These six chefs got their start young, but all follow a different clock. Discover their widely disparate paths to becoming Dubai’s leading cuisine contemporaries
Chef Marwan Sardouk
Childhood food memories are powerful fuel for many chefs, and can sustain year after year of ideas in the professional kitchen. Often, being around their parents or grandparents in the kitchen at six or eight years old, and then trying to recreate certain emotions based on those memories – or even trying to replicate a flavor that was just seconds in the mouth a single time – sets them off on their way to earning their chef’s toque. But, especially among top-level celebrity chefs, few if any can claim to have started so young out of pure necessity.
At 13 years old, Chef Marwan Sardouk was forced to support his family in Beirut and began cooking local Lebanese fare on the street. He had already impressed his father with a vegetable omelet at home, but it was the streets of the country’s capital, and the vibrant flavors of their foods, that became his first classroom. “As I ventured onto Beirut’s bustling streets, guided by the sandwich virtuoso Al Karaki, I mastered the art of a roasted beef sandwich – a symphony of Dijonnaise-kissed meat, mint, and homemade pickles embraced by crispy baguette,” he recalls with poetic relish. He found something he could make that people wanted. He had found his calling.
Never one to settle, by 15 the ambitious youngster had enrolled in a culinary school, working in a string of Beirut establishments, and, at 18, he was hired at Alain Ducasse’s Beirut restaurant Tamaris. And while he quickly rose up through the ranks, his curiosity drove him abroad, doing stints in kitchens (“stages”) in Paris, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia before settling in Dubai in 2013. “My journey embodies the power of food to transcend mere sustenance,” says the chef. “From that first omelet to global gastronomy stages, each chapter narrates a tale of flavors, aromas, and textures that linger in memory.”
These can all be tasted in his latest venture, Oak, which just opened in September in Dubai’s Jumeirah. The Asian-inspired woodfire restaurant (and shisha lounge) draws on his eclectic culinary DNA. Among the dishes where his past chapters have been distilled down into a single plate is seabass sayadeya, a classic fish and rice dish from Lebanon made with fish stock and topped with golden onions – “harmonizing French, Lebanese, and Japanese influences,” he says, “with ratatouille, yuzu tahini, and burnt onion dressing dancing around the fish.”
Those lingering memories on the palate, the chef says, “showcase food’s remarkable ability to deliver cherished experiences.” He is referring to his own encounters that funnel into his cooking. But for diners at Oak, the cherished experience is eating Chef Sardouk’s magical cooking.
Chef Panagiotis Achamnos
While Chef Panagiotis Achamnos can concoct a perfect seafood pasta in a handful of minutes, and prepare prawns, clams, and lobsters in an equally speedy time, not everything the Greek chef cooks is so fast. Recently he offered a six-hour-long tasting menu for the owners and staff of Raspoutine, the Parisian restaurant and nightclub that opened in Dubai’s DIFC area last October.
In May this year, he had been appointed head chef, and he had little time to waste. Almost immediately he was developing dishes with his new team that, within a month, were on the menu. Not surprisingly, there is a heavy Mediterranean accent, from grilled octopus with fennel salad and romesco sauce to beef carpaccio with fried capers and rocket.
The Athens-born chef spent a lot of time as a kid in the kitchen with his grandmother as she cooked for family gatherings. By the time he headed off to culinary school at 18, he had already learned all of the basics from her. Following graduation, he did a year-long internship on the island of Kos before moving in 2013 to Dubai, where he began by working for Chef Izu Ani at the legendary Le Serre Bistro & Boulangerie.
While innovation and pushing culinary boundaries have become the chef’s hallmarks, the importance of sourcing the finest seasonal ingredients remain key for him. That is part of the Greek stamp of sensibility instilled in him while growing up. “Greek cuisine is very simple and that is the reason it’s so delicious,” he says. “So, I’m trying to apply the same for the Raspoutine menu – simple, delicious, and well-balanced dishes with high food quality.” And while his grandmother would likely be surprised at some of the combinations found on the Raspoutine menu (sea bream with green apple dressing?), she would proudly recognize the underlying fundamentals that went into preparing them.
Chef Achamnos ended his marathon tasting experience with an apricot cheesecake. It made the cut for the menu, evolving since with the seasons, first with peaches and then fresh berries. “I honestly feel it’s a masterpiece,” he says. In the technique and execution, certainly, but it had something more, something that his grandmother instilled in him as he stood beside her in the kitchen. “Always cook with love and positive vibes, as people who eat your food will always feel that.”
