RIYADH: Adel Sayed Rawi is a chef at Al Nakheel Boulevard in Riyadh — a restaurant serving Middle Eastern and Saudi cuisine that opened its first branch in Jeddah in 1986. Its traditional decorative touches and simple plating made it one of the most-popular places to dine during Riyadh Season. Al Nakheel Boulevard is focused on embracing Saudi culture and highlights include traditional Hijazi dishes and Rawi’s own take on classic Middle Eastern foods including vine leaves and ful.
Here, Rawi offers some advice and insights into his cooking, and discusses staying calm and the importance of teamwork.
Q: How did you first get interested in cooking? What made you want to become a chef?
When I was a child, I would cook with my mother and help her out in the kitchen, so I grew to love it. Now I’ve had about 34 years in the industry. I went into it out of passion. I’ve had many opportunities to work in other fields, but I wasn’t comfortable. Cooking is a hobby, but also everything to me.
When you started out as a professional, what was the most-common mistake you made when preparing/cooking a dish?
I can’t remember the specifics, but I’m sure there were many. The roughest experience in the beginning was when I was chopping something, I cut my finger and the wound lasted over a month. My head chef warned me multiple times — “Adel, one thing at a time” — but I was coming in young and was excited. I think that’s the biggest mistake I made early in my career; I wanted to be like him, and I was using the knife too fast and swerving it, so I hurt myself in the process. But instead of crying about it, I laughed. I learned to stay calm and not rush — you need to stay calm and collected in this industry.
What’s your top tip for people considering becoming professional chefs?
Never let your ego get in the way. This industry is so huge — and has become so open, globally; some 15-year-old could show me a dish I’ve never made in my life, and I can learn from them.
My advice is to stay away from arrogance, no matter what you produce, or what feedback you get, or how much diners love your food. Always strive for more.
When you go out to eat, are you able to relax and enjoy it, or do you find yourself critiquing the food?
I swear, whenever I go out to a restaurant, the staff always ask me if I’m a chef. I’m not sure how they sense it. If there’s an issue with my meal, I might ask for the chef and introduce myself and try to offer advice, without being rude. Mistakes happen, and it can be a difficult situation, so I might say something like, “The salt might be a bit too much,” or whatever, and that’s the end of it. I can offer advice but never criticize, because I know that’ll sadden the chef.
What’s your favorite dish to eat?
And what’s your favorite dish to cook?
Kushari, an Egyptian dish. Whenever I make it, my mind is so fulfilled.
What’s your go-to dish if you have to cook something quickly at home?
When I’m at home in Egypt, surrounded by the kids and family, Bechamel pasta is my go-to. In around 25 minutes, it’s on the dinner table and everyone’s eating.
What customer behavior most annoys you?
The term is ‘guest’ and I can’t treat them as anything other than that at my restaurant. I can’t let them leave angry or unsatisfied. No matter what they do, we have to accept it. For me, the customer is always right. Even if they’re in the wrong, we’ll take it.
What are you like in the kitchen? Are you a disciplinarian? Do you shout a lot? Or are you fairly laidback?
There’s no yelling at all in our kitchen. We’re all one unit. We’ve really become a family; from the cleaners to the head chef, we’re all one. If there’s yelling or nagging of any kind, that person will fail, and that will work its way onto the customer’s plate. The whole vibe has to be relaxed and the cook needs to be emotionally comfortable as well. If that’s the case, then they'll serve something great.