Perfect recipe: Saudi women chefs are putting change on the menu at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton

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Chef Al-Maha Al-Dossary serves up a vegan delight. (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)
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Sushi chef Habeeba Abdullah prepares her favorite cuisine.  (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)
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Ritz-Carlton’s women chefs (from left): Reem Al-Saeed, Nooriyah Al-Ghamdi, Areej Al-Juma’a, Al-Maha Al-Dossary, Basma Al-Jalal, Fadwa Al-Rumaih, Um Abdullah Al-Maliki and Habeeba Abdullah. (AN photo by Basheer Saleh)
Updated 25 July 2018
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Perfect recipe: Saudi women chefs are putting change on the menu at Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton

  • Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh opened its doors to female chefs two years ago, becoming one of the first hotels in the Kingdom to employ women in the kitchen
  • Chef Al-Maha Al-Dossary was a corporate banker before deciding to pursue her dream of cooking

RIYADH: In Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton, one of the most renowned hotels in the world, Saudi female chefs have taken over the kitchen. Their mission? To show the world the true meaning of Arabian hospitality by delighting visitors’ palates. Traditional Saudi dishes are their specialty, but the cuisine is international, ranging from Italian to Chinese.

The chefs work in the hotel’s three restaurants: Hong, which features classic and modern Chinese cuisine; Azzurro, where fresh, seasonal ingredients are used to prepare classic Italian dishes with a modern twist; and Al Orjouan, an all-day dining buffet that serves a large brunch on Fridays. 

In line with Vision 2030, the hotel opened its doors to female chefs two years ago, becoming one of the first hotels in the Kingdom to employ women in the kitchen. It now has 15 women chefs, with more on the way.

“The Ritz-Carlton, Riyadh is working in line with Saudi’s Vision 2030 in employing females in all departments of the hotel, culinary included,” said hotel manager Mohammed Marghalani. “However, we haven’t recruited them simply because they are women but because they are competent and excel in what they do, and that has always been our vision: To have a dedicated team of professionals that work together.” 

Chef Al-Maha Al-Dossary, who grew up in Riyadh, was a corporate banker before deciding to pursue her dream of cooking. Her journey is one that will inspire others.

“Working at the bank was somewhat boring because it was routine. I would come back home, cook and bake. An epiphany hit me while cooking and doing what I love, and that was since I enjoy doing it so much, why don’t I make it my career? It was an impulsive decision, but one I don’t regret. If you do what you love, you will never work a day in your life.”

After deciding to advance her career as a chef, Al-Dossary graduated from Le Cordon Bleu culinary school  in London. “I studied there for three years. In the beginning, I was sure that I wanted to be a pastry chef, but then I studied cuisine and I found the hot kitchen engaging and active.

“Once I returned from my studies, I applied at the Ritz because it’s an excellent hub to improve yourself, since we have exposure and engagement.” 

The vegan chef, who enjoys a meat-free diet, is part of the Ritz-Carlton’s Voyager program, which prepares chefs to become managers. Al-Dossary said: “I began from the commissary, which receives food, and worked up to the Italian cuisine, going through all the stages of kitchen work and taking it step by step to learn the whole process.” 

Al-Dossary hopes to open a chain of vegan restaurants in the future. 

Sushi chef Habeeba Abdullah began cooking at the age of 11. She cooked her first full lamb with her uncle. “He kissed my forehead after we had completed the feast, and I felt a sense of pride. His encouragement helped pave the path of my culinary love, and his support made me feel I will be something big some day.” 

Abdullah is a member of the Saudi Arabian Chefs Association, which offered her the chance to learn the art of making sushi, inviting her to a course in Jeddah. The week-long course gave trainees a sense that they were truly in Japan, she said, with Japanese chefs teaching her how to make sushi from scratch. “It was a new experience and I wanted to be a part of the new generation and prepare foods that they will enjoy.” 

Asked about her ambitions, she said: “I aspired from the beginning, from cooking at home to cooking worldwide. I now consider myself (as if I were) working in the royal palace, which is the start of my launch to worldwide.” 

Fadwa Al-Rumaih attributes her love of cooking to her upbringing. “My mother was my inspiration. Ever since I was young, we would cook together. The Ritz-Carlton gave me the chance to work in a world-renowned hotel and further my skills.” Saudi food is Al-Rumaih’s  specialty, and she enjoys nothing more than seeing happy eaters who leave with a smile. 

