CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with ABDULMAJID ABOOUN
This man smiles in the face of adversity who is as humble as they come. Chef Abdul arrived in Dubai to work in the kitchen of a restaurant run by his extended family in 2004. From the chaos of that kitchen in Karama, Abdul has carefully and steadily manoeuvred his career to be where he is today – in a more formalized and organized kitchen. A man of simple tastes – he does love his pomegranate seeds – Chef Abdul has not been home to Syria in over five years and has no idea when he will be able to visit his family in the future – but through all this he has kept his smile intact, his sense of humour and a hopeful and positive attitude – where he looks for a silver lining in every situation. That to me is the true mark or a man.
Name: Abdulmajid Abooun
Restaurant: Villa Rotana Dubai
From: Daraa, Syria
Culinary School: Hotel Management University, Homs, Syria
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
Yes, I ate everything. In Syria we ate a lot of vegetables while growing up. Most of the vegetables we ate were grown in our home – we did not live in a city, but Daraa is a small village where we all grew our own vegetables. So I loved eating vegetables because it was fresh and my favourite one was cucumber which I used to love eating raw. Growing up we used to eat Yalangi which is stuffed vine leaves with tomato, chopped parsley and rice which were rolled and cooked in olive oil and lemon. There were also traditional dishes which were cooked on holidays and on Fridays called Tabekh Mlahe which is a dish made from whole wheat and yogurt and is served with chicken or lamb – I preferred the chicken version. Vegetable Moutabaka is made with fresh vegetables like green bell peppers, eggplant, onion, tomato and some spicy green chilli. Once the ingredients are put together you add salt and white pepper, some oil and some water and then bake it. Once it is baked, you serve it with a side dish comprising of spring onion, fresh coriander but is unavailable in Dubai).
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
When I was growing up my father always wanted me to study so I could become a doctor and my mum wanted me to be an engineer, but I was not thinking of either of them. I did not like the idea of studying for many years to be a doctor or engineer. When I was 15 or 16 years old, my uncle, Nidal, was working in Abu Dhabi as a Chef and I remember asking him to send me a Chef coat – and the white coat he sent me looked a little like a doctor’s coat. I used to also watch a lot of TV during Ramadan, there was nothing else to do once I got home from school and there were a lot of programs on cooking and I used to love watching them. When I was in class 9, I could choose to go to another school and I chose to be in the hospitality school. So my 10, 11 and 12th grades were completed in hospitality school and in the 12th grade you can chose what your specialization would be, so I chose the kitchen. After my 12th grade, only the top 24 students were eligible to join the Hotel Management University which I went onto study at specialising in the kitchen.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
When I was in Grade 12, before I went to University, I had to go on a three month training. It was the first time I was going to be staying away from home even though it was in the same city. It was a place called Wadi Al Arais which is surrounded by mountains and is green. I went there to work in a seafood restaurant called Alashari. The reason I keep remembering this restaurant is because they had a fish farm which we had to go everyday to fish with a net and basket and then come back and do the mis en place (preparation) for the meals of the day (lunch and dinner). The one thing I learned at this restaurant was patience – whether it was waiting for the fish to catch the bait or waiting around between meals waiting for the customers to come.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Shish taouk sandwich at Rimal Rotana at Moka Café. I like because they use chicken breast which does not have any fat and so is healthy. It’s made with simple ingredients and comes with garlic paste and cucumber pickles and some potato.
Place you eat most often on days off?
On my days off I am usually ordering takeaways. I live in International City and so I often order from a Arabic restaurant called Diyar Al Sham which serves traditional Syrian food and I love the shish taouk and mixed grill there. This restaurant serves food that is very close to the taste of food back home – the main marination we use in Syrian food for the shish taouk is yogurt, chilli paste and some spices. What people are doing nowadays elsewhere is using mayonnaise as a marinating base. For breakfast I like their manaeesh (manakish) with cheese and za’atar. I have tried many other restaurants but this one is the one that takes me right back home.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
Black pepper. It improves the overall taste of food. If the food is to be barbecued, grilled, made into an Arabic stew (Yakhna) or curried, a dash of pepper enhances the taste.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
I would go back home to Daraa to my family and I would be eating pomegranate seeds – I absolutely love it. I love the taste, the colour – we even have a pomegranate tree in our house.
