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For Dubai’s Michelin chefs, home is where culinary dreams are born

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The launch of the Michelin guide in the UAE has propelled some restaurants in the country to superstardom. For many chefs, it was a welcome reward for their years of hard work and sacrifice.

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While some restaurants scored Michelin stars, others were recognised for the stellar work they did in various areas. Here’s a look into the lives of four Michelin-recognised chefs and how they got to where they are.

College dropout to star chef

Born and raised in Dubai, young chef Solemann Haddad dropped out of university three weeks before graduation to pursue his culinary dreams.

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“It is a story where my dad and I were emotionally blackmailing each other,” chuckled the 26-year-old. “I told him that if he let me go to culinary school, I would come back and finish my degree. He kept his part of the deal and I kept mine. I went back to university and graduated about three years ago.”

His father, Firas Haddad (pictured with Solemann to his left, below), raised him and his siblings single-handedly since the death of his mother 10 years ago. And he is one of his biggest supporters.

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After completing a nine-month-long course at culinary school, Haddad did some consulting and hosted a pop-up which then became the business model for his restaurant.

Helming the immensely successful omakase restaurant, Moonrise, Chef Haddad won the Young Chef Award. The Michelin guide commended his work in a statement: “Mostly self-taught, this eloquent, passionate and thoughtful chef is only too happy to explain his dishes, their origins, and even divulge the secrets of how he executes them. Taking the best, mostly local ingredients and fusing them with his heritage, he delivers an exciting omakase menu that is a blend of Japanese Kaiseki with Middle Eastern ingredients.”

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According to him, being self-taught and working without a mentor helped shape his style. “I have never worked in another kitchen before,” he said. “That gives me the freedom to explore flavours that might be a no-no in the eyes of an experienced chef.”

For Haddad, this award means a lot more because of his roots. “In the Arab culture, there is so much stigma surrounding being a chef,” he said. “People don’t give it the respect that the profession demands.”

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When serving his customers, Haddad has only one motto: to represent Dubai. “I always say, this is Dubai cuisine,” he said. “We are cooking a cuisine that represents the city and living in it. As a desi person, as a local, as a half-European, half-Arab guy like myself, we are representing the city in all its entirety and beauty.”

Keeping her mother’s memories alive

“My bones are rattling out of nervousness and excitement,” exclaimed an excited Salam Daqqaq as her restaurant Bayt Maryam was awarded a Bib Gourmand for ‘serving up delicious, home-style Levantine dishes cooked with love’.

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And love is what has set the ball rolling for Salam. “It was a dream to share my mother’s recipes and do something under her name,” she said. “She was a good mother and she taught me many important lessons. But to win a Michelin recognition for this — I cannot believe it,” she said.

The restaurant also won the Welcome and Service Award. The Michelin guide said their inspectors were “immediately taken by the warmth of the welcome they received” when they dined there. “Salam and her family showed genuine hospitality to everybody. Service is relaxed and cheerful with all the team working perfectly together to ensure diners really enjoyed their experience. From helpful recommendations of dishes to prompt and efficient service, Bait Maryam is offering some of the most charming service in the city in a restaurant that wants everybody to feel very much at home,” it said.

After years of running her own home, it was in 2017, with three grown children that Salam finally decided to take a plunge into her passion of cooking. “My husband was my biggest support,” she said. “For more than a year, I left my home completely and focused on the restaurant. Every single recipe was hand-cooked by me. I wanted to serve food that felt like home.”

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Today, she has over 40 staff in the restaurant, each one personally trained by her. “I treat them like my children,” she said.

Salam credits her family for being the backbone of her success. Her husband and three children, Nadine, 34, Nada, 30, and Mohammed, 27, are always by her side to support her. The buck does not stop with Salam either. If it was her mother (pictured below with Salam) who inspired her to start cooking, it is her daughter Nada (bottom right), who manages the restaurant on a daily basis.

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Salam has always been fascinated with Michelin star restaurants. Every time she travels, she makes it a point to dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant. “Last time I went to Germany, I dined at one restaurant,” she said. “I looked at the Michelin star with awe and wondered, will I ever get one? But I felt like it was impossible. And now look, I have the recognition. I want to tell people: never stop dreaming.”

It’s a woman’s world

Twenty-five-year-old chef Sara Aqel helms and runs the near all-female kitchen team of Fi’Lia. The restaurant was awarded the Bib Gourmand as, according to the Michelin guide, it ‘celebrates the culinary knowledge passed down through generations of women with a menu of artisan pizzas to contemporary twists on traditional Italian dishes.’

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The name Fi’Lia is derived from the Italian word Figlia, which means daughter, and it brings together strong women from all over the world in Dubai. The menu at the restaurant is broken down into three sections: nonna, mamma and figlia. While nona, which translates into grandmother, brings to the table classic Italian flavours like one’s grandmother would make, mamma, which translates into mother, puts a contemporary twist on classics. The figlia menu represents a daughter’s modern take on generational recipes.

The Jordanian-born Sara Aqel comes from a simple Palestinian family who expressed feelings through food. Trained in Italian food under celebrated culinary personality Massimo Bottura, Aqel says challenges have never fazed her. “There were challenges since the moment I started in the industry,” she said. “Whether it is about my age or my gender or where I come from, which is very normal. Everybody faces these challenges. I am determined to overcome them.”

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Earlier this year, Khaleej Times visited Fi’Lia and got an inside look into how Sara and her team work in the kitchen.

A love inherited from his father

Chef Renaud Dutel, who helms Yannick Alleno — one of the winners of 2 Michelin stars in Dubai — was emotional when the awards were announced. Hailing from the small village of Veux in France, the chef inherited his love for cooking from his dad.

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“We used to garden, farm, hunt, and fish together. During the weekends, my dad and I would come back from our fishing trips and then prepare the catch for the whole family. It was my dad who instilled in me the passion for cooking,” said a visibly emotional Chef Dutel, as he took a break to collect himself.

“My dad showed me how to express love through cooking. A chef without a heart is not a chef. To prepare what you catch or what you cultivate is a different experience altogether. I understand the importance of showing love and affection to the ingredients.”

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For him, he had never thought of doing anything with his life other than cooking. “I never asked myself what I wanted to do,” he said. “I just knew that I wanted to cook for a living.”

Dubai is the first country that Chef Dutel has worked in outside of Europe. It was the opportunity to work with celebrated chef Yannick Alléno that inspired him to travel halfway across the world from his home country. “He trusts me,” he said. “And he always pushes me to go ahead and explore various flavours and techniques. I am grateful for the opportunity.”

Dining in this chef’s restaurant is all about the experience. “We are here to make the guest feel special,” he said. “Each guest is one experience. It is not one table of two for us. It is Mister X and Madame S. Every guest is important and treated uniquely.”

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Dutel lives in Dubai with his wife, who is also a chef. “We don’t cook together,” he chuckles. “Either I cook, or she cooks, but not together. It is better for our married life.”

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