Hyatt Capital Gate Abu Dhabi houses Jordanian born Chef Abdallah Bin Hussein, famously called as the ‘Star Chef of Arabs’ by his mentors and high profile admirers worldwide.
He has prepared meals for royalties and celebrities like King Abdullah Bin Hussein, Shakira, Jimmy Choo, Roger Federer and other big names of athletes in the international sports.
He started cooking at the age of 17, became Sous Chef at 24 and Chef de Cuisine by the age of 26.
But that is really not the most amazing part of Abdallah Bin Hussein as a Chef.
This tall, dark and dashing bachelor who cooks for your amazing meals at Hyatt’s 18 Degrees started his career without any proper training, nor have attended any cooking classes or culinary education prior to his amazing career.
Now at 30, he is in a quest to do more challenging roles.
He talks about food, the culinary culture in the country and his future plans in an exclusive chat with UAE DNA.
How do you describe your style of cooking?
I can say I go for the idea of a ‘home feel’ kind of cooking, a home dish presented in the simplest form. I do not complicate my method of cooking. I just see to it that I retain the natural flavors of any ingredient. That is the most important thing. It stays authentic to its original taste.
How do you do this?
I don’t try to use very complicated equipment to get a dish done. I try to work with very classic kitchen equipment. By that I mean those basic things you find in your home.
I don’t depend on anything to drive me to produce something good like a particular equipment, or method of cooking, or a certain specific ingredient. I make use of what is in the kitchen and produce the best food there is.
It is all in the chefs’ hands, as they say. You create great meals with what is available in front of you and that is really the magic that happens in a kitchen.
It’s good to have a full load list of ingredients but this should not hinder your creativity in the kitchen if you lack some. You cookwith whatever is available.
You are noted to cook on impulse, tell us about this.
Time and time I would be ask to do a food demonstration if a high profile client request for me to cook for them. Everything goes on a screening process of course and meeting decision makers are crucial.
I would go to this appointment and they would ask me to come back with a list that they can put together for me to cook – the necessary ingredients or an equipment I may need to prepare a menu set.
I tell them to just bring me to the kitchen now, like right now, and I will cook for them. Whatever is in the kitchen, I will make do. This always surprises them.
I have been in this situation many times so it is just logical to do whatever is there in the kitchen that is available. That’s what chefs are and I really like a challenge like this. I love to be in this kind of situation.
In two hours time, I can make 6 dishes with whatever they have in the kitchen.
I never relied on a product or an equipment to create good food. It is very difficult to do actually but as I said, I love this kind of challenge.
I get the job all the time because of this approach.
And anyone who can taste my dish, they can do it in their own homes too. That is the whole idea – that this menu that I created is doable in their very own kitchen.
So no secrets, like we hear from other chefs that there is a secret menu to create a particular dish.
I don’t hide my recipe if that is what you mean. I want my dishes to be done in your kitchen by yourself if you really want to make it. Once I create a dish, I get bored doing it again and again so I should make a new one. That is part that you improve the dish from time to time.
Those chefs who hide their secrets are limited with what they know in the kitchen. That is all they know so they keep it as a secret.
I even don’t keep a photo of what I have done, or make a detailed note of that dish. Because it is a challenge for me to always come up with a new dish all the time. It is nice to share some of your recipes from the past but you can always improve on this very particular recipe. Then it gets better.
So your style is home cooking that anybody can copy, and that you are willing to share, that anyone can do – but you must have a signature dish.
Everyone says it is Fattoush. This is the most likely recipe that is often requested from me to make. It is actually a very simple salad to make but I will make sure that you eat at least half a kilo of my Fattoush (laughs). Everyone says that it is my signature dish as they remember me from it.
I make a very good syrup for the Fattoush salad and from taste, they know that it is me who made it.
Is there an ingredient that you do not like.
I don’t like to cook with capsicum. If I can avoid using it, I will. Capsicum kills the rest of the flavors of a dish, especially if it is raw.
Most challenging to cook.
Challenging to cook would be perhaps a pork dish. It is a religious thing as I am Muslim, nothing more. I tried once but I will not do it again. If hotel in-house guests do requests for it, I let other chefs do this meal for them.
When did you start cooking?
Who was your influence?
My father. My father when he cooks, he is the boss in the kitchen. No one is allowed to help and no one can disturb him in anyway. If you do, he stops cooking and he will just walk away.
His command in the kitchen was very fascinating to watch from the distance. He was just so passionate about it and would cook for our very large family all by himself! So, he was the center of conversation in every gathering because he was just alone doing all the cooking, even the slicing of the ingredients. That was how dedicated he was with his kitchen. I got drawn to it just by watching him.
