Douha Abdullah Al Otaishan walks around the courtyard of the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture (Ithra) in Dhahran and a few passers-by immediately recognise her. Several women and girls stop to speak to her or take a selfie. She did, after all, make history by becoming the first female executive chef in Saudi Arabia and is one of the most familiar faces on national TV in the kingdom.
The long road to success
But that success didn't come easy. As a girl, Al Otaishan learnt the ropes by helping her grandmother in the kitchen of the family house in their home town of Al Qassim, about 470 kilometres northwest of Riyadh. "I was her assistant, helping her make mahshi [stuffed courgette] and makdous [stuffed aubergine]," she tells The National.
When Al Otaishan got married and started cooking alone, she quickly realised her recipes were missing something. She learned new techniques and how to make different dishes, relying solely on video cassettes. "At that time, there was no YouTube," she says with a chuckle.
She then took her culinary journey one step further and travelled the world to master various cuisines, including Lebanese, French and Italian. She went to India to learn more about Mughlai food and Dubai to discover a variety of international fare. Over the years, she amassed knowledge about myriad cultures and cuisines, yet it was her Saudi dishes that were most popular among customers of her home-based business.
It wasn't long before she was dreaming of pursuing her passion on a larger scale. She knocked on the doors of several restaurants in Riyadh, but due to the restrictions on female employment in 2015, she was turned away. Her first break came a year later, when she was hired as a trainee chef at the Four Seasons Hotel Riyadh. After her apprenticeship was over, however, it was back to square one.
It was another year before Al Otaishan stepped back into a kitchen in a professional capacity. In 2017, she was invited for a cooking trial at the Golden Tulip Andalusia Hotel in Riyadh, in which she prepared a meal for eight people. She passed the test with flying colours and was hired as the executive chef of Majlisna, the hotel's in-house restaurant, which specialises in Najdi food, from central Saudi Arabia. Even though it was considered by some at the time to be unusual or even inappropriate for women to work in a hotel, Al Otaishan says she could not let that stop her. "It wasn't a job for me, but rather a passion. I was proud of my accomplishment."
A focus on Saudi cuisine
Today, customers continue to return to the restaurant for a taste of Al Otaishan's signature dishes. A few favourites include the Happy Kabsa, a fragrant rice dish layered with lamb, potato, courgette and aubergine; jareesh, a savoury porridge made with either white or red crushed wheat; margoog, a stew layered with meat, vegetables and bread; and matazeez, a meat and vegetable stew cooked with dough dumplings. Al Otaishan is also now the host of popular cooking show, Matbakh Dhoha (Cooking with Douha), by the Saudi Broadcasting Authority, a programme that already has 140 episodes.
In the past three years alone, she has achieved several accolades. Most notably, she was one of three chefs – the others were men – who cooked for more than 500 delegates at the World Economic Forum in Davos last year. Under the theme "Saudi voyage", the chefs prepared dishes from five regions of the kingdom. For starters, there was Saudi muttabaq (a savoury flatbread stuffed with meat or egg) and laham be ajeen (meat pie) typical of the Hejaz region. For mains, the chefs served lamb and chicken kabsa, and jareesh from the Najd region, while dessert was sagudana, a halwa-like confectionery made with tapioca pearls and nuts, common in the Hejaz and Al Hasa regions.
Due to trade routes and migration from Khaleeji regions and other parts of the world, it is difficult to define dishes exclusively as Saudi. But Al Otaishan says there are some key factors to look out for. She highlighted this during the Saudi National Day celebrations at Ithra, as she served up an innovative menu for guests using staple ingredients such as wheat, rye, milk, dates and oats.
"Incorporating these essential ingredients and spices, we gave an international spin to some dishes," she explains. "It is traditional Saudi food, but we changed how we served it. For example, we made tamen risotto balls, which are made with tamen, a speciality rice dish that comes from Hail, a city in the north-western region of Saudi Arabia."
To create the tamen dish, she cooked the rice in a pumpkin and tomato paste, with a spoonful of chicken broth added regularly, similar to how you would prepare risotto. It was cooled, shaped into 2.5-centimetre balls, deep-fried and served with marinara sauce.
Other experimental dishes she served at the event included an oat soup and date salad, bao buns with meat filling, as well as ravioli margoog with pumpkin stuffing. For dessert, it was ma'soob, a banana and bread porridge served with cream, nuts, honey and cheese, and hayltila, a milk pudding topped with pistachios.
Next step: Douha's Kitchen
There is plenty more to come from the chef, with Al Otaishan preparing to take her career to the next level by opening her own restaurant, Kitchen Douha, in Riyadh this year. While she will shift her focus to Mediterranean cuisine when it opens, she says there will still be a dollop of Saudi flavour in her dishes.
"Being a female executive chef is not an easy task," Al Otaishan says. "You have to carry heavy things, be on your feet for eight hours or more in the kitchen, manage and lead a team, and develop recipes on a regular basis."
But if anyone is up to the task, it's her.