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

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.” 


Amid coronavirus pandemic, a healthy heart is more crucial than ever

Updated 30 September 2020

Amid coronavirus pandemic, a healthy heart is more crucial than ever

  • World Heart Day on Sept. 29 is intended to remind people worldwide to pause and re-evaluate their lifestyle
  • Fearing they will catch COVID-19, many heart-attack and stroke sufferers are wrongly avoiding hospital visits

DUBAI: Observed each year on Sept. 29, World Heart Day was created to make people aware that cardiovascular disease (CVD) is the planet’s leading cause of death.

This year, with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) killing more than 91,224 people worldwide so far, the message that people should take responsibility for their heart health has greater meaning than ever before.

According to the World Heart Federation, which launched World Heart Day in 2000, CVD, including heart disease and stroke, is the world’s number-one killer, claiming more than 17.9 million lives each year.

Of these deaths, 80 percent are caused by coronary heart diseases (heart attacks) and cerebrovascular diseases (strokes), mostly affecting people in low and middle-income countries. These diseases also account for nearly half of all deaths by non-communicable diseases (NCD).

Across the Arab region, neglect of heart health is cause for growing concern.

Indian nursing students hold placards on the occasion of World Heart Day during a public awareness event in Amritsar. (AFP)

Poor dietary habits and environmental conditions in fast-growing urban settings mean that even children in the Arab Gulf region are at higher risk of developing CVDs than those in other Arab states.

Take Saudi Arabia, for example. About 5 to 6 percent of the population suffer from CVD, with diabetes and hypertension considered the most common risk factors, according to Dr. Mohammed Balghith, associate professor at King Saud bin Abdul Aziz University for Health Sciences and interventional cardiologist at the National Guard Hospital.

“Many people live a sedentary lifestyle, which means that smoking, obesity and hyperlipidaemia (high levels of cholesterol) are major contributors for people at high cardiovascular risk,” Balghith told Arab News.

The World Health Organization estimates that 54 percent of deaths from NCDs in the Eastern Mediterranean region are caused by CVDs. It attributes the prevalence of such diseases to diabetes, hypertension and the alarming rise of obesity in the GCC, especially among children.

These numbers are even more worrying when one considers the potential long and short-term effects of COVID-19 on the heart, brain and lungs.

Although many claims about the disease still lack definitive proof, multiple studies have concluded that people with CVDs are more vulnerable to developing severe forms of COVID-19.

“One of the unintended consequences of COVID-19 is that people suffering heart attacks and strokes delay seeking medical help in Saudi Arabia,” said Balghith.

Dr. Mohammed Balghith, associate professor at King Saud bin Abdul Aziz University for Health Sciences and interventional cardiologist at the National Guard Hospital.

“We have noticed a decrease in the number of patients with CVDs during the current pandemic as a result of the lockdowns and because so many patients are afraid of visiting the hospital during this time. This is very alarming because delaying medical help can result in even worse outcomes.”

Cardiac death is largely preventable if an individual experiencing a heart attack is taken to hospital in time for treatment, said Balghith.

“It is truly disheartening to see this … especially since the risk of death from an untreated heart attack is 10 times higher than from COVID-19,” he added.

This trend leads to “an unnecessary loss of life,” he said, while urging heart patients in Saudi Arabia to visit their local hospital, where the risk of COVID-19 infection has been minimized for heart attack and stroke patients.

Air pollution and smoking remain major predictors of an increase in early cardiovascular diseases worldwide. (AFP)

However, despite increased efforts to spread awareness about the nature of heart diseases during the pandemic, many people are skipping voluntary visits to the hospital.

To be certain, research on the effects of COVID-19 on the heart is still a work in progress.

“Data is still early but studies have shown that three-fourths of people infected with COVID-19 have residual changes on cardiac magnetic resonance imaging, even though they may have been minimally symptomatic,” Dr. Stephen Kopecky, cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic, told Arab News.

While the long-term impacts of COVID-19 remain “unknown,” Kopecky said the virus could manifest in the heart by causing myocarditis (injury to muscles tissues of the heart), pericarditis and decreased left ventricular systolic function, with arrhythmia identified as a secondary effect.

“The primary effects of COVID-19 are on the lungs, but due to hypoxia (a lack of oxygen), the heart is stressed, and Type 2 myocardial infarctions can occur,” he said.

The good news is that COVID-19 is not guaranteed to cause heart conditions in all recovering patients.

In fact, with the exception of specific cases where patients are susceptible to heart problems caused by common risk factors or genetics, heart health is largely dependent on lifestyle.

“Lifestyle, lifestyle, lifestyle,” said Kopecky, emphasizing the importance of diet and exercise in healthy living.

“The first contributor to heart disease is diet. Intake of processed foods has increased over the past two decades,” he said, pointing in particular to processed fats and carbohydrates.

The second main contributor to cardiovascular disease is a lack of physical activity, with many jobs outside the home likely to be sedentary with increased screen time and little or no vigorous activity, he said.

Dr. Stephen Kopecky, cardiologist at the Mayo Clinic.

Moreover, air pollution and smoking remain major predictors of an increase in early cardiovascular diseases worldwide, despite a slight reduction in cigarette use reported in economically advanced countries.

“Diet and physical activity, avoidance of smoking, and maintenance of normal weight is key to maintaining a healthy heart. Also, stress reduction, adequate sleep and limited alcohol intake is extremely helpful,” Kopecky said.

His advice on World Heart Day coincides with a wider global campaign called #UseHeart, launched to encourage individuals, families, communities and governments to participate in activities that help them take charge of their heart health and spread awareness.

The campaign also supports the unified pledge made by world leaders in 2012 to reduce global mortality from NCDs by 25 percent before 2025.

Non-communicable diseases that lead to cardiovascular disease include obesity, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and hyperlipidemia.

The campaign’s message is particularly crucial in developing countries, where the prevalence of CVDs is growing.

Kopecky said that heart attacks often afflict those active in the workforce, mostly those under the age of 65.

“In economically advanced countries such as the US, the prevalence of cardiovascular disease has remained about the same. But in the last five years, the incidence of cardiovascular events has actually increased somewhat, and lifespan has decreased compared with what was happening previously,” he said, referring to the reduction in CVD events over the last 50 years.

Additionally, Kopecky said that CVDs generally manifest 10 years earlier in men than in women, often affecting men in their late 50s to early 60s, and women in their late 60s to early 70s.

Yet, regardless of gender, age and environment, at least 80 percent of premature deaths from heart disease and stroke can be avoided.

All things considered, healthcare experts insist it is down to individuals making the right lifestyle choices when it comes to what they eat, how often they exercise, and whether they smoke.

• Twitter: @jumana_khamis