Chef Raed Zeytoun is the master chef behind the famous Lebanese cuisine restaurant Byblos Sur Mer at InterContinental Abu Dhabi. He drove this picturesque restaurant to be awarded the Best MENA Restaurant in 2016.
How long have you been cooking professionally?
I started cooking professionally in 2005.
What inspired you to be a chef? Why did you go into this line of profession?
My mother is instrumental on why I became a chef. She would invite me in the kitchen when I was still very young to help her in her cooking and she saw that I had the natural flair in cooking. So she encouraged me a lot to learn more and to become one. This came a long way since I was only ten years old and her continuous encouragement paved that way of my strong desire to be a professional chef someday.
Where did you train to cook?
I studied in a hotel institute for a year in Syria and continued to train in Lebanon for another two years.
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I specialize in Arabic cooking and my style is creative, clean, fresh and always fun. 90% perhaps of my cuisine is yes, Arabic. I grew up in this environment and the challenge is always to make the dish merge with the times of today.
Do you have a “signature dish” or favourite dish you enjoy cooking?
I have 2 signature dishes that you can enjoy at Byblos Sur Mer exclusivly. It’s Lobster Kebbeh and Znoud El Set with shrimps. Both dishes have been my bestseller.
Which other restaurant do you most admire and enjoy eating out around UAE?
Mays El Reem of JW Marriott Hotel in Al Muraqqabat, Dubai. This is one restaurant that I would love to go every time I am in Dubai. It is also a Lebanese restaurant.
What is your most interesting experience from your time in the restaurant?
I really enjoy working with my team and it is always fun to work in such environment. I try not to lose my temper for something trivial whenever there are minor slip-ups in the kitchen. Everything can be settled calmly. When everything runs smoothly, it is always a good feeling, and of course fun.
Is there another chef that you most admire?
One of my mentor and friend is Chef Danny Kattar. I learn from him lot of techniques and he is one chef who brings out the best in you not only in the professional area but also as a person. He is now Director of Food and Beverages for the same hotel I am in, at InterContinental Abu Dhabi.
Any advice you would give to someone wanting to become a chef?
Any person who wants to become a chef should learn from another great chef that you admire and respect – and you learn everything from him. Your mentor is there to develop you and that his only intention is that you become a great chef yourself.
Was there anything that you thought you wanted to do before you started cooking?
I wanted to become a football player and be famous in the world. (laughs) But I think that is all what all other kids dream of when they were very young, to just play.
What foods are you craving the most right now?
It is a dish called Mahashi that I can say is 99% from the Arab country. We cook a lot of this and this dish is found in almost all Arabic dining tables. It’s baby morrow, eggplant, vine leaves, and all of this is stuffed with rice and meat. The special sauce makes you crave for this dish and people from this geography eats it a lot. Cooking time is usually from two hours to two and a half hours. You should try it and you will crave for it too.
What personal quirks does your team or friends tease you about?
I always have to have a big mug of coffee to start cooking, without sugar. They tease me a lot about this before-anything-else habit and upon entering the kitchen, most often this is what is talk about to break the ice to start our day at work. It brings laughter to everyone.
Is there a food that you hate?
To be honest, a fish dish is always tricky to make. I am talking about five star standards or fine dining meals. Not really hate it but the correct way to put it is that is a challenge every time. It is also the least that I would eat. Perhaps I am not a ‘fish eater’. I would rather have shrimps or lobsters my favorites. And only grilled. Simple.
Is there a childhood comfort food that you think about?
Yes of course. I have to have some food in the dining table that are food I grew up with. These are dishes that I simply can’t live without like grill kebbeh, chicken moulokhiya, spaghetti béchamel in white sauce. I am from Syria so yes, Arabic meals always get me going.
What kinds of ethnic food do you think are underrated right now?
Ancient arabic food are not represented very well on mainstream Lebanese restaurants, and these are actually famous dishes from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Jordan. Up until now, even with the diversity of the dining culture, Arab people still stick and love a Mansaf– Jordanian, Oozi Shamiye -Syrian, and Basha w asakro – Lebanese. These dishes should remain to its true form and must be shared in it’s original recipe in all Arabic restaurants.
Tell us about what you think of UAE’s dining culture—what do you think of this city?
It is a city of great beauty that is shared with more than 200 different nationalities all of which have different culinary cultures. All of these cuisines can be found and experienced in various hotels and restaurants spread across the country and you can have all of this gourmet journey in UAE. For anyone adventurous in their palette, UAE is pure paradise. And for any chef like me, it is a continuous learning in the dining industry.
Has there ever been an ingredient that you weren’t able to master and have given up on, like blood or lamb brains?
Yes, sometimes. I can’t say exactly what but this is really not a big deal. Some are just not good in other dishes while others can master some.
In your mind, what’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in the kitchen?
Maybe raising my voice at my team when it’s a full house and the pressure is really high to meet all orders. Once the pressure is gone, I make sure that I bring the team together as one family.
What is your idea of happiness?
I am very fortunate to have a great support team in the kitchen and I think this is one main reason why we succeeded in making Byblos Sur Mer the choice as the best MENA restaurant in Abu Dhabi. When you have a dedicated staff and everyone is positive, cheerful and thankful for the work they have, that makes me very happy.
What is your present state of mind?
I am in a very good and amazing mood all the time. Positive vibes always.
What do you appreciate the most in your friends?
I have a lot of good friends in my circle who-are and also who-are-not in my workplace. I’m taking every constructive advise and criticism from all of them and I don’t think that this is bad even if cooking is out of their norm. You just listen because you will never know that great ideas sometimes can be thrown at you without them knowing. (laughs). I like their honesty which is very important in all friendships.
What’s your most memorable meal?
I can’t forget this dish called Fish Sayadiyeh with tartar sauce. Mainly because I really don’t fancy a fish dish as I said earlier, but this one did.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share like new developments at Byblos Sur Mer?
There is an exciting new menu added to our restaurant every three or four month. These new dishes will be in our Byblos list of signature dishes.