CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with SAMIR ROONWAL
The decision to leave the Canadian snow and move to the sandy shores of Dubai after 25 years was something that came easily to Chef Samir – and he has never regretted it for a moment. He may be Indian by birth, but when he speaks you know he has a major American/Canadian influence – it’s simply because of the number of times he uses the word ‘awesome’ – a word I associate with the Americas. Chef Samir likes to be involves in all aspects of the dining experience – ambiance needs to be homey, with great food and service. As a 16 year old, when he first walked into a ballroom at a five star hotel, little did the young boy realise that a few years on he would be the master of all he surveyed – dining experience wise. He moved to Dubai two years ago, and I don’t believe this city will see the back of him any time soon (definitely not, if his wife has her way!).
Name: Samir Roonwal
Restaurant: Al Ghurair Rayhaan & Arjaan by Rotana
From: Toronto, Canada
Culinary School: Institute of Hotel Management, New Delhi, India
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
I am from a very middle class society, so growing up meat was impossible to afford on a daily basis – it was reserved for when we had guests or family coming over. We were born and brought up on vegetables pretty much – it was not like we had a choice at that time. When we were young, whatever mom put on the table we ate. My mom Veena, was an awesome cook. We used to have dals, vegetables – I think we used to run through nearly all the dals possible during the week – a different dal every day. Eggplant was a favourite of mine – my mom used to make this puree of eggplant (baigan ka bharta) and also okra (ladyfinger, bhindi). She used to make an awesome dal makhani. All in all I don’t think my sister and I ever dared questioned what the menu was.
What did you want to be when you were growing up and how did being a Chef become your chosen profession?
I wanted to be an architect. I wanted to join the School of Planning & Architecture in India but unfortunately I did not get through – I remember there was a test where I had to draw some images in the entrance exam and I don’t think I did extremely well. Growing up Hotels seemed like luxurious places to be and I always who the people were who went to these fancy hotels – and I always wanted to see what these hotels looks like. Once when I was 16 years old, I remember Dad had a dinner to attend and we were fortunate to go along to this dinner at a Hotel. I walked into the ballroom and I was completely awed. I saw the servers coming around in these smart jackets and the Chefs lined up in their hats – and I thought to myself that this is awesome, this is exactly what I want to do (be in the hotel business). At the time in India, hoteliering was not a profession that was looked upon – being an engineer or doctor was more the way to go. So it was a pretty difficult sell for mom and dad too. My mom (a scientist) was shocked, upset and disappointed by my choice, while my dad (a marine geologist) was neutral – he said if that is what I wanted to do then that is great but make sure I work hard.
During the Hotel Management course, we had to do a six month internship every year during our three year course. During my first six months I went through housekeeping, front office and F&B service all of which I found boring but when I walked into the kitchens and that was such a high – there was excitement, voices, people were trying to achieve things in a short span of time, there were guidelines, there were pictures everywhere (in those days, might be a little bit old fashioned but they used to have photos of dishes everywhere, plastered around the whole kitchen). I was a trainee at ITC Maurya Sheraton in New Delhi and the kitchen was one area that really fascinated me – it was in my first year, six month internship I made up my mind that kitchen was what it will be. My second and third year internships were in the Kitchen only at the ITC Maurya Sheraton.
Fortunately after my graduation, I was chosen was a Management trainee with ITC Hotels. It was a two year intensive program in the kitchens, we went through six properties – Hyderabad, Delhi, Bombay, Jodhpur, Jaipur and Agra – in my training process.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
Liwan at Al Ghurair Rayhaan. When I came in, Liwan was a great buffet area with a lot of potential but did not have the right focus on food quality, food presentation – things being a little bit old fashioned in presentation. They needed more current innovative ways of putting food out and to teach a team of 30 Chefs in the Liwan kitchen to do things differently. When I arrived, Liwan had been open two months, still in its gestation period, trying to figure out which direction and I could see right away that it was not current. It took us a lot of Pottery Barn visits to prop it up correctly. I wanted the restaurant to have a very residential look – a non-hotel look. We did a lot of research on what we should do, what cuisines we should serve. Liwan was a challenge in the beginning but at the end of the day it was very fruitful. It was a four month process for Liwan to look like what it is today. It was not just about décor and props, but food as well. Rigth down to the dishes we were presenting our food in – so none of our buffet dishes in which we serve are food in is white. This job is memorable because of the way we changed and showed tremendous growth.
My lunch has been the same for the last 12 years now – soup and a salad. Yesterday I had cream of chicken soup and a simple green salad with some fresh blueberries and green apple with a nice lime dressing.
Place you eat most often on days off?