Chef Izu Ani
Chef Izu Ani seems to waste little time. Clad in his usual black T-shirt and trousers, Berluti sneakers, and an omnipresent flat cap, the charismatic chef is behind many of Dubai’s most exciting restaurants. The most famous is Gaia, the Greek-Mediterranean hotspot beloved by royalty, celebrities, and foodies (it sits at number 17 on the 50 Best Restaurants list for Mena). But he’s also behind Carine, Alaya, Izu Restaurant at the Mandarin Oriental, Eunoia by Carine, La Maison Ani, Le Petite Ani, Piatti, Shanghai Me, Scalini, and, most recently this summer, Kai Enzo, a rooftop restaurant in La Mer North serving a hybrid of Japanese and Mediterranean food. His energy is as unflagging as his broad smile.
Born in Nigeria, raised from the age of five in London, and with significant experience working in France, he moved to Dubai in 2009 to open a branch of La Petite Maison, a turning point in the city’s then nascent high-end dining scene. After working at La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie, he set out on his own to create in a short period of time a burgeoning culinary empire.
Often called Dubai’s first homegrown celebrity chef, it was here that he found a place to turn big dreams into reality. “Dubai’s ever-evolving nature accelerates our creativity,” he says. Certainly, among the attractions for this curious chef is the different cultures, flavors, and peoples that surrounded him. “It is our hunger for life that drives us, our passions that motivate us,” he says rather philosophically. “We have to move towards our goals every single day, take action, build momentum, and keep going, no matter the distance.”
Or sometimes the speed. But while he might like to drive his Audi R8 fast (especially if he’s hungry), in the kitchen he moves at a different pace. “When it comes to cooking, I like to take my time, slow down, and enjoy the process. Often, the quickest way to get to where we want to go is by going slowly. Simplicity doesn’t always have to mean quick or easy, especially in the kitchen.” What it does mean is paying attention to those finer details that often get neglected in focusing on the bigger picture or the next big thing. “I like to prepare my ingredients with care, give my full attention to every part of the process, and allow each ingredient to come together to enhance and intensify the flavors,” he says. “Some things are just worth the wait.”
Chef Mohamed Orfali
Orfali Bros Bistro in Dubai was named 2023’s Best Restaurant in Middle East & North Africa by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants. In a list dominated by high-end hotel dining rooms, global outposts of celebrated European chefs, and Michelin stars, this unpretentious neighborhood bistro owned and run by a trio of Syrian brothers is something of an outlier. Yet the deeply personal version of Arabic cuisine that Mohamad Orfali and his younger siblings Wassim and Omar prepare captured the imagination of Dubai’s multicultural residents and global visitors, as the award organization noted with “its combination of tradition and technique, and its simultaneous nods to nostalgia and progression.” With Orfali as head chef, the restaurant opened less than two years ago. While that sounds like an incredibly short period of time to go from zero to the top, there is a long backstory that went into it.
Born in Aleppo, the ancient Syrian city with some 9 000 years of history and a cuisine heavily steeped with cross-cultural influences, Orfali was 14 before he tried to make something on his own: mayonnaise. “It might not sound like much, but it was a big step for me,” he says. “That’s when I got really interested in cooking, and it changed everything.” But for his family of engineers and successful business people, cooking was not deemed an acceptable career choice. Defying family pressure, he enrolled in culinary school anyhow. His two brothers followed, both eventually becoming pastry chefs.
The trio had long dreamed of opening a restaurant of their own, but each had gone his own way from Syria. While Orfali went to Kuwait then settled in Dubai almost two decades ago, Wassim headed to Moscow, Kazakhstan, and Egypt before arriving in UAE in 2012 while Omar moved first to Beirut before joining his brothers in 2013. They created the Orfali Bros concept in 2015, but an actual restaurant took longer to realize. There were other projects – TV shows, masterclasses, a cookbook – before the Orfali Bros Bistro finally opened its doors in 2021. They offer not a fusion cuisine but a modern and highly unique mélange that draws on their heritage, their culture, their memories, their travels, and their lives. There is a personal link to – and a story about – every dish they serve.
For Orfali, among that rich pool of raw material to draw from, are his earliest memories. “I loved the smells coming from my mom’s kitchen. The flavors of my hometown also left a big impact on me,” he says. “I left Aleppo in 2005. I really miss the street food and the flavors of the city, especially things like the Aleppo sandwich with lamb brains. Those flavors are still a big part of how I cook today.”
Chef Carlos de los Mozos
In 2013, after working in Spain, Morocco, Peru, and then for two years in Saudi Arabia, the Madrid-born chef Carlos de los Mozos settled in Dubai. It was a transformative move, says the chef. “It opened my eyes to a whole new world of possibilities.” His culinary focus had been primarily on fine dining, with a particular interest in the cuisines of those places he had lived in. “However, once I set foot in this vibrant city, I quickly realized that there was so much more to explore, taste, and cook,” says the chef.
