A young Arab chef melds traditional Middle East food ingredients with modern techniques

Born and raised in the UAE, Haddad’s passion for cooking started when he was only 4 years old. (Supplied)
Born and raised in the UAE, Haddad’s passion for cooking started when he was only 4 years old. (Supplied)
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Updated 21 May 2021

A young Arab chef melds traditional Middle East food ingredients with modern techniques

Born and raised in the UAE, Haddad’s passion for cooking started when he was only 4 years old. (Supplied)
  • Solemann Haddad is making the most of his experiences in Japan and roots in Lebanon and Syria’s culinary traditions
  • The French-Syrian chef’s cooking is decidedly high-end and shows an obsessive attention to detail and technique

DUBAI: Smoked shishito hummus? Check. Cured hamachi, mandarin and zaatar? Check. With these fusion dishes and many more in the offing, a young French-Syrian chef, who has led one of the most successful restaurants in Dubai, is raring to go down the revolutionary road as far as cooking is concerned.

Using local regional products such as dukka (a nut and spice mix), zaatar (based on thyme) and muhammara (a dip made mainly of red peppers), and ingredients such as shishito (another type of pepper) and hamachi (a Japanese fish), 24-year-old Solemann Haddad is shaping the offering in his hometown.

His goal is to meld traditional ingredients with modern techniques.

Born and raised in the UAE, Haddad’s passion for cooking started when he was only 4 years old, when he would steal his brother’s cookbook and lock himself in the kitchen to bake cookies and omelets with his mother’s help.

“That was my first-ever memory with food,” he told Arab News. “It was like making potions, with a different outcome every time. I found that very interesting as a kid.”

The path to realizing his ambitions has not been easy. After studying international relations in university, he found himself frustrated and lacking direction.

“I did not enjoy university at all, although I had good grades,” Haddad said. “I had panic attacks every night.”

Conversations with his father about his future profession in cooking led to dead ends. “My dad, and many Arab men from his generation, would question the idea of a man becoming a chef,” he said. “The idea of being a chef was so far-fetched to him, but it has more to do with the old-school culture.”

Still, Haddad was not ready to give up on his calling. One day, four weeks before his final university exams, he made the jump. He took money from his father and got on the first flight to London, where he stayed at a friend’s house. “I told my father I wouldn’t come back until he accepted the fact that I was going to be a chef,” he said.

“So, there was an unspoken agreement: He would send me to culinary school, and I’d come back and finish university. And that’s what I did.”

Haddad attended two cordon bleu culinary schools in Japan and London over a period of 10 months, while juggling internships at Michelin-starred restaurants. After returning to Dubai, he completed university in 2019 and started consulting for restaurants on the side, providing advice on menus and ingredients.

It was while working at a Michelin-starred restaurant in London, where he tasted every dish to further his learning curve, that he had an epiphany. “I tasted something with mushrooms and thought to myself, ‘I never thought food could taste this good’,” Haddad said.

“It’s like I was seeing a new color. Then I realized the possibilities. My eyes opened, and it changed my life. It was the most impactful moment in my schooling years.”

Back in Dubai, Haddad started working as sous-chef at Inked, a self-described food and music cooperative, for a few months. During his time at the restaurant, he created and served 25 new menu items a month. Then in March last year he was let go due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lockdown soon followed, with six months of forced rest. “I didn’t even crack an egg,” he said. “I took a vacation because I had been working intensely for three years, so it forced me to relax.”

THENUMBER

$136,000-340,000 - Average cost of opening a small, independent restaurant in Dubai.

The downtime proved beneficial, as the young chef soon started broadcasting homemade videos on Instagram Live and developing recipes for fun. For him, it was much-needed research and development.

His cooking is decidedly high end and shows an obsessive attention to detail and technique derived from Haddad’s experiences in Japan, roots in Lebanon and Syria’s proud culinary traditions, and influences from India. Is this fusion personified?

"I always say my life is fusion because I'm just cooking what I grew up eating. My mother was French, so I used to eat French food, but I would also eat shawarma with my father, and Syrian/Lebanese food with my grandmother,” Haddad said.

“My life has been centered on having no fixed cuisine so the way the dishes come out is organic and it's what makes sense to me.”

His next break came when Rami Farook, the owner of Maisan15, a restaurant and gallery, suggested they form a partnership to open a restaurant in an art gallery in Dubai’s hip Alserkal Avenue.

“There was neither a kitchen nor gas. I thought it was a bit crazy, but the more I thought about it, the more I saw it as an opportunity and, within a few hours, I was convinced,” Haddad said.

In 30 days, a kitchen was built from scratch, and Warehouse16 was launched in mid-September 2020.

“Everything was smooth sailing, and we were doing very well,” he said. “We were fully booked from the first to the last dinner.”

