Young Arab Chef Combines Traditional Middle Eastern Food Ingredients With Modern Techniques
DUBAI: Smoked shishito hummus? Check. Healed hamachi, mandarin and zaatar? Check. With these fusion dishes and more in the offing, a young Franco-Syrian chef, who has run one of Dubai’s most successful restaurants, is eager to take the revolutionary path in cooking.
Using local regional products such as dukka (a mixture of nuts and spices), zaatar (made from thyme) and muhammara (a dip made mostly of red peppers), and ingredients such as shishito (another type of pepper ) and hamachi (a Japanese fish), 24-year-old Solemann Haddad shapes the offer in his hometown.
Its aim is to merge traditional ingredients with modern techniques.
Born and raised in the UAE, Haddad’s passion for cooking began when he was just 4 years old, when he stole his brother’s cookbook and locked himself in the kitchen to bake cookies and omelets with it. help from his mother.
“It was my very first memory with food,” he told Arab News. “It was like making potions, with a different result each time. I found this very interesting as a child.
The road to achieving his ambitions has not been easy. After studying international relations at university, he found himself frustrated and meaningless.
“I didn’t like college at all, even though I had good grades,” Haddad said. “I had panic attacks every night.”
Conversations with his father about his future job as a cook ended in dead ends. “My father, and many Arab men of his generation, would question the idea of a man becoming a leader,” he said. “The idea of being a chef was so far-fetched for him, but it has more to do with old school culture.”
Yet Haddad was not ready to give up his vocation. One day, four weeks before his final college exams, he took the leap. He took some money from his father and took the first flight to London, where he stayed with a friend. “I told my dad that I wouldn’t come back until he accepted the fact that I was going to be a chef,” he said.
“So there was a tacit agreement: he would send me to culinary school, and I would come back and finish college. And that’s what I did.
Haddad attended two cordon bleu culinary schools in Japan and London for 10 months, while juggling internships at Michelin-starred restaurants. Back in Dubai, he completed his university studies in 2019 and started browsing restaurants nearby, providing advice on menus and ingredients.
It was while working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, where he tasted every dish to deepen his learning curve, that he had an eye opener. “I tasted something with mushrooms and thought to myself, ‘I never thought food could taste so good,’” Haddad said.
“It’s like I see a new color. Then I realized the possibilities. My eyes opened and it changed my life. It was the highlight of my school years.
Back in Dubai, Haddad began working as a sous chef at Inked, a self-proclaimed food and music cooperative, for a few months. While at the restaurant, he created and served 25 new dishes per month. Then, in March of last year, he was released due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lockdown soon followed, with six months of forced rest. “I haven’t even cracked an egg,” he says. “I took a vacation because I had been working hard for three years, so it made me relax.”
The downtime proved to be beneficial, as the young chef quickly started posting homemade videos on Instagram Live and developing recipes for fun. For him, it was essential research and development.
His cuisine is decidedly upscale and shows an obsessive attention to detail and technique derived from Haddad’s experiences in Japan, roots in Lebanon and the proud culinary traditions of Syria, and influences from India. Is this fusion personified?
“I always say my life is fusion because I only cook what I grew up eating. My mother was French, so I ate French food, but I also ate shawarma with my father and Syrian / Lebanese food with my grandmother, ”Haddad said.
“My life has been centered on not having a fixed kitchen, so the way the dishes come out is organic and that’s what makes sense to me.
His next break came when Rami Farook, the owner of Maisan15, a restaurant and gallery, suggested forming a partnership to open a restaurant in an art gallery on Dubai’s trendy Alserkal Avenue.
“There was no kitchen or gas. I thought it was a little crazy, but the more I thought about it the more I saw it as an opportunity and within hours I was convinced, ”Haddad said.
In 30 days a kitchen was built from scratch and Warehouse16 launched in mid-September 2020.
“Everything went well and we were doing very well,” he said. “We were full from the first to the last dinner.”
At the restaurant, Haddad combined Japanese kaiseki dishes – a traditional Japanese multi-course dinner – with local Middle Eastern ingredients. He credits Misbah Chowdhury, a childhood friend and associate at Warehouse16, who is also the director of social media operations and marketing, for making the business a success.
“We’ve always been very aggressive on sales and social media,” Haddad said. “A lot of restaurants leave it to fate, but it helped us a lot early on when we didn’t have fans.”
Haddad says he is meticulous in cooking and presentation. He will only serve a dish if it looks and tastes good, spending 51% of his effort on the flavor and 49% on the plate. The results are dishes of artistic beauty.
“The visuals and the flavor are almost as important as each other,” he told Arab News.
Such a state of mind has resulted in a wave of success. Warehouse16 generated over a year of expected revenue in half. “It exploded in five months,” Haddad said. “We were very humble and pleasantly surprised.”
Despite its economic ups and downs, Dubai is home to many successful people with money to spend. A meal at Haddad’s is likely to come in at Dh400 to Dh500 per head, and this may include a seven-course tasting menu.
Since that successful opening, however, the pandemic has intervened. The restaurant had to close due to licensing complications stemming from the new COVID-19 regulations. In the meantime, Haddad is running a number of pop-ups across Dubai.
“The goal for me is either to open the best restaurant in the world in Dubai or to die trying,” he said. “There is no middle ground.”
He talks about many industry players who mistakenly believe that Dubai’s food scene only focuses on international franchising concepts, expressing no confidence in the city in which they operate.
“There is so much potential (in Dubai) because the food scene doesn’t exist yet. It is growing, so now is the time to put in your chips. The market is so young. ”