He was the Master Chef in our family. He just know his way around in our modest kitchen. He was a very good cook in fact without learning from books or I should say the internet because there was none.
He just feels it as cooking should be and I picked a lot of his ways just by watching him. He was the BOSS.
All everyone has to do was just EAT.
So your mom doesn’t cook?
No. My mom is also a very good cook. But if there is a family gathering, like a picnic or celebrations – my father was the Master Chef.
Did you ever think that you be a chef one day.
I have always wanted to be a journalist. I want to write. I do a lot of writing in Arabic. In the future perhaps, I will.
What is a day like for Chef Abdallah?
When I wake up, I just take a shower, shave, dress up and head strait to the hotel kitchen. I go strait from bed to hotel, check everything in the kitchen before I take my breakfast or coffee.
I make sure that everything is in order before doing anything else to prepare the days work and the staff as well.
13 years as a professional chef, this is your routine?
I am very passionate with what I do, and I love cooking. I also don’t try to kill myself with work. I balance it out. I also see to it that my lifestyle is met. If I am needed to be in the hotel, I am in the hotel. If I think I am not needed, then I don’t have to.
Technology has also a big part in creating that balance in your life because you are just a call away if you are really needed. I trust my team and they are a great team so I really do not worry much if I am not in my kitchen.
Is there a restaurant in UAE or in Abu Dhabi that you go, except of course Hyatt.
I don’t go to a 5 star restaurant or the very high-end restaurant. In as much, I go to the ‘hole-in-the-wall’ eateries in the city where I can experience really authentic good food and learn from their craft.
I keep searching on the road for what we call ‘street food’. I always explore these very small restaurants and there is a lot, like Indian, Arabic, Palestinian, Emirati cuisine, Moroccan, Greek. These local and authentic cuisine by these small establishments are really good food. There is so much out there.
Where do you bring your guests if they come visit you in UAE?
If I have guests visiting me, I would bring them to these local finds. These are food and experiences that you will never find in a 5 star hotel. I love going to these kind of places.
Is there a favorite place you go.
Lebanese Pastry next to Dana Hotel. They use the old style way of cooking to a tee. Like they marinate everything in a tray and use these rock ovens. No fancy equipment in there and they can produce the best food.
Another chef you admire.
When I started my carrer Munier Al Salaq, He was my head chef when I started at seventeen in Jordan. I started as Commis 1 Chef and he hired me to come in UAE.
And on the age of 24 I met Chef Laurent Pommey’. He gave me a lot of recognition and he also gave me a lot of moral boosting and support. He understands me and he would introduce me as the Star Chef of Arabs. That’s where I got that Star Chef of Arabs name. It is very humbling to be called that. He gave me a position as Sous Chef at age 24 and he sent me to my current work place as Chef De Cuisine.
Even up to this day I am in constant contact with him as he is now based in Australia. He is French – Australian.
He was the very reason I am now in UAE. Whenever I have concerns, I still go to him for advise and would email or call him. It has gone beyond being just my mentor. He became one of my good friend.
Any advise to anyone who wants to be like you, a chef?
You have to really like it and you really have to love it. If you don’t like it in some days, then don’t even think to try. You really have to love cooking. Because if you just like doing it at certain times, then you will never go anywhere.
And you must not let anyone else tell you what to do. The minute that someone tells you what to do in the kitchen, then you don’t know anything in that kitchen.
Is there one food that you really love to eat? Like you crave for it, a favorite food.
What makes a restaurant work?
I follow where the chef go, not the establishment. I look for that specific chef in an establishment and I follow them wherever they go.
I am more of the ‘people kind’ of person in the industry. I go to a restaurant and I would ask who the chef is, be introduced to him and I follow this chef.
That is the whole restaurant right there, this person.
Going back to your father, what is your favorite dish from him?
Can you duplicate this?
No. I know he just use salt and pepper and whatever he does with the barbeque but I don’t want to know how he does it because that is what I will remember him for. It is also very different when he is the one doing the barbeque.
So what does your mom cook that you like?
You know, my mother is sometimes upset with me. She goes saying that I do not teach her a menu or anything about cooking.
But my mom is also a very natural gifted good cook and that is exactly how I want it to be. That she will cook for me. Her style of cooking is also beyond belief. Whenever I go for a vacation to Jordan or when my mom visits me here in UAE, I let her cook for me. I tell her I don’t want to eat my food, I want to I eat your food.
Is there a food in UAE that you think is underrated?
Not given enough value would be perhaps the Turkish food. There is only two (or three maybe) Turkish restaurant around. I mean the real authentic one, just Turkish. It is a very good cuisine with massive dishes that is still to be discovered in UAE.
Why do you think that Turkish food is not that popular?
