intake of people should be well proportioned and well balanced and within moderation.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Sarson (mustard) Fish which is a traditional Bengali dish which is called Machher Jhol (Machher = Fish; Jhol = Curry). It’s a gravy dish made with masalas, mustard paste and yogurt. My grandmother used to make it and I remember eating it with rice. What I remember is the pungency of the mustard and the sourness of the yogurt which when combined tasted awesome.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Mutton curry. I cooked it with olive oil, onion and tomatoes with fresh spices and I had it with channa pulao (rice made with black chickpeas).
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Passionate, fresh and I use the slow cooking technique.
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!