CHEF TALK: FIRE IT UP! with MAHMOUD TURKMANI
Who knew that 13 years later, I would be sitting in front of the Chef that introduced me to my favourite weekend go-to-meal in 2003 – mini shawarma pockets with a delectable garlic sauce. Chef Mahmoud had many lucky unexpected encounters with people along his journey – a chat with a guest at a restaurant in Damascus brought him to the UAE; a chat with a book seller got him in touch with a Chef that introduced him to the fascinating world of a hotel kitchen. You know for Chef Mahmoud his roots are extremely important, but what I loved about him was the fact that his Uruguayan wife’s roots were equally important to him and that he considers every dish his wife loves as his masterpiece.
Name: Mahmoud Turkmani
Restaurant: The Act, Shangri-La
From: Damascus, Syria
Culinary School: Emirates Academy, Dubai
Knife Hand: Right
Were you a good kid, did you eat your veggies as a child?
When you are a kid there is always something you don’t like. But I don’t think I was very picky, I was easy going. I think the only thing I did not like when I was a kid were broad beans but now it’s one of my favourites.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I always wanted to do something with design – something to do with being an artist. I was also very sporty growing up – I used to swim and did judo. When I was about 11 or 12 years old, I tried to be a hairdresser. I went to pay at a small centre that ran six month hair dressing courses close to my home but fortunately the course timings were the same time as my school. But what I did was worked for two summers, for about three months each year, as a hairdresser in Syria.
When I was 13, until I was 17, I used to live with my grandparents. My grandmother, Hidiya is a fantastic cook and I used to help her make breakfast before leaving for school, and when I returned I used to help her make lunch. I remember one time she tasted the olive oil and said that it was not as good as what she had bought earlier and made me try it. I was intrigued about how she could tell and she started to explain the process of how to make good olive oil.
There was one summer, a friend’s uncle opened a small sandwich shop and I went and helped him and I really liked it. I enjoyed the cooking and seeing customers smiling and also the sense of responsibility when I would be left in charge. We used to buy bread from a very famous bakery cum restaurant called La Noisette. I really like the restaurant, so one day I went to the Chef and asked him if I could work in the kitchen, and he gave me a job. I worked for six month in the hot kitchen where I learned to make Italian food and then moved to work in kitchens of the other brands that the Group had. This was between the ages of 14 – 17.
When I was just turning 18 in 2002, I met one of the guests on my way out to the loading bay who wanted to open a restaurant in Dubai. We were then in contact for about four months and I then came to UAE fourteen years ago to work in a small café called Café Céramique. I was with them for a year and a half and it was while I was working here that I went to Emirates Academy during the day and worked an evening shift at Café Céramique.
But I always wanted to work in a hotel, so I applied at all the places, knocked on all the doors. But nothing. There was this man who used to come visit me selling cooking books which I used to buy from him. I used to buy a lot of books when I was in Café Céramique. Every two weeks he used to come and I used to buy cooking books. One day, I told him that I have known him for more than a year, and I am sure he knew Chefs, but he had not introduced me to any of them and I explained how I had applied for jobs in hotels but had not been successful. So he gave me the number of the Chef from One&Only Royal Mirage – Paul Lenz. So I called Chef and asked for two minutes of his time, and explained what I was looking for. Luckily he was looking for someone so he called me over the next day and he hired me. I worked for the Beach Bar & Grill at the Royal Mirage.
What was your most memorable restaurant job?
I learned in every place I worked at. And I always tell everyone I meet that there is always something to learn. The one place that opened my eyes to many things was Royal Mirage. There are three hotels – The Palace, Residence and Arabian Court – I worked for about six months in each of them and then I moved to the Residence. I got to see different kinds of cuts and learned different skills and techniques. I learned my basics here. For example, when you learn to clean a fly fish, even though there are many types of fly fish, you only need to learn how to clean one type. At the Residence I was the Demi Chef de Partie over time I covered all the sections in this role. I reached a point when I was still a Demi Chef and my Chef de Partie and the Sous Chef left, and it was just me and my Head Chef – Chef James Brure – managing the kitchen. I told my Head Chef that I would do all the jobs without an increment or a title change and if I messed up he could hire someone. I worked with him for one year and he never hired anyone else until we were both there. This was a boutique hotel and when you get to do things perfectly right on a small scale, it is much easier to scale it up. We changed the dinner menu every day, lunch menu and breakfast every week so I pretty much got to learn a lot of new cooking styles, cuisines and techniques.
What did you have for lunch yesterday?
Yesterday I was at Blue Marlin for the Brunch at which I am also the Chef, so I tried everything. But for breakfast I had oats.
Place you eat most often on days off?
I love eating at the Indonesian restaurants in Karama. I also go to Sumo Sushi very often – I eat there at least 3 days a week! I love the salmon sashimi, the shitake mushroom soup and the sashimi salad. I enjoy raw food, especially fish. The good thing about Japanese food is that the flavour is not just salt and pepper like European food; they have other elements for flavouring food like soy sauce, mirin (type of rice wine), sake and wasabi to name a few.
