'You didn't see Saudi girls working in kitchens' says female chef with bakery dream

Sweeping reforms in the kingdom are changing the lives of young women

For Asma Alamoudi, building a career as a chef was a childhood dream that might have been beyond her grasp.

Now Ms Alamoudi, 29, is one of countless young women in the kingdom whose horizons have been expanded by sweeping reforms in the kingdom.

“As a seven-year-old, I remember whisking up new dishes with my aunt in our kitchen. That's when I started taking interest in cooking. But it was Gilmore Girls that sparked this dream and yearning for owning my own bakery one day,” she says, referring to to the popular US TV series.

About two thirds of Saudi Arabia's population are under the age of 35, found a study last year. Most grew up watching western shows.

Ms Alamoudi works as an assistant chef and barista at Meraki cafe. Like other Saudi women, she drives herself to work and does the same jobs as her male colleagues without restrictions such as wearing an abaya.

“People don't realise that none of this was possible around six years ago until new laws came into place,” she says. “It's hard for us to remember, considering we are the new generation.”

“Things have changed drastically.”

Ms Alamoudiwas born and raised in Jeddah, the kingdom's second-largest city. She studied health and nutrition at King Abdulaziz University.

“We didn't have many culinary art venues when I was in college in 2011, but today we have a Saudi culinary academy, Misk programmes encouraging young Saudis to participate in professional classes and a new culinary school in Sharqiyah,” she says.

None of this seemed possible until Saudi Arabia launched its ambitious Vision 2030 economic strategy in 2016. Since then, young people have been encouraged to follow their passions.

After graduating from university, Ms Alamoudi worked at a food sensitivity test clinic, assessing people's tolerance or allergies to different foods, before working as a barista at two cafes. She has since taken a job at Meraki, where she works with female chefs.

“I learnt latte art, which was fun, and finally am able to work in the kitchen and experiment with recipes,” she says. “In fact, I will be launching my first ever creation, pumpkin pancakes, for fall this month. I am so excited.

“The head chef is a woman and so are the assistants. In fact, we were thinking of adding a male member to the team.”

Vision 2030 and the kingdom's National Transformation Programme 2020 have made female empowerment a priority in the kingdom, which aims to create one million jobs for women by 2030.

Since 2018, Ms Alamoudi has worked for companies owned by Saudi women.

I work comfortably in mixed spaces. It is a very chilled atmosphere
Saudi barista Asma Alamoudi

She believes women can play a more prominent role in running businesses, but says life was “very different” for women born in the 1970s and 1980s.

“For those of us born in the 1990s, life is very different from what it used to be for the older generations. I drive to work, I go to the gym, come to work in a mixed environment and work alongside men, all of which is pretty normal for us now,” she says.

She remembers when Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman changed the course of the kingdom with social reforms, such as granting women the right to drive in 2018.

Thousands of new jobs were created for women and many took roles in malls, restaurants and cafes.

“You didn't see Saudi girls working as baristas or chefs in the open before. I work comfortably in mixed spaces. It is a very chilled atmosphere,” she says.

“The crowd is open-minded and we really enjoy what we do. Today, I have the opportunity to do what I love most. Working in the kitchen takes me back to the happy memories of that seven-year-old version of me.”

She says the role of women is changing in today's society.

“I realise women were more domesticated or were raised to restrain in some ways, in my personal experience,” she says.

“But I want to change that for our generation and for the next one. I always encourage my niece to speak her mind, and my nephew to support her — and each other. We've got to break the cycle.”

She likes to spend her spare time focusing on her mental, physical and spiritual health, watching shows on Netflix and posting videos on TikTok.

TikTok is something that happened for her during the pandemic, she says. “I got so many positive reviews. I have colleagues coming up to me saying 'I am such a big fan', so it's really encouraging,” she says.

“I haven't given up on the Gilmore Girls dream. I hope to open my own bakery in my home town one day.”

Updated: November 19th 2021, 9:54 AM