'In the kitchen, every single second counts': Tala Bashmi on her mission to reinvent Bahraini cuisine

The professional chef has revamped an entire restaurant and even starred in 'Top Chef Middle East'

Chef Tala Bashmi is a contestant on ‘Top Chef Middle East’. Courtesy The Gulf Hotel Bahrain
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Tala Bashmi has ­rarely rested since she became a professional chef. She's been too busy trying to prove Bahraini cuisine can and should be served alongside the world's most famous fare. And so far, she's been doing a very good job of achieving that lofty goal.

While she's only in her early thirties, Bashmi is already the head chef of a fine-dining spot in her home country. Fusions, which is at five-star property the Gulf Hotel Bahrain Convention & Spa, has been freshly renovated and was reopened to the public as Fusions by Tala on Thursday, February 13.

"The hotel's restaurants are now going to be very chef-led," Bashmi explains amid hectic preparations for the grand opening. "We've been allowed to be so creative and involved in everything from decor to menu design."

This has been no small challenge. The Gulf Hotel has a reputation to uphold, after all. The property has been around since 1969 and is known on the island for its strong food and beverage offering, with 16 outlets in all, including Rasoi by Vineet Bhatia. So Bashmi's in good company.

She has also been in good company on season four of MBC's Top Chef Middle East, which invites the best chefs from across the region to battle against each other in a MasterChef-style competition. Bashmi, who has a master's degree in international business in culinary management from the Culinary Arts Academy Switzerland, was actually approached to appear on the show before, but for numerous reasons it wasn't until this year that she took the plunge and agreed.

As the final has not yet aired, she can't say much about what happens, but she will admit she's met some incredibly talented people during the series. "I've learnt so much from the experience," she says.

I've learnt so much from the experience. One thing I've really learnt is that, in the kitchen, every single second counts. There's so much pressure during those challenges
Tala Bashmi

"One thing I've really learnt is that, in the kitchen, every single second counts. There's so much pressure during those challenges to get things done while everyone is watching and the cameras are on. I've definitely learnt a lot about time management."

That's certainly a good thing, considering her latest challenge. Before, Fusions was run by only two chefs, but with a new and vast rooftop terrace – the hotel's first – the entire restaurant and lounge area now has the capacity for about 140 customers, with two separate menus being offered: the full fine-dining experience and a tapas option.

Bashmi has been on a hiring spree and she will now have a team of six chefs to manage. "I like to hire young, enthusiastic people who are really talented," she explains.

The restaurant's new minimalistic interiors are a reflection of her contemporary style of cooking; almost acting as a blank canvas for the culinary theatre she creates. One of her favourite dishes on the menu is her interpretation of a Bahraini tikka. She uses a succulent beef tenderloin and foie gras, flavoured with black lime, laid on top of some fresh khubz.

Other original recipes include the Golden Goose, a Middle Eastern twist on chicken liver pate, which utilises date and black pepper jam and daqoos-spiced chicken skin, plus a shrimp jareesh with orange butter sauce. For dessert, there’s a chocolate fudge cake with pistachio and whey caramel.

“When people come here I want that to be how their night begins and ends,” she adds. “You’re going out and this is what you’re doing, you’re having dinner at Fusions by Tala, and it’ll be an experience.”

While her career has grown rapidly, Bashmi's mission to introduce classic regional dishes in a new way to a younger and wider audience has never changed. "I try to appeal to every audience from every country, in a sense of bringing them back to a state of nostalgia," she explains. She might do this through any of our senses, such as when she adds a campfire aroma to the Saudi-Bahraini dessert aseeda to evoke memories of camping, whether in the desert or the forest.

Yes, her influences come from her ancestry, but she also looks to world-renowned chefs, such as Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal, for inspiration. That's what makes Bashmi so different from her contemporaries in the region. "I don't really know of anyone else who is doing anything like this in the Arab world right now," she says.

That being said, there are plenty of chefs who she admires, particularly those on a mission to cut back on waste and plastic, policies she's also trying to introduce at Fusions by Tala.

Focusing on local, seasonal produce is also important to Bashmi. She loves to educate her customers on lesser-known ingredients from the Gulf. For example, palm pollen. “When it comes to palm trees, dates get the most credit, but there are so many more parts of the palm that are amazing in their own way,” she wrote in a recent post on Instagram, where she has almost 15,000 followers. “Palm pollen is the first palm fruit that pollinates the palm before becoming a date. There’s also a long list of medicinal benefits to this guy. I grew up munching on this stuff as a kid and I remember its tannin-like quality vividly.”

Food is quite clearly her ultimate passion, but it's a quote by American jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, which Bashmi also shared recently with her social media followers, that sums her up best: "I say, play your own way. Don't play what the public wants … you play what you want and let the public pick up on what you are doing, even if it does take them 15, 20 years."

It will not take the public quite that long to take notice of Tala Bashmi.