My wife Uttara and I both like sushi, so we go to a restaurant called Miyabi Sushi & Bento on Sheikh Zayed Road (Behind UAE Exchange, Next to Towers Rotana). They have some awesome sushi. They have a Japanese salad with tuna and a nice crunchy dragon roll which they have a unique twist on which is a definite must have.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Coriander seeds – 100%. The plethora of options you can go with that is unimaginable. Firstly, we never used that seed in Western cuisine and then suddenly someone decided to throw in a pickling marinade, and then decided to crack it open and toast it which became powder and then we started using it as a crust on fish. The coriander seed and powder taste extremely different. The seed has not been utilised as much I feel – the more we use the product the more we realise the extreme nature of the product and we can then take it to different levels.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would go to Singapore and the dish would be the Black Pepper Crab at Glutton’s Bay. Glutton’s Bay is an area around Marina Bay which is a massive hawkers market each of the stalls is selling street food and I think it’s the world’s best street food. I have never in my life tasted better seafood. Why the Black Pepper Crab? Because I believe it is the single most delicious dish one can eat – the sauce, the heat of the black pepper corn, the tanginess of the dish, the freshness of the crab – it’s just an incredible experience to have a freshly done dish. You eat it with your hands, and nothing else, well you may need some paper towels on the side.
Most exotic vacation destination?
Mai Khao in Phuket (Thailand). For me, being a hotelier, I am looking for quiet time. For me a vacation is not New York, for me it is where I can chill and have a great time with my sons, relax with no agenda. My perfect holiday is where I can have a pool next to me, with a lot of food and my family. Phuket has some great food, you think you know Thai food, and then you go to Thailand.
I think I want to go to a ski resort – that’s another think I want to do. The cold is still calling me back.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
New York. Just the cuisine scene is so intense, there is so much to learn, so much to see in terms of concepts, chefs are creating restaurants with unique ways of presentation, and ingredients are being introduced. New York has so much fresh produce available in New Jersey. I think as a chef, you definitely want to be in New York. I see myself working in a hotel – I do not believe that I am a restaurant kind of guy – I am definitely a hard-core hotel guy. I have always been in hotels and I have felt that hotels have a lot of character in different areas, you see 400-500 people in a hotel – I am a people’s guy – I like seeing people and I like being surrounded by large teams.
What has been your funniest cooking moment?
We were cooking for this massive Jewish gala – 4000 people in Toronto where we had these super VIP dignitaries attending. The soup was consommé and cooking for 4000 we nearly had about 300 gallons of soup in three large steam pots ready for service. About 30 minutes before service, I went to my Chefs and asked them for a quick taste of the soup before we served it and I went to the back and my Chefs cannot find the soup – the pots are empty – all three of them. We looked around, no one had an answer to where the soup had disappeared to. I suddenly noticed the pot washer who was around cleaning the floor and I asked him whether he knew and he was like ‘Ya, I cleaned the pots for you Chef, it was all dirty water in there.’ So in 20 minutes we had to make consommé which usually takes a day and a half – so we went and got some chicken powder and convert this into a quick drive-through consommé and we are going to garnish it with some cloudy noodles so that it fakes the look of it and over garnish it. We had to ask the organizers that we needed half an hour more so to let the speeches go on for longer. At night when it was all over, and I had to go out and shake hands and say thank you, this lady sitting at the head table she comes up to me and says, ‘Chef, everything was awesome, and I loved the taste of the soup.’ Lesson learned for sure, don’t ever let your dish or pot washer next to your consommé soup.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Definitely mum. When we moved to Canada, she went back to India to with my Dad and I did not get enough of a chance to really sit and spend time with her. So I always felt that I wish I mom could come visit on summer holidays and I could cook for her. I remember at the start, she hated the Chef profession, but she grew to love what I do and was very proud of me. What would I cook for her? It would not be a meal per se, but cooking for her on a daily basis, just having the pleasure of feeding her as gratitude and thanks for all that she has done.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
At Liwan it would be the butter chicken – it’s our signature dish. The reason I like it so much is because I have been kept away from India food for a very long time and with me coming to Dubai has been the closest to the authentic Indian flavour I have got. I like it because it brings out a lot of love for my food, butter chicken brings out the nostalgia of Indian cooking. I usually eat it with rice and naan.