Chef Um Abdullah Al-Maliki said: “I cook with love. Cooking is my passion. I make breakfast in the morning for my kids. Then, after taking them to school, I cook at the hotel and come back once more to make a delicious meal for my family.” 

Asked if she ever tires of the kitchen, since she basically spends all day in it, her reply was “never.”

 “How can you get bored with your passion? I consider myself lucky that I get to do what I love, with love. No day goes without me being in the kitchen, whether at home or in the hotel. It’s my element and one that I feel most happy in,” she said.

One of the most challenging dining seasons is during Ramadan. Buffets are served after sundown until the sun comes up. It is the busiest time of year for these chefs — but also the most enjoyable.

“The happiness we feel when the serving dishes come back to kitchen empty is indescribable,” Al-Maliki said. 

The demand was high, with the chefs serving more than 25 roasted lambs each day in Ramadan, along with more than 180 kilograms of rice.

“Ramadan usually is a stressful time for us because of the workload, but I can honestly say that it is the most memorable,” Al-Maliki said. 

No food is wasted or thrown away, since the Ritz-Carlton has partnered with a charitable organization to distribute excess food to the needy throughout the year. 

While interviewing the female chefs, I noticed a young male Saudi chef helping the women out. “We consider ourselves a family,” said Salah Al-Dien bin Taleb, a junior sous chef. 

He has been at the Ritz for two years, and was surprised when the women joined.

“I must say that I was surprised by their persistence in doing a good job and their high work ethic. Even in the simplest of things, they are extremely detailed. Also, they do not restrict themselves to a certain cuisine. The sky’s the limit, and they are always determined to learn new things.” 

“All of us have the same dream, which is to have Saudi cuisine featured internationally in restaurants worldwide. That is what we are working hard for,” said chef Reem Al-Saeed. 

“Saudi Arabia is large, with many different regions that serve a vast variety of dishes. All tastes are satisfied, because of the large selection we have.” 


Next generation of biotech food heading for grocery stores

Updated 15 November 2018
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Next generation of biotech food heading for grocery stores