What’s your favourite ingredient/ condiment to work with?
For now I like Kaiso or Seaweed. It’s very light, very healthy and has a lot of protein. I also like kale. Both these ingredients can be used in everything – you can make a soup out of it, you can make a salad, you can it with raw food, like fish or vegetables.
If it’s the last weekend on earth – what city are you eating in and what are you eating?
It would definitely be in Damascus, Syria. I would eat whatever my mom would cook – I love everything that my mother puts her finger on.
If you left Dubai to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I like South America. I have just been to Lima. I like culture and I like cities with culture. My wife, Johanna is originally from Uruguay so it might be nice to go there to cook. I would really like to create a concept of casual dining with very light understandable food – food that is clear to everybody – you don’t need to complicate it too much. Simple, nice and healthy food.
What has been your most embarrassing cooking moment?
There was this one time I was cooking live; I was going to make a Lobster with yellow capsicum and garlic puree with ponito sauce. The lobster has a tail and claws as you know and I was explaining while demonstrating what I was doing – so I said, “you have to cut the claw” but I was slicing the tail while saying it but luckily no one realised.
Who is the person you would most like to cook for?
As a Syrian it has always been a challenge to prove to somebody that I am actually good at what I am doing. I don’t think there is anyone particular I would want to cook for. I always say, that every time I cook, if my wife likes it then I am happy! I just cooked for her chicken broth because she is sick, with a lot of vegetables like carrots, Swiss chard, green peas, potatoes with a lot of coriander, lemon and leeks.
How would you describe your food philosophy?
I always like a dish to have a traditional base – it always has to come from something that we used to eat. I then try to develop this classic recipe to cater to what the restaurant is offering. At The Act, we can do anything as it’s a very dramatic venue – so we try to be creative and offer the food in a different way. The style of food served at The Act is Nikkei (the combination of Japanese and Peruvian cuisine).
What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
I had an octopus on a beach in Ibiza, Spain which was very classic at a restaurant and bar owned by two guys. It was an octopus cooked with espelette (like paprika), lots of olive oil and a potato and it was so nice. The octopus was cooked perfectly.
If you were an ingredient what would you be, and why?
I would be an Onion. Because it’s the most important ingredient in the kitchen. Its also a cure for many things.
What’s the best piece of advice you have been given?
It was by Mohammad Sati who I worked for at Café Céramique. He said he would never be able to teach me everything. He would guide me and I would have to find my own way and direction.
One time, I was cooking in a steak in the Madinat Jumeirah kitchen and it was a very busy day and we just needed to get the food out. The steak I was cooking was not 100% done, so the Chef – Chef Allan – came up to me and saw that it was a little burned and he said that if I sent it out, I would not be cheating anybody, but cheating myself – when you know something is wrong and you still give it to somebody and you make them consume it, even though they may not realise it, you know what you have dished out.
Another time, I was training and cleaning fish in at IK in Lima. I did it really well and then cleaned the surface. I thought I had done a really good job not realizing that there was one scale that I had not cleaned up which was in the middle of the table. So when the Franco Kisic, the owner came up to me and saw it, he told me one small mistake in the kitchen is like 100 – for example, if you did not clean one asparagus correctly, then it’s as good as the entire bunch has not being clean.
If you weren’t a chef, or in the food business, what would you be?
I would either be a hairdresser or a sportsperson – either a swimmer or a diver.
Most underrated ingredient? Onion and garlic not many people don’t like to eat it for many reasons like smell. But both these are the base of almost everything.
Best culinary tool? My hands and fingers. You can feel everything and test everything. For Chefs, when you do something well, they always say you have a ‘clean hand’.
A chef that inspires you? Food is about philosophy. I don’t teach my team a recipe, I teach them my understanding of food. Every Chef I have worked with has taught me something.
Favourite cuisine? I like Mediterranean food – its light, it’s healthy and not very complicated. I am also inspired by Japanese and South American cuisine. Anything with culture will inspire me a lot.
One dish you can’t live without? Sashimi. It gives me energy.
What’s one food trend that needs to end? Fast food. There is a global fast food chain that opened in Syria just opposite our house and my grandmother could smell the oil and she wondered how people could eat food cooked in that smelly oil. The fast food chain stayed open for about 3-4 months and then had to close down because they could not fit into the Syrian culture. Eating fast food once in a while is ok, but when it becomes an everyday habit and is the only thing available to you, you will start to harm yourself because it is not healthy and will make you lazy. When we don’t eat right, people get depressed.
Favourite food from your childhood/ Describe one of your first food memories. Oats was what I had every day for breakfast. My grandma used to give us oats every morning and this is done even today. We used to have our oats with milk or sometimes with chicken and stew. Even today, I eat oats almost every morning.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words. Healthy, simple and safe.
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?
Lobster or steak?
And lastly, cake or pie?
Well, that’s that! Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!