Hailing from a globetrotting family – both parents worked in aviation – he was a well-traveled kid who ate more internationally and adventurously than most. While his earliest kitchen memories are of his parents cooking, the eureka moment came at 12 in Los Angles. “Landing at 1am, my dad took me immediately to a little shack near the hotel where I had a rock shrimp and lemon dish, which made me realize that someone had to do something to make the dish so delicious,” he says. “That was the first time I realized what a chef’s hand could accomplish.”
Dubai was an ideal calling for his eclectic background. “Its culinary scene exposed me to a rich tapestry of flavors, techniques, and ingredients. It was here that I discovered the value of well-understood classicism combined with new culinary trends.”
All this made Babylon an ideal project for him, even if it wouldn’t appear so for most chefs of his experience. One of Dubai’s hottest restaurants and nightclubs, Babylon – “A playground of hedonism,” runs its tagline – has opulent, high-energy live shows that blend theatrically cabaret and burlesque. In normal circumstances, food would take a role in the chorus and be a barely noticed part of the background. But Chef de los Mozos had other ideas.
“Babylon gave me the opportunity of creating something completely different, using ingredients from all over the world and having the objective of making every dish memorable to be the only boundaries to consider while cooking,” he says. “Compared with past projects, Babylon is the place where I have been able to put the most of my heart into and have the most freedom when deciding what to add to the menu.” The food is deeply rooted in the global now. “As there’s no definition of Babylonian cuisine, we decided to conceptualize it more as a style than a specific way of cooking.”
A handful of the starters reflect the bold, international flavors and contemporary edginess: warm prawns with umeboshi and caviar, crispy octopus with yuzu kosho glaze, and the oxtail kunafa with black truffles. Don’t be watching the clock and expect a quick meal. “I would say a minimum of two-anda- half hours is required to get a full taste of the experience,” he advises. “In my mind, I wanted our guests to be attracted by the show and overall experience, but I also wanted the incredible food to be the reason they returned to our restaurant again and again.”
Pastry chef Julien Mony
The upscale brasserie Fouquet’s opened in Paris in 1899 at the well-situated corner of the Champs-Elysées and Avenue Georges V, and remains a landmark of sophisticated fare and famous clientele. The opening in February 2023 of a Fouquet’s outpost in Dubai, in an equally enviable location across from Burj Khalifa, stood out on the city’s ever-more-crowded dining scene. Charged with running the sweet side and bringing a level of French patisserie know-how until then unavailable in the UAE was the precocious and deeply-talented 25-year-old Frenchman Julien Mony.
Chef Mony grew up in Normandy, where his passion began young and his professional start early. “I’ve always been interested in food, especially sweets,” he says. One of his first memories is at five years old, standing beside his mother helping her make a cake. At 14 he did an internship in a local bakery, and within days confirmed what he had believed: this is how he wanted to spend his life. “I knew immediately what my future would be,” he says. He went on to apply to a professional program.
“The first dessert I made by myself was an apple tart with apples from our garden. I was 15 and practicing at home what I was learning in culinary school,” the chef recalls. In three years, he had his professional bakery diploma. With that in hand, he turned his attention to chocolate, pastry’s essential complement and an ingredient that can radically alter states in just minutes. (There is a childhood link, too. Near his house in Normandy is a chocolate factory.) He spent a year at the prestigious École Grégoire-Ferrandi in Paris learning the previously unimagined possibilities of chocolate. “There is no limit to creations with chocolate,” he says, still with a certain awe. “You can make absolutely everything.” That was followed by two years at École de Paris des Métiers de la Table. At just 21 he became a master chocolatier. But rather than stay in France, he moved to Dubai.
The pastry kitchen is about details and precision more than freewheeling, a place of grams and carefully timed minutes on a stopwatch. But within Chef Julien’s well-equipped kitchen at Fouquet’s with the latest tools and technology are reminders of those early days when the possibilities of his field were first beginning to reveal themselves. One is his favorite ingredient, vanilla. “It’s a stunningly complex and subtle spice, and brings a special taste to our pastries. I discovered it during my first internship at 14.” You can taste it in the celebrated Fouquet’s mille-feuille and in the homemade vanilla ice cream that goes into the profiteroles – which, of course, get topped with another of his early and enduring passions, chocolate.
Originally published in the Fall/Winter 2023 issue of Vogue Man Arabia
Style: Amine Jreissati
Fashion market editor: Mohammad Hazem Rezq
Style assistants: Wazina Nizar, Neymat Master
Producer: Sam Allison