Top chef wants more Emiratis to try a career in the kitchen

Culinary ambassadors gather in Dubai for three-day World Hospitality Championship, which aims to highlight up-and-coming talent in the UAE.

Mariam Karmostaji of Royal Mini Cheesecake with Ali Ebdowa, executive chef at Emirates Palace’s Emirati restaurant, Mezlai, at the Dubai World Hospitality Championship. Jake Badger for The National
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DUBAI // The talents of up-and-coming Emirati chefs are being showcased in an effort to promote national cuisine.

There are only a few prominent UAE national chefs, but the Dubai World Hospitality Championship is aiming to attract more to the trade.

Ali Ebdowa, executive chef at Emirates Palace’s Emirati restaurant, Mezlai, was one of the event’s culinary ambassadors.

A former military man, he believes there is still a culture of “shame” attached to a career in the kitchen. Emiratis, he said, were more inclined to work for the military or for the government. “This event is very important for us. We need to put our food on the list of world cuisines. We have a rich kitchen but there is nobody to build that. We hope after this event to find more men and women to be chefs,” he said.

Mr Ebdowa has been cooking since 1992, initially for himself, and experiments with using different ingredients alongside traditional Emirati dishes.

Creating unusual pairings, such as parmesan cheese and spices with mainstream Emirati fare, is what keeps his menu fresh and diverse.

“People don’t know about local cuisine because when visitors come here, they get taken to Lebanese restaurants simply because we don’t have nice Emirati restaurants,” he said.

Mr Ebdowa hopes the event will help change the image of a career of a chef.

“The pay is good and the hours are no problem,” he said, addressing common challenges facing hotels and the tourism industry when it comes to hiring Emiratis.

“When I started working, people gave me one month, six months, or they didn’t think I’d last at all but I’ve grown to the highest level.”

Many Emirati foods were brought for sale at the three-day event, from home-farmed dates and honey to harees and btheth (a date pudding).

But the younger generation feels most passionate about sweets.

Mariam Karmostaji, 24, specialises in low-fat cheesecakes, called Royal Mini Cheesecake.

She makes them at home and sells them by word of mouth through friends and social media.

Starting a year ago with one flavour, she has since branched out to include dates and cardamom. She has added Galaxy and coffee flavours to her local tastes.

“This event is good for us to get exposure for the brand,” she said.

Reem Al Khajer, 23, set up Cakes to Go from home. Working with her sister part-time while holding down a day job as a brand executive, she said Instagram had been a great source of business.

“Our friends share with their friends and it’s helped us reach a broader network while not needing us to go out and sell things ourselves,” she said.

Social media allows the women to respect their culture while embracing their own business.

“This is my passion and hobby that I hope one day will be my full-time business,” Ms Al Khajer said. “We’re just building it up now and building our customer base.

“With events like this, it will help us change the conservative attitudes to women doing everything from home and give us a bigger push.

“There was always the perception we must do everything at home so nobody saw what we were creating. I hope this will change things. I want there to be more Emirati chefs.”

A pastry chef, Mariam Al Shamsi, 30, said Instagram worked well for her budget. Because her business is new, she has little revenue until she secures financial support. The social-media site has been a way to reach a wider audience.

Asma Ozair, a pastry chef, said the hospitality event was a good networking opportunity.

She works from home and comes from a conservative family which prefers she continue the business while staying at home with her son.

“It’s a good opportunity for us to connect with government and different companies to get more support for our business,” she said.

Mr Ebdowa said he was proud of the women.

“But I would be even prouder to see them doing this outside,” he said. “I really want to set up a cooking school to help get this all going.”