And in the Shayan restaurant I would choose the Joojeh Kebab (like a chicken tikka). Iranian cuisine offers a very different angle to kebabs. The Joojeh kebab is a simplistic kebab which is marinated in onion juice and just basic turmeric, salt and pepper, a little bit of olive oil and garlic and that’s it. The key in Iranian food is open charcoal grilling. Chef Magsud is superstar when it comes to Iranian food. I eat it with fresh Iranian bread called lavash (made with flour and is thin and crispy) – I usually like to make it into a shawarma roll – I like to put garlic pickle in it, some garlic paste, fresh onion and tomatoes and you roll with the joojeh kebab – I tell you what – it is so tender.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Integrity to food is the most important for me. By this I mean, Chefs try to bastardize products now and I would say – keep the products true to its nature – a carrot should taste like a carrot at the end of the day – it can’t be concocted into a molecular concoction. I don’t like to mix too many things (ingredients), I like to keep raw things raw. Nowadays, Chefs are going crazy with these presentations – trying to make the plate look colourful while the taste is going downhill. Keep it simple and integral to the taste of the food you are having.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
It would have to be in Thailand – fried cockroaches. Batter fried cockroaches but they tasted awesome. You could not differentiate them from a chicken wing. It was on the streets in Thailand where they served it on a leaf with some sweet chilli sauce and that was it. They fry it right in front of you – the batter is there, the cockroaches are there – and once you order – they take the cockroaches and put it in the batter and fry it there and then. I think its one of the most atrocious dishes to eat, but it tastes like awesome!
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
There is a restaurant in Toronto by the name of Canoe serving Canadian food – basically meat and potatoes. Canoe is on the 54th floor of one of the towers (Toronto-Dominion Centre) – it’s a restaurant with a view that overlooks the whole city. I loved eating the veal chop – that is my favourite dish. I loved the food presentation, the taste of the steak, the clean plates, the sauces which has a lot of flavour, the service and ambiance.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Nachos. I can eat a lot of nachos. I love the tanginess, you can put so much on top – you can put vegetables, you can make it a meat nacho dish – nachos is like a pizza base – you can go ballistic with any ingredients you want to put on it. I like to add beef mince on it, jalapenos, a lot of Monterey Jack cheese, red and green peppers, sour cream, guacamole and crispy bacon – it’s like a meal.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Cucumber – because I am simple and versatile.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
I would say my Dad, Ganpat, when I was joining hotel school who told me that whatever I chose to do in my career or in my life – just make sure you do it 100% and give it a full fair shot. I have maintained that philosophy all my life.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Definitely either an architect or an interior designer.
Most underrated ingredient? Ginger. Again its because of exposure – most of the chefs are not exposed to the nature of ginger. We always relate the ginger as an oriental (far Eastern) vegetable or is used in just marinating a meat. But ginger is the backbone of Indian cooking, ginger is highly used in Japanese, Chinese, Thai cuisines. It is also an important ingredient in western cooking. The more we get exposed to this product the more we can use it in our cooking.
Best culinary tool? A cleaver because it’s a large blade and every time you chop or cut something you don’t have to look for a spoon to pick it up.
A chef that inspires you? Chef Charlie Trotter, a chef from Chicago. He has opened several successful restaurants and then closed all of them down in its peak days. When we were growing up and learning to cook, Charlie Trotter was instrumental in telling the world what good food would look like on a plate. This whole plating drama that we have created now was initiated by him. He started with a very simplistic approach of plating food, keeping the taste great and having a good amount of meat on the plate.
Favourite cuisine? Thai by far. I love the Larb Gai or minced chicken salad. I believe that Thai food is very similar of Indian food – it’s very simple, is very a-la-minute (does not require too much prep time), quick and easy. The sauces have so much intense flavour. The curries are made with mortar and pestle.
One dish you can’t live without? All my menus have to have a great veal chop and that is because I am guilty of loving it too much.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Fusion. I think it has been taken to a very scary level now. The great chefs who started the trend did not put a ceiling on where it should stop, and now we have the new trend where people are dangerously mixing up different flavours which don’t go well together at all and we are so enamoured by this food plating nonsense that we are trying to mix spices that don’t go well together – we are just creating a mess on the plate.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Growing up I remember eating chaat on the streets of Delhi. Golgappas (pani puri) for sure. Earlier it was served very differently – we used to stand in a line by the street cart and the guy used to stuff the puri and then dip the puri into the bowl of chutney and give it to you in a plate, so you better be ready as it keeps coming one after the other. I also used to enjoy having aloo tikki with some chutney. I believe great food lives on the streets, I believe in street food – I think if you want to learn something about intense taste, you should go and try out food that is available in the streets and you will get the true feeling of the culture.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? Frozen parathas. I keep them because there are days when I feel we are too tired and are trying to figure out what we want to eat – we eat the parathas with yogurt.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? Baigan ka bharta (Indian egg plant dish). My wife totally disapproved of the taste but I thought I did pretty well. It’s one of my favourite dishes from childhood.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Simple, clean and passionate.
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!