Bait Maryam chef Salam Dakkak named Mena's Best Female Chef 2023

The Palestinian-Jordanian chef opened her Levantine restaurant in Dubai when she was 54

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The first time I met Salam Dakkak, we were both reaching for the last canape at the Michelin Guide Dubai unveiling ceremony in June. Despite my protests, she graciously insisted I eat it (“Feeding people is what I do, after all,” she says), admitting she was a touch nervous about whether her restaurant, Bait Maryam, would be acknowledged at the star-studded event.

She needn’t have worried. Not only was Dakkak’s restaurant one of 14 in Michelin’s Bib Gourmand category, but she also took home the Welcome & Service award, a nod to the high level of hospitality she prides herself on.

The next time I met the Palestinian-Jordanian chef, she was on home turf, reigning large as the mother figure at the cosy JLT restaurant that serves Levantine cuisine and that she has been running since 2017. Hearteningly, she had also just been named the Middle East and North Africa's Best Female Chef 2023 by the World’s 50 Best group, a food and beverage award-bestowing body that is, arguably, as popular as the Michelin Guide. The debut list for the Mena region was revealed in Abu Dhabi in February, with the second set to be announced on January 30.

“I am now convinced that hard work pays off,” Dakkak says of her 50 Best award. “It makes me feel happy and accomplished, yes, but with it also comes the desire to do more and the responsibility to be both more successful and more supportive of others in my field.”

Dakkak says F&B awards are crucial for the industry because they bring about a level of credibility and help to put restaurants and countries on the culinary world map. “Most importantly, though, it is the biggest compliment to be recognised for serving Middle Eastern food, which has not yet got the recognition it deserves.

The fatet muskhan is one example of the authentic Palestinian dishes the restaurant prides itself on serving. Photo: Bait Maryam

“For most people, Arabic only means Lebanese food, while we specialise in Palestinian dishes alongside a mix of other Levantine cuisine, including dishes from Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. Even common dishes like dolma, stuffed vine leaves, are prepared differently in the four countries, not to mention musakhan, makluba and mansaf.”

Dakkak was 54 when she opened Bait Maryam and says she’s had “a long and lovely journey”, which started with her observing her mother, Maryam, cooking the simplest of dishes with love and treating even the most basic ingredients with respect. “This encouraged me to always cook from my heart, and enabled me to change a bad mood to good just by entering the kitchen,” she says.

In 1999, Dakkak moved to Saudi Arabia, where she opened a cooking school with only eight chairs. “It went from eight to 16, and then some people even brought their own chairs with them,” she says. She also consulted with two hotels to train their sous chefs on preparing authentic dishes.

In 2004, Dakkak and her family moved to Houston in the US, where she met a mother-son duo running an Arabic restaurant called Fadi’s. “I admired that lady so much that she sparked in me the dream of one day opening my own restaurant. And so Bait Maryam, or home of Maryam, named after my mother, was born after we moved to the UAE.” The JLT spot is replete with homely touches, including Dakkak’s mother's lace curtains and her sewing machine.

Bait Maryam is locted in cluster D, JLT, Dubai. Photo: Bait Maryam

The end game is to serve homestyle meals. “I never wanted a fine-dining restaurant with showy dishes, but rather for every guest, whether Arab or not, to feel like they are coming home.”

It’s why Dakkak recommends sampling the hummus and tabbouleh above all else. “If a restaurant does these right, you know it will serve good food.”

As the recipient of the Mena’s Best Female Chef award, Dakkak follows in the footsteps of Bahraini chef Tala Bashmi, who won the award in 2022. And yet the two could not be more different: where Bashmi — who Dakkak describes as “amazing” — is known for her highly experamentative fusion cuisine (think soft-shell crab with cardamom pickled cabbage, harissa honey, micro herbs, finger lime and mehyawa aioli), Salam is all about simple, home-cooked meals.

“It goes to show that there is room for both styles of cooking at this point in time. I also believe that ours is a restaurant that a person can come and eat in every day; how many other places can you say that about? I am pleased that both the Michelin and Mena’s 50 Best awards acknowledge that this style of food is as important, maybe even more so.”

Scroll through the gallery below to see which other restaurants were included on Michelin's Bib Gourmand list in Dubai

Updated: December 07, 2022, 9:45 AM