When did you realize you had a passion for food?
The passion started very early. My mother, who was Iranian, was a great cook, and when I was young and playing out in the yard, I would be able to tell what she was cooking just from the smells from the kitchen. I’ve been told when I was 18 months, my mother would take me to the kitchen with her while she cooked, where she could keep an eye on me, so maybe that helped me to develop the interest.
When I was in college in America, I bought a number of cook books, one was a gourmet cook book and the dishes looked so beautiful that I wanted to make them. So every weekend for about six months, I would try out new dishes. At the beginning I tried to follow the recipes as they were in the book, but soon found that boring and decided to do something on my own, like adding a bit of dill or some nuts. I always wanted to do my own stuff and it carried on from there. When I went to college initially, I studied engineering, but then changed my subjects to Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism management.
Which path did you take when you left college?
I worked in restaurants while I was in college and have done so ever since I left college. I lived in America for 16 years and worked my way up in the restaurant business there. I started at the bottom, so I worked both in the kitchens and as a server. You cannot sell something unless you know about it, so it was important to learn all about the food and how it was prepared. During my time there, I managed three restaurants: one was a quick service restaurant, one a steak restaurant, and the third a Southern style restaurant. I always used to have fun in the kitchens; it is very hard work, so it is important that you enjoy yourself there. Working in the kitchen in a busy restaurant can become boring because of the routine; it can be just like working on a factory’s assembly line, unless you know how to enjoy it and unless you like cooking. I also enjoy meeting people, and many customers knew about me and would always ask me to make my own dishes for them. Lots of times, people go to restaurants because they like the people there. When I was in the US, I had people come to the restaurants to talk to me and try my dishes.
When did you return to Kuwait?
I came back here two years ago to help a friend set up a restaurant, and I have just finished that. I have been working as a consultant for restaurants, and at the moment I’m helping a franchise restaurant develop their menu. When a menu is not balanced, clients will not be fully satisfied. You have to make people happy to make them come back- that is what some restaurants overlook.
Now I have just started working on a cook book. It will be a small one to begin with to see what the response will be. I have been working with some European chefs here in Kuwait on it and I hope it will be in both Arabic and English. As well as this, I would love to have my own cooking show on television. I am talking with television producers here, as it is what I would love to do. There are not really too many cooking shows on television here- nothing like the BBC Food programs. I would like to do something like that because I think I have the personality and the cooking style for it.
I would also like to open my own restaurant. That is my dream, to have people coming to my restaurant and trying my food creations; to serve my unique dishes to as many people as possible will be the joy of my life. I would also love to modernize Kuwaiti food. Here the dishes have been kept the same way for a very long time and the taste has not improved so much. People should be more adventurous and do something different.
What type of food do you like to eat and cook?
I like simplicity; certain foods are best if they are left simple. I marinade steak sometimes, but I love it with just salt, pepper and olive oil. I like to taste the food. I think in the Middle East people overcook their vegetables. For me, the best way to cook them is by steaming. I like salads too as full meals, as well as finger food.
I love fish and would eat it all the time if I could. I like dishes like ceviche- raw fresh fish with lime juice with mangoes, avocadoes and chilies. Unfortunately, I am allergic to shellfish. I cook with it but I cannot touch it myself, so I cannot enjoy Kuwait’s shrimp though my wife and son love them. I’m not serious about exotic foods such as alligator and snake, but I like snails.
Does your wife enjoy cooking too?
Yes, she enjoys it, but not when I am in the kitchen because I always have to add my input and comments to the dishes she cooks! My son is 10 and he enjoys cooking as well. He is always giving me ideas for dishes, which is good as it means he is thinking about it.
What do you enjoy so much about cooking?
You can do so much with food. Every dish is different, that is what is so wonderful about it. If you know the basics of food, you should not be scared of it.
I like to be able to give people satisfaction and make them happy. It is a tremendous feeling. Food is personal. I am so passionate about food; it is like life. A family that eats together spends quality time together where they can share conversation while eating. Food is sacred. It is a joy and much more than just filling the stomach. It is good to take your time while eating; this helps you to eat in moderation and enjoy the meal, especially when the food tastes great. You must get the maximum experience.
If you eat healthy and light food, you feel healthy. If you eat heavy food, you will feel tired. If you eat well, life goes well and you do not put on weight. People snack so much in the US, and here in Kuwait everyone has a house keeper. In many houses, the house keeper cooks and when you are constantly eating rice and fatty foods, it does not help. Fast food outlets here are always crowded and portions are increasing. People should eat everything in moderation and exercise more.
People need to look at the kitchen differently and try to eat a balanced diet. If you can afford a cook, that is different, but even then you should go in there yourself and use the kitchen. Men should appreciate that their wives are cooking something special for them. Once or twice a week, men should go into the kitchen and help their wives. Your wife is cooking for you because she cares for you.
I think food is so much nicer if you can make it yourself. I enjoy going to restaurants, but it is wonderful when you are making a meal for your family. Here it is strange if a man cooks; they like to barbecue but not go into the kitchen. I enjoy cooking; I enjoy eating it too while creating a romantic and pleasant ambiance. I like to play music, light candles and enjoy my creation - it is double the pleasure for me.
What do you enjoy cooking when you entertain?
Mostly I like to barbecue when we have people coming over. We tend to have small gatherings and I will have barbecued meat and fish with finger-food starters and salads. They are easy to make and people can try different things. With my food, I like to have something sweet with the savory, like berries, dates, apples, raisins, mangoes and honey.
I use smoked salmon a lot on bruschetta or salads. I like to fill leaves like endives with avocado, mango and salmon salads. Sometimes I add Mexican ingredients like guacamole. My favorite is seafood, especially tuna steaks with wasabi sauce on top of rice and vegetables. I like sushi but I do not make it; I like to go out to eat it.
I can make desserts, but I have not really explored them as much as the savory dishes. I know people love sweets and I can make them interesting. I like things like cheesecakes, but mostly I serve dishes which involve lots of fruits.
You mentioned the BBC Food programs; what do you enjoy watching on television?
I love watching cooking programs, and whenever I watch television, I have to watch the cooking channel. My favorite chefs are Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay. It is not just the cooking, but their style. I used to love to watch a Japanese program called Iron Chef, which was a contest between two professional chefs. All chefs have a great sense of humor; working with food gives you that. It gives you peace.
What can’t you live without in the kitchen?
Olive oil, seasoning and garlic definitely. Also fresh herbs like basil, cilantro, parsley, dill, coriander, mint and thyme.
When you eat out at restaurants, where do you like to eat?
I like seafood, Italian, Japanese, especially sushi, and I also like Thai food.
When you are not cooking, what are your other interests?
I like music and movies - especially if the film involves chefs and kitchens.
First published in Men's Passion issue #4 May.June 08