At the restaurant, Haddad combined dishes based on Japanese kaiseki — a formal, traditional multi-course Japanese dinner — with local Middle Eastern ingredients. He credits Misbah Chowdhury, a childhood friend and partner at Warehouse16, who is also its operations and social-media marketing manager, with making the venture a success.

“We were always very aggressive on sales and social media,” Haddad said. “Many restaurants leave things to fate, but this helped us out a lot in the beginning when we didn’t have a fan base.”

Haddad says he is meticulous in both cooking and presentation. He will serve a dish only if it both looks and tastes good, dedicating therefore 51 percent of his effort to flavor and 49 percent to plating. The results are dishes of artistic beauty.

“The visual aspects and the flavor are almost as important as each other,” he told Arab News.

Such a mindset translated into a surge in success. Warehouse16 generated more than a year’s planned revenue in half that time. “It exploded in five months,” Haddad said. “We were very humbled and pleasantly surprised.”

Despite its economic ups and downs, Dubai is home to a lot of prosperous people with money to spend. A meal chez Haddad is likely to come in at Dh400 to Dh500 a head, and that can include a seven-course tasting menu.

Since that successful opening, however, the pandemic has intervened. The restaurant has had to shut down due to license complications arising from new COVID-19 regulations. In the meantime, Haddad is conducting a number of pop-ups across Dubai.

“The goal for me is to either open the best restaurant in the world in Dubai or die trying,” he said. “There’s no middle ground.”

He speaks of many in the industry who wrongly believe Dubai’s food scene solely focuses on franchising international concepts, expressing no faith in the city they operate in.

“There’s so much potential (in Dubai) because the food scene doesn’t exist yet. It’s developing, so now’s the time to put your chips in. The market is so young.”   

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Dior is set to stage its first exhibition in the Middle East

Dior is set to stage its first exhibition in the Middle East
The "Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams" exhibition at Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Getty Images
Updated 04 August 2021

Dior is set to stage its first exhibition in the Middle East

Dior is set to stage its first exhibition in the Middle East

DUBAI: “Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams” is a new fashion exhibition coming to Doha, Qatar, later this year. Designed specifically for the Middle East, the forthcoming exhibition is a celebration of the Parisian maison, which is turning 75 in December.

Mark your calendars, for the exhibition will take place from November 2021 until March 2022 at Doha’s M7 art center following successful stops in Paris, London and Shanghai.

The iconic Dior Bar suit. Getty Images

With special curation by Olivier Gabet, the Director of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, the hotly-anticipated exhibition will feature a lineup of memorable pieces that have defined the heritage fashion house, such as the iconic Bar Jacket, an iconic garment instantly-recognizable by its cinched waist from Monsieur Dior’s revolutionary 1947 collection as well as other objects that fashion enthusiasts will revel in.

Also on display will be original sketches by the legendary designer for his couture collections, a baccarat blue crystal limited edition Miss Dior perfume bottle from 1947 and haute couture creations by succeeding Dior creative directors such as John Galliano, Raf Simons and Yves Saint Laurent.


Jessica Alba, Zac Efron star in new Dubai Tourism campaign

Jessica Alba, Zac Efron star in new Dubai Tourism campaign
Jessica Alba and Zac Efron co-star in the spoof action film. Instagram
Updated 04 August 2021

Jessica Alba, Zac Efron star in new Dubai Tourism campaign

Jessica Alba, Zac Efron star in new Dubai Tourism campaign

DUBAI: US actors Jessica Alba and Zac Efron are the most recent superstars to be tapped by Dubai Tourism for its latest tourism campaign and short film. 

The ad, which is a spoof of an action film, features Alba and Efron fighting off enemies in well-known landmarks across the city, such as the Burj Khalifa and the Museum of the Future. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Zac Efron (@zacefron)

The ad campaign also sees the Hollywood duo skydive off a helipad on the Burj Al-Arab, dine at Pierchic and navigate through the historic neighborhood of Al-Fahidi on scooters. 

The action-filled clip begins with the pair at Burj Al-Arab’s SAL restaurant, while a voiceover of Alba can be heard saying, “You’re just always putting work first.”

“Look I don’t want to fight with you,” responds Efron as the on-screen couple dine at Pierchic.  “He might,” he adds after a motorbike blasts through the restaurant.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Zac Efron (@zacefron)

Also featured in the ad is Caroline Labouchere, a Dubai-based model.

Efron posted the trailer on his Instagram page, alongside the cheeky caption: “She’s always getting me out of trouble.”

Alba, 40, also posted the trailer with the caption, “He’s always getting me into more trouble…”

Efron and Alba offered a glimpse of their project with Dubai Tourism earlier this week on Instagram.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jessica Alba (@jessicaalba)

The “High School Musical” actor posted a behind-the-scenes still to his Instagram account, tagging Craig Gillespie, the Australian director who has worked on films including “I, Tonya” and, most recently, “Cruella.”