Most exotic vacation destination?
In the last five years I haven’t taken a vacation but recently I went to Salalah, Oman last month for six days. As soon as I arrived in Salalah I felt like it was back home in winter – the water, the mountains, the green, it was raining on and off where you could smell the earth and grass – and it felt like I had been transported back to Daraa, to where I did my training. And that was one of the reasons why I loved Salalah.
I would love to go to France, Paris to see Eiffel Tower. I have heard that France is the perfume capital and I would love to visit a perfumery and also a vineyard.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Europe – maybe Germany or London. Anywhere I go will be to cook Arabic food, to try and popularize it. I would love to own my own restaurant – but it will be Arabic food. I would love to introduce them to the history of Arabic food. A lot of people in Eurpoe don’t necessarily know what Arabic cuisine is, the ones who do are the ones who have travelled and tasted the food either in the Middle East.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
Everyone. Anyone who would like to come to my restaurant with a special request or special food I would love to cook for them. For me it’s very important to have the feedback from everyone to help me improve myself and my team.
What is the dish on the menu you eat most?
I love to have the roasted Salmon fillet with herbs at Moka Café. I love seafood in general and this dish is really yummy here.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
Always to start from the basic and stick to the point – to try and get the proper dishes, to get the right taste and get a dish that our customers will be satisfied with. Don’t use a lot of ingredients and try and keep the taste of the ingredients as authentic as possible. What is also important is to keep the authenticity of the dish to how it is back in its home country. Keep it simple.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?
Raw liver back home in Syria at my grandfather’s house. It was served fresh with only salt and pepper. My grandfather used to eat it often and once when I was visiting he asked me to try it. I knew what I was eating but I did not know what the texture or taste would be like. So when I first ate it I threw up and rushed to put some fresh mint leaves in my mouth to change the taste. I will never ever try it again.
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
Grilled beef tenderloin rolled stuffed with veggies and rosemary, mashed potatoes on side with gravy at the Palm, Abu Dhabi – it’s a standalone restaurant. The ingredients were fresh. When you eat steak you usually feel very heavy but this one was just the right proportions of meat, vegetables and I enjoyed it.
What’s your biggest guilty pleasure food?
Cake – triple chocolate cheesecake – it is three layers of different chocolates – white, dark and milk – from the French Bakery. I have loved this for a very long time. I can make ½ kg disappear within 10 minutes.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
Cucumber because it is cool.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
It was by James Wierzelewski, the Corporate Vice President for the Food and Beverage Operations at Rotana who was a Chef earlier. He told me to keep it traditional, simple and authentic – keep it basic.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
Architect – it’s the only profession I can think of where the finishing of a job would have to match what you had envisaged in your mind at the beginning.
Most underrated ingredient? Fresh coriander. People don’t understand the taste that coriander can bring.
Best culinary tool? Knife for sure.
A chef that inspires you? In the last two years it has been James Wierzelewski – he has motivated me to create and to develop my skills and introduce new concepts. Chef Roland Hobby, the Regional Executive Chef at Abu Dhabi National Hotel (ADNH) gave me the base for all I know – my philosophy was inspired by him. I must also mention my uncle Nidal who is the person who inspired me to be a Chef.
Favourite cuisine? For sure Arabic food because it is the food I have grown up on. But I also like Italian – they use simple ingredients – I enjoy pasta and pizza.
One dish you can’t live without? Falafel because it is simple – it’s made with chickpeas, onion, garlic, parsley, coriander and some Arabic spices which you mix in a mixer and then fry it – you can either have it crispy with some tahini sauce on the side or you can make a sandwich which is the way I prefer eating it.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? I think the buffet trend needs to end. There is way too much food wastage. I believe that if there are less people, it’s better to order al a carte.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. I remember my mother Sofia making Mansaf, which is a Jordanian dish, but as we were close to the Jordan border, our food had that influence. Mansaf is rice cooked with yogurt which you make as a dum and then you have boiled or baked roasted chicken on the side which is marinated with salt, pepper and lemon. I used to ask my mom to make this for me.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people? A piece of charcoal. What my elders have told me is that if you keep a piece of charcoal in the door of your chiller, your fridge will not smell.
Last thing you cooked for yourself? I haven’t cooked in so long for myself. I have cooked for others, but not just for me.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Easy, tasty and healthy.
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?