LONDON: On a fine London afternoon, Kuwaiti chef Ahmad Al-Bader sits in Chestnut Bakery. It is one of four successful food ventures he’s co-founded and currently co-manages — the other three being the beef canteen Habra, and Lunch Room — a “social-dining venue” — both in Kuwait, as well as GunBun in Riyadh.
Al-Bader has made a name for himself in the regional and international culinary scenes thanks largely to the consistent quality of his food, which is partly down to his systematic approach to cooking and baking.
“This is the core of success,” he says. “Things have to be written down. For the past 10 years I’ve been writing my recipes, not cooking them. When you reach this point, you have to be very experienced and to know exactly what is right. Recipes are written based on the palette — the acidity, sourness, bitterness, and sweetness; that’s how I create the balance.”
Q: What’s one ingredient that can instantly improve any dish?
A: Butter. It’s has a fatty flavour. It’s soothing and it hits the palette. Sometimes you can have a loaf of white bread and still feel empty. But on other days you can have two or three spoons of peanut butter and some honey and feel happy.
What’s your favorite cuisine?
I love Chinese food, and Indian. Anything that (Wagamama founder) Alan Yau does always inspires me. He’s one of the ‘guru’ concept developers I’ve met. I respect how he thinks and works and I’ve learned a lot from him. The same applies to Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi (co-owners of six delis and restaurants in London). I have the greatest respect for them.
What’s the most common issue you find when you eat in other restaurants?
Dining out is never for competitive purposes. Knowledge is always my objective — I want to learn how to do something. But not to compete. My objective is always to build something with value.
What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly? And why?
A cheese melt sandwich. Good cheese and good bread. It’s soothing. And you can play with it — you can put pickles, mustard, or roast beef or chicken. And use a good 60 grams of butter; that will give you a solid foundation.
What’s the most annoying thing customers do?
Customers are never annoying. As long as they’re not insulting one of the waiters or insulting us, I’ll respect whatever they have to say. I’m here to serve them.
What’s your biggest challenge as a restaurateur?
Food handling, especially critical items like protein and fish that need to be transported. I don’t risk having a lot of them in my concept because of the heat and handling. Freshness is very important in these protein concepts. That’s why I simplify things through process cooking or curing, et cetera. That’s what I do to avoid any bacterial growth.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
Grilling and barbecuing reminds me so much of my dad. Prepping instant salsas is also one of many things I learned from him. He’s probably been making chimichurri for 30 years but in his own way, with a lot of coriander and garlic. He’s always been a host. Hosting is very important to me.
I also love slow cooking. I love cooking tongue — beef or lamb — and this I also got from my dad. I remember he used to slice it and eat it with mustard. And I always loved that.
Here, Al-Bader offers some cooking tips and a recipe for a tasty beetroot dish (although it requires a sous-vide machine).
Ahmad Al-Bader’s pickled beetroot recipe
100g boiled beetroot; 100g apple vinegar; 100g white vinegar; 30g honey; 3g roasted coriander seeds; 5g thyme; 3g roasted yellow mustard seeds; 3g whole black pepper; 3g fresh dill; 3g salt; 10g jaggery
1. Set sous-vide machine to 80 C.
2. Mix all ingredients in a bowl, adding the beetroot last.
3. Transfer to a vacuum-sealed bag.
4. Cook in the sous-vide machine for 10 minutes at 82 C.
5. Remove and transfer into a bowl of ice.
6. Transfer to a clean container, cover, and store in refrigerator at 1 C to 4 C until serving. It can be stored for up to three days.