Maybe because it is very close to Arabic taste but Turkish cuisine is actually very different. There is a history attached to their dishes which makes it more intriguing.
What do you think of the dining culture of UAE?
The dining culture is really diverse in UAE with so much culture and traditions from different countries meeting in one pot. This alone is something that is very exciting on what is happening around the food culture because you experience so manyflavors.
Plans in the future.
Cooking for the orphanage for free.
Supporting the local vendors in Meena market (in Abu Dhabi).
What do you think of UAE?
It is beautiful. There is no place like UAE. It has equality, it is also very safe to live, and professionally it allows you to grow if you work for it. In general, it develops you to be the best of who you are. It has a very colorful atmosphere living with different nationalities and sharing cultures so it is very exciting. There is always something new around even if I am here in UAE for about 10 years now
If there is no UAE, where do you see yourself doing this profession?
Istanbul. It is very similar. The food culture is also endless.
Dumbest thing you have ever done in the kitchen.
I burned my mom’s kitchen. I was very hungry and decided to cook french-fries. So I peeled a potato, fried it, took the fries with me to my room and l must have left the fire still burning.
Neighbors were screaming that our kitchen was burning and in panic, I left the house that evening before my parents get back since I wasvery scared with my father.
He waited for me to come home and that was at 2 in the morning. He told me it was very late and that he will just talk to me the following morning when I wake up. I was very scared.
The following day he took me aside for a one-on-one talk and explained to me that because of what I did, my mom did not sleep as she cleaned the whole kitchen and that I should really be responsible.
I did not get spanking. It was a man-to-man talk and from that time, I took this incident a learning lesson. Every time I leave the kitchen, I would just double-check that everything is safe.
Your idea of happiness.
My idea of happiness is having a peace of mind.
What is your state of mind right now?
I have great plans ahead like what I said for my future plans. I would really like to build a great team to help me accomplish my future goals.
Alone, you go fast. But with a team, you go far.
What do you appreciate most in your friends?
You travel a lot Chef, yes?
I have been to Madagascar, China, India, Mauritius, Nepal, Oman, Qatar Cambodia, Malaysia , Indonesia, Turkey I love travelling.
What have you eaten from those travels that are very memorable to you?
In China, I will never forget this vegetable noodle soup house ran by an old man and his son. It was in fact a very small not-so-polished place. That was all what they offered, this vegetable noodle soup and this place is always packed. It is a very simple dish but I found myself going there strait five weeks – just to have this noodle soup. I don’t want to know how he did the stock because I really wanted to remember this old man who serves me with a smile all the time with his sell out dish.
You won a lot of culinary awards at a very young age, tell us about this.
I never went into formal training but I was very passionate with what I was doing. My Manager recognized my dedication and that very year, I got the Best Chef Employee Award. I was only 22 years old. My prize was going to China to have my first formal training of culinary education.
I never try to beat anyone but myself.
Is there one thing that people don’t know about you?
I am actually a very shy person. I just go out because of my profession. I would rather really be in the kitchen where I am most comfortable with than go meet other people. Somehow, I have to overcome this.
What is that weird thing about you?
I am quite or silent in the morning. I don’t talk to people. No talking for maybe two hours. I am in that zone. I go about my day starting with me not talking to anyone at all.
But if someone asks, I respond. But I really would rather not talk.
You have a brother who is also in the hospitality industry that you fondly speak of. Tell me about him.
My brother that also acts as my godfather here in UAE and he is the General Manager of one of Hyatt Hotel in Dubai. I mentioned that I got inspired by my father, but it is my brother Kifah Bin Hussein who really pushed me to be who I wanted to be. He opened that door for me to become a hotel chef because he was already in the hotel industry. I speak to him a lot for advises and he is the sole reason why I am in this field because he guided me to where I am now. He connected the dots for me to meet the right people and he paved that path which I am really grateful. I listen to him for all advises even my personal life – as I can tell him anything.
Chefs are moody they say, are you moody?
I am a cool guy. Perhaps before I was, yes, ‘moody’ before. But you really mature in the long run as you meet a lot of different people in the kitchen who will workwith you. Different people with different characters are in your kitchen.
I do get crazy sometimes but I can control it now. Moody, that was a long time. Now no. I get a lot of patience nowadays because of my hobby. I do sports like boxing and it is a very good way to release the stress out.
I can’t work with moody people. I learned from my past that these uncalled for moods is not a good trait especially if you are in the kitchen.
I lost cool I think only three times.
I threw a whisker to a staff one time and the other two, I had some petty fistfight with co-workers in the kitchen. That was a very long time ago when I was still young and stupid (laughs). It is not pretty to look back but it made me realize that losing your cool really doesn’t help.