  • Scientists even hope gene editing eventually could save species from being wiped out by devastating diseases like citrus greening
WASHINGTON: The next generation of biotech food is headed for the grocery aisles, and first up may be salad dressings or granola bars made with soybean oil genetically tweaked to be good for your heart.
By early next year, the first foods from plants or animals that had their DNA “edited” are expected to begin selling. It’s a different technology than today’s controversial “genetically modified” foods, more like faster breeding that promises to boost nutrition, spur crop growth, and make farm animals hardier and fruits and vegetables last longer.
The US National Academy of Sciences has declared gene editing one of the breakthroughs needed to improve food production so the world can feed billions more people amid a changing climate. Yet governments are wrestling with how to regulate this powerful new tool. And after years of confusion and rancor, will shoppers accept gene-edited foods or view them as GMOs in disguise?
“If the consumer sees the benefit, I think they’ll embrace the products and worry less about the technology,” said Dan Voytas, a University of Minnesota professor and chief science officer for Calyxt Inc., which edited soybeans to make the oil heart-healthy.
Researchers are pursuing more ambitious changes: Wheat with triple the usual fiber, or that’s low in gluten. Mushrooms that don’t brown, and better-producing tomatoes. Drought-tolerant corn, and rice that no longer absorbs soil pollution as it grows. Dairy cows that don’t need to undergo painful de-horning, and pigs immune to a dangerous virus that can sweep through herds.
Scientists even hope gene editing eventually could save species from being wiped out by devastating diseases like citrus greening, a so far unstoppable infection that’s destroying Florida’s famed oranges.
First they must find genes that could make a new generation of trees immune.
“If we can go in and edit the gene, change the DNA sequence ever so slightly by one or two letters, potentially we’d have a way to defeat this disease,” said Fred Gmitter, a geneticist at the University of Florida Citrus Research and Education Center, as he examined diseased trees in a grove near Fort Meade.
GENETICALLY MODIFIED OR EDITED, WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
Farmers have long genetically manipulated crops and animals by selectively breeding to get offspring with certain traits. It’s time-consuming and can bring trade-offs. Modern tomatoes, for example, are larger than their pea-sized wild ancestor, but the generations of cross-breeding made them more fragile and altered their nutrients.
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plants or animals that were mixed with another species’ DNA to introduce a specific trait — meaning they’re “transgenic.” Best known are corn and soybeans mixed with bacterial genes for built-in resistance to pests or weed killers.
Despite international scientific consensus that GMOs are safe to eat, some people remain wary and there is concern they could spur herbicide-resistant weeds.
Now gene-editing tools, with names like CRISPR and TALENs, promise to alter foods more precisely, and at less cost, without necessarily adding foreign DNA. Instead, they act like molecular scissors to alter the letters of an organism’s own genetic alphabet.
The technology can insert new DNA, but most products in development so far switch off a gene, according to University of Missouri professor Nicholas Kalaitzandonakes.
Those new Calyxt soybeans? Voytas’ team inactivated two genes so the beans produce oil with no heart-damaging trans fat and that shares the famed health profile of olive oil without its distinct taste.
The hornless calves? Most dairy Holsteins grow horns that are removed for the safety of farmers and other cows. Recombinetics Inc. swapped part of the gene that makes dairy cows grow horns with the DNA instructions from naturally hornless Angus beef cattle.
“Precision breeding,” is how animal geneticist Alison Van Eenennaam of the University of California, Davis, explains it. “This isn’t going to replace traditional breeding,” but make it easier to add one more trait.
RULES AREN’T CLEAR
The Agriculture Department says extra rules aren’t needed for “plants that could otherwise have been developed through traditional breeding,” clearing the way for development of about two dozen gene-edited crops so far.
In contrast, the Food and Drug Administration in 2017 proposed tighter, drug-like restrictions on gene-edited animals. It promises guidance sometime next year on exactly how it will proceed.
Because of trade, international regulations are “the most important factor in whether genome editing technologies are commercialized,” USDA’s Paul Spencer told a meeting of agriculture economists.
Europe’s highest court ruled last summer that existing European curbs on the sale of transgenic GMOs should apply to gene-edited foods, too.
But at the World Trade Organization this month, the US joined 12 nations including Australia, Canada, Argentina and Brazil in urging other countries to adopt internationally consistent, science-based rules for gene-edited agriculture.
ARE THESE FOODS SAFE?
The biggest concern is what are called off-target edits, unintended changes to DNA that could affect a crop’s nutritional value or an animal’s health, said Jennifer Kuzma of the Genetic Engineering and Society Center at North Carolina State University.
Scientists are looking for any signs of problems. Take the hornless calves munching in a UC-Davis field. One is female and once it begins producing milk, Van Eenennaam will test how similar that milk’s fat and protein composition is to milk from unaltered cows.
“We’re kind of being overly cautious,” she said, noting that if eating beef from naturally hornless Angus cattle is fine, milk from edited Holsteins should be, too.
But to Kuzma, companies will have to be up-front about how these new foods were made and the evidence that they’re healthy. She wants regulators to decide case-by-case which changes are no big deal, and which might need more scrutiny.
“Most gene-edited plants and animals are probably going to be just fine to eat. But you’re only going to do yourself a disservice in the long run if you hide behind the terminology,” Kuzma said.
AVOIDING A BACKLASH
Uncertainty about regulatory and consumer reaction is creating some strange bedfellows. An industry-backed group of food makers and farmers asked university researchers and consumer advocates to help craft guidelines for “responsible use” of gene editing in the food supply.
“Clearly this coalition is in existence because of some of the battle scars from the GMO debates, there’s no question about that,” said Greg Jaffe of the food-safety watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest, who agreed to join the Center for Food Integrity’s guidelines group. “There’s clearly going to be questions raised about this technology.”
SUSTAINABILITY OR HYPE?
Gene-editing can’t do everything, cautioned Calyxt’s Voytas. There are limitations to how much foods could be changed. Sure, scientists made wheat containing less gluten, but it’s unlikely to ever be totally gluten-free for people who can’t digest that protein, for example — or to make, say, allergy-free peanuts.
Nor is it clear how easily companies will be able to edit different kinds of food, key to their profit.
Despite her concerns about adequate regulation, Kuzma expects about 20 gene-edited crops to hit the US market over five years — and she notes that scientists also are exploring changes to crops, like cassava, that are important in the poorest countries.
“We think it’s going to really revolutionize the industry,” she said.