Celebrity Syrian chef Mohamad Orfali: ‘I’m trying to educate people about our culture’ 

Celebrity Syrian chef Mohamad Orfali: ‘I’m trying to educate people about our culture’ 
Syrian chef Mohamad Orfali says his food reflects his personality. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 April 2023

Celebrity Syrian chef Mohamad Orfali: ‘I’m trying to educate people about our culture’ 

Celebrity Syrian chef Mohamad Orfali: ‘I’m trying to educate people about our culture’ 
  • This year, Orfali Bros was recognized by Michelin with the prestigious Bib Gourmand and also crowned by The World’s Fifty Best as the top MENA restaurant

DUBAI: You can’t miss him. With his full beard, slightly pointed mustache, and signature round black glasses Syrian chef Mohamad Orfali is instantly recognizable. And, along with his two brothers Wassim and Omar, he has risen to the top of the regional culinary scene.  

In February, their Dubai eatery Orfali Bros was crowned by The World’s Fifty Best as the top restaurant in the Middle East and North Africa, and a few weeks later it was recognized by Michelin. The path to these achievements, though, was anything but smooth.   

“My blood pressure went up and my mouth dried up,” the jovial chef tells Arab News, laughing, about the Fifty Best award ceremony. “I never got married before, but it felt like my wedding night, just because of how happy we were. The happiness I felt came from the people who dine with us, not the inspectors.”  

However, he acknowledges the sense of responsibility that comes with such an honor. “It was great happiness, but at the same time, there was fear,” he continues. “I was scared, because of people’s expectations. When you’re number one, they judge you differently. . . When they called our name, I remembered everything that we went through to open this restaurant.”    

We meet during lunch service. Orfali Bros is busy but relatively calm. The restaurant is billed as a modern bistro. It accommodates eight tables in its high-ceilinged interior, which includes limestone from Aleppo, with more seating outside. It has a homely feel — like you’re inside Orfali’s dining room, and everyone is invited.  

Orfali isn’t one of those chefs who stays behind the scenes, rather he roams from table to table, speaking with guests, serving their food, and explaining what they’re about to indulge in.  

“I love people and I get energy from them,” he explains. “My food is different than what’s being offered in the UAE. It has my personality, my memories, and funny stories that come from my mother and grandmother. I’m trying to educate people about our culture. We tell a story.”  

While we’re at the venue, one man requests a picture with the chef, and a child approaches to give him a high five. He’s something of a celebrity now, with the air of a cool uncle.  

Orfali was born and raised in Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, to an engineer and teacher. His hometown, he explains, is the custodian of a culinary history distinguished from the rest of the country. “The food of Aleppo is a culmination of civilizations,” he says. “It started with its early inhabitants. Colonizers, foreigners, orientalists, and immigrants passed through.” 

Aleppo’s cuisine has its own specific techniques and flavorings — from dairy products to jams and meats — influenced by the outside world, from the Far East to Europe. It’s a place that taught the future chef a thing or two about taste. “Aleppians are natural food critics. You leave Aleppo with a developed tongue,” says Orfali.    

Despite the sophistication of Aleppo’s cuisine, Orfali bemoans the fact that it has stagnated because of traditionalists. “We don’t like change,” he says. “Aleppian food is very prestigious, but at the same time, there’s no innovation. It’s remained as it is.” That’s where Orfali comes in.  

As a child, Orfali never openly expressed an interest in cooking, but he was curious. He recalls watching his grandmother, Umm Salah, whom he describes as his “first school,” cooking away in the kitchen. 

In 1994, when Orfali was 14 and not impressing academically, his father encouraged him to enroll at a then-new culinary school in the city. “I asked him, ‘You want me to become a cook?’ and he said, ‘It’s called a chef.’” Orfali quickly learned that he appreciated the organization necessary in cooking, and felt that he belonged in the culinary world.  

Mohamad Orfali says the food of Aleppo is a culmination of civilizations. (Supplied)

In 2005, Orfali left Syria to learn English in Dubai and Kuwait. His dream was to study in France, the world capital of gastronomy, and work at a Michelin-starred restaurant. But when he finally got there, those hopes were crushed. “No one was accepting me, because I have a Syrian passport and I didn’t have the background to work in a Michelin restaurant,” he says. 

Orfali returned to the Gulf, and worked with several different companies. But something was missing. When he attended an Andalusian cooking conference in Seville and a journalist asked him to define Aleppian cuisine, he realized that he had yet to find his identity as a chef. “I didn’t know how to answer him,” he says. “It was a moment of awakening.”  

The 25-item menu at Orfali Bros reflects the multicultural diversity of Dubai, says Mohamad Orfali. (Supplied)

So Orfali went back to his roots, and in 2009 he published an extensively researched book, “Ana Halabi” (I am Aleppian). It excluded the typical Levantine dishes, such as hummus and tabbouleh, and championed Aleppo’s ingredients. Two years later, he started presenting cooking segments on the Middle Eastern food channel, Fatafeat. Orfali describes filming as a “new, scary, and difficult” affair, and it took him a while to feel comfortable with the idea. He was originally scheduled to start appearing in 2006, but it was five years before he finally felt ready to start shooting. 

“I didn’t have a message (in 2006),” he explains. “I felt like I was going to be another chef on television preparing another meal. I had nothing special.”  

He shook things up by demonstrating molecular gastronomy — a radical departure from the regional norm that was met with criticism online, perhaps reinforcing Orfali’s point about resistance to innovation. Despite some pushback, his nine-year stint with Fatafeat gave Orfali confidence and motivated him to work on his own project.  

In 2015, the Orfalis established Orfali Bros as a teaching establishment offering cooking courses. It wasn’t until 2021 — after many delays, partly due to the COVID-19 pandemic — that they opened their bistro in Dubai. He says that opening a restaurant is the most difficult job in the world. “It’s like a baby. You have to take care of every single detail.”  

The 25-item menu reflects the multicultural diversity of Dubai. “We don’t serve Syrian food — although we’re Syrian boys and proud about that,” says Orfali. “We’re a family of 18 nationalities in the restaurant, and we speak food.”  

Some of the star dishes include Shish Barak a la Gyoza — a creamy combo of Syrian and Japanese cuisine; Come With Me To Aleppo — a sophisticated take on the Aleppian staple, cherry kebab; and Corn Bomb — layers of different forms of corn, from grilled to puréed, on a small tortilla, generously sprinkled with parmesan cheese.  

Orfali, it seems, is finally living his dream. But, he says, he is aiming still higher. He wants to open a namesake academy in Syria or the UAE to educate the younger generation about Arabian and Aleppian food.  

“I would like in the future for someone to say, ‘I graduated from the Orfali Bros Academy,’” he says. “This is my dream.”