The ad was reportedly shot in the emirate in February.

At the time, images circulated on social media of the “Baywatch” star surrounded by film crew members on the beach in Jumeirah, close to the Burj Al-Arab.

Dubai Tourism is no stranger to recruiting A-listers to feature in promotional videos. 

Past stars to feature in campaigns include Bollywood star Shah Rukh Khan and US actress Gwyneth Paltrow.

In 2019, Khan invited Paltrow to Dubai as part of his #BeMyGuest campaign.

Later that year, the Goop founder returned to Dubai to film a tourism campaign and short film, “A Story Takes Flight,” alongside Hollywood stars Zoe Saldana and Kate Hudson. 


Why this retired engineer is a ‘model’ Saudi citizen

The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
Updated 04 August 2021

Why this retired engineer is a ‘model’ Saudi citizen

The models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth. (Photos/Huda Bashatah)
  • Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi aims to preserve the history of social and cultural life in Saudi Arabia
  • Makkah in those days was a beacon for writers, poets and scientists

MAKKAH: A Saudi agricultural engineer is spending his retirement years helping to preserve the Kingdom’s architectural and cultural history — in the form of extremely accurate models of important buildings and sites in Jeddah and Makkah.

Now Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi has turned his house in Jeddah’s Al-Rawdah neighborhood into an exhibition space to showcase his models, which represent a fascinating record of daily social and cultural life in the cities in the early-to-mid 20th century.
A good example of this is his model of a “writer’s cafe” in the Misfalah neighborhood of Makkah that was once popular with writers, intellectuals and poets. Through it, he said, he aims to immortalize the role these figures played in the development of literature in Saudi Arabia and the country’s cultural history.
“Knowledgeable people told me that the cafe where Makkah’s writers, poets and intellectuals used to go to was Saleh Abdulhay Cafe, located next to Bajrad Cafe,” 72-year-old Al-Hebshi told Arab News. “Similar cafes were found throughout Makkah’s Misfalah neighborhood in the past.”
He said culture and literature thrived in Makkah in those days, along with the study of science and the quest for knowledge. The city was therefore a beacon for writers, poets and scientists, and the Saleh Abdulhay Cafe was one of the places where they could gather for intellectual and cultural discussions.
“Among the cultural and intellectual figures that used to go to the writer’s cafe … was the Saudi Minister of Culture Mohammed Abdu Yamani,” he said, adding that such venues were the country’s first literary and cultural forums, where people could gather to discuss literary and intellectual issues.
With his models and exhibition, Al-Hebshi said he wants to depict and preserve this history of day-to-day life and culture in Makkah and Jeddah in days gone by. In addition to the cafe, his models include typical houses and traditional shops that served fava beans, barbecued meat, kebabs and mabshoor, a traditional Arab dish of bread in a meat or vegetable broth.
In particular, he said he wants to immortalize the lives of the intellectuals and writers of the era by documenting their daily lives, the ways in which people interacted with them and how neighborhoods such as Misfalah developed as important cultural centers.
So far he has spent three years building his models of cafes, shops, houses and public squares. He has completed four and is working on a fifth. The task requires hard work and patience, he said. For example, it requires great effort to accurately recreate in miniature the rawasheen, the elaborately patterned wooden window frames found in old buildings in Makkah and Jeddah that maximize natural light and air flow. Great accuracy is required throughout the model making process when it comes to the sizes, dimensions and scale.
“One meter in real life is 10 centimeters in the models,” Al-Hebshi said, which represents a scale of one-to-10. “This measure seeks to maintain, as much as possible, the space’s real dimensions.”
The contents of rooms must also be in scale with the building and each other, he explained: “A bottle of Coca-Cola cannot be bigger than a watermelon and so on.” These are all important details in his models, he added, which ensure they are accurate and consistent.
Given the incredible detail and quality of the models, you would be forgiven for thinking Al-Hebshi is a trained carpenter; in fact he is an enthusiastic amateur with a true passion for the craft. Such is his dedication that even hand injuries — and the need for surgery after damaging a finger with a drill — have not kept him from his work for long.

HIGHLIGHT

Abdul Aziz Taher Al-Hebshi says he was inspired by Jeddah’s Old Town and its magnificent Hijazi buildings with rawasheen, beautifully crafted doors, ornate engravings and delicate details, along with the beauty of its landscape and old streets.

He said his model making began after he found some tools that had been abandoned in a carpentry shop, and for materials he used wood and discarded kaftans he found in stores he shopped at. Wood cutting requires great skill, he added, and while he makes most parts of his models, he said he imports some items from abroad to ensure the highest levels of accuracy. For example he buys miniature signs advertising popular international brands such as Pepsi, Miranda and 7-Up, which are difficult to recreate through woodworking.
Al-Hebshi was director of the Agricultural Bank in Jeddah when he was forced to retire in 2006 as a result of a back injury, and he found himself wondering what he could do with his time. A few years earlier he had developed an interest in woodworking but the demands of his job left him with little time to pursue it. A friend who was aware of this suggested he do something with the wood from a large felled neem tree that had been dumped in Jeddah.
“That tree turned out to be the start of me professionally building models,” he said. He added that he was inspired by Jeddah’s Old Town and its magnificent Hijazi buildings with rawasheen, beautifully crafted doors, ornate engravings and delicate details, along with the beauty of its landscape and old streets. The Saudi leadership has put a special focus on the area to showcase its history and splendor and Al-Hebshi said that this has helped him research his detailed designs.
He added that he welcomes all those who wish to visit his house, in Al-Rawdah neighborhood 3, to see his models. He plans to build more to add to his incredible picture of past life in the Kingdom, and the people who helped the country become the nation it is.


Iraq gets back looted ancient artifacts from US, others

Iraq gets back looted ancient artifacts from US, others
Updated 03 August 2021

Iraq gets back looted ancient artifacts from US, others

Iraq gets back looted ancient artifacts from US, others
  • The majority of the artifacts date back 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and were recovered from the US in a recent trip by PM Mustafa Al-Kadhimi
  • Iraq’s antiquities have been looted throughout decades of war and instability since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein

BAGHDAD: Over 17,000 looted ancient artifacts recovered from the United States and other countries were handed over to Iraq’s Culture Ministry on Tuesday, a restitution described by the government as the largest in the country’s history.
The majority of the artifacts date back 4,000 years to ancient Mesopotamia and were recovered from the US in a recent trip by Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi. Other pieces were also returned from Japan, Netherlands and Italy, Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein said in a joint press conference with Culture Minister Hasan Nadhim.
Nadhim said the recovery was “the largest in the history of Iraq” and the product of months of effort between the government and Iraq’s Embassy in Washington.
“There’s still a lot of work ahead in this matter. There are still thousands of Iraqi artifacts smuggled outside the country,” he said. “The United Nations resolutions are supporting us in the international community and the laws of other countries in which these artifacts are smuggled to are on our side.”
“The smugglers are being trapped day after day by these laws and forced to hand over these artifacts,” he added.
The artifacts were handed over to the Culture Ministry in large wooden crates. A few were displayed but the ministry said the most significant pieces will be examined and later displayed to the public in Iraq’s National Museum.
Iraq’s antiquities have been looted throughout decades of war and instability since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein. Iraq’s government has been slowly recovering the plundered antiquities since. However, archaeological sites across the country continue to be neglected owing to lack of funds.
At least five shipments of antiquities and documents have been returned to Iraq’s museum since 2016, according to the Foreign Ministry.


Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022

Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022
50 Best Restaurants lauds Trèsind as one of the best dining establishments in Dubai. Courtesy
Updated 03 August 2021

Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022

Mideast, North Africa region to get 50 Best Restaurants list in 2022

DUBAI: In February 2022, some of the most lauded restaurateurs, fine chefs and food lovers will congregate in the UAE for the reveal of the 50 top restaurants in the region.  

It’s been announced that The World's 50 Best Restaurants, owned and run by William Reed Business Media and established in 2002, is launching a new regional restaurants list and awards program that will be hosted in Abu Dhabi early next year.

It will be the first time that a Middle Eastern country will play host to the prestigious event, which is informally known as the Oscars of fine dining.

“We are delighted that Abu Dhabi will be playing host to the awards ceremony, as the UAE capital has been establishing itself as a culinary force over recent years,” William Drew, Director of Content for 50 Best, said in a released statement.

Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants is the latest regional restaurants list and awards program since 2013, when both Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants and Latin America’s 50 Best Restaurants were established. 

The list, which was born out of the magazine pages of Britain’s “Restaurant” is now widely regarded as the most highly influential ranking of its kind.

The inaugural Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants list will be revealed in a live countdown, along with a series of special awards, culminating in the announcement of The Best Restaurant in the Middle East & North Africa 2022. 

“The diversity of cuisines and restaurants across this wide region will ensure this new list is a vital addition to the international gastronomic landscape,” added Drew.

The ranking will be determined by 250 voters, made up of anonymous restaurant experts from 19 countries across the region, based on their best restaurant experiences. Dining establishments cannot apply to be on the list.

Meanwhile, a program of events, including a forum, chef masterclasses and dining events, will be hosted in the UAE capital in partnership with the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi from Feb. 4-11, as part of the Abu Dhabi Culinary Calendar.

Some events will be open to the public on a ticketed basis, with details to be revealed later.

The gala awards ceremony is set to take place on Feb. 7.