Chef Talks: How The UAE’s First Female Emirati Pastry Chef Followed Her Dreams To Success

BY Athwifa Saleem / Jul 18 2020 / 10:00 AM

Sahar Parham Al Awadhi shares her insights from her tryst with the culinary world and the utmost joy she finds in the novel balance between culture and modern elements of food

Chef Talks: How The UAE’s First Female Emirati Pastry Chef Followed Her Dreams To Success
Courtesy of the chef
Chef Sahar in the kitchen

Sahar Parham Al Awadhi’s passion for pastry making was well rooted in her since childhood, initially experimenting with Betty Crocker cake mixes in the kitchen with her mother.

“The cakes used to come out great and I would think I’m a great baker, which slowly evolved into experimenting with new recipes,” says Sahar.

After graduating from high school, Sahar went on to study Communications and Design Management at the American University of Sharjah. Her career started with her first job at Zayed University where she handled social media, communications, marketing and branding for four years. While working at Zayed University, Sahar also took the initiative to help her brothers’ then newly-opened restaurant Wild Peeta with the desserts menu. 

“I would come home from work every day and bake brownies for them!” recalls Sahar. “Becoming a chef was a thought that always lingered in the back of my mind but the unfamiliarity with it was daunting.”

As the thought lingered and her untapped passion grew stronger with the days passing, she finally took a leap of faith. “I quit my job without having another one lined up,” she says. “I knew I would succeed because I wanted it bad enough.”

Emirati Honey Choco Tahina Eclair

But the major shift in career path came along with its own set of obstacles for Sahar, with the first being to convince her close family about her passion-driven decision.

“Within our community, people call each other to ask about things they are unfamiliar with and because this was an unchartered territory - no one we know was a chef - it made them even more uncomfortable,” expresses Sahar. “It took a lot of patience and explaining over the first couple of years to get to the acceptance and understanding they are at now.”

The hospitality industry, being one of many nationalities and cultures, was filled with preconceived stereotypes and notions claiming that everything was handed on a silver platter, and that hard work was not required for success; this became an everyday norm Sahar faced during her initial days in the culinary world.

“During my first week in the kitchen, I was asked two questions that made me laugh: Why are you working in a kitchen and not as a CEO? Do you have a horse? That was their perception,” says Sahar. For the sole reason that not many Emiratis, especially female citizens, were a part of the culinary sector in the UAE, Sahar waited and pursued various methods for a year before getting a contract for the chef-to-be.

Umm Ali 2.0.

Sahar’s very first role in the culinary field was at Dubai’s homegrown restaurant La Serre Bistro & Boulangerie in 2014, as a pastry commis. Based in this position for one year, she worked alongside one of Dubai’s most talented chefs, Izu Ani.

“I was able to build a great foundation in terms of technique, work ethic and overall respect for everything chefs do, from how we treated ingredients to how we fold our aprons,” says Sahar.

Chef Izu, upon recognising Sahar’s talent and drive, sent her to Paris to perfect the art of breadmaking from his own mentor at Le Saint Georges. Sahar returned to La Serre for another year before joining the team at Burj Al Arab in 2016 as a junior sous-chef.

“Transitioning into Burj Al Arab was another level for me, from one restaurant to nine inclusive of  ne dining, buffet, afternoon tea, entremet cakes, banquets, and in-room dining,” she says. “Being an exclusive luxury hotel, no shortcuts are taken in providing the very best and that meant making everything from scratch and in-house, which is what I aimed to learn when I took that job opportunity, so much to learn from, a never- ending learning process.”

Hibiscus Grapefruit Parfait

Sahar’s transition from junior sous-chef to pastry chef At Burj Al Arab, while being one of her dream-come-true moments, also gave birth to her heartfelt concept of taking a sustainable approach while promoting local and regional flavours.

“We adopted a no-waste rule and our leaders are quite aligned with this ethos throughout the hotel as well,” says Sahar. “All the dates served in the hotel are now Emirati dates of different varieties, our desserts have Emirati flavors and ingredients, we try to use suppliers that are homegrown SMEs as much as we can, we try to respect and make the most of every ingredient we use.”

Sahar’s food philosophy is centred on the ingredients and where they come from; using and supporting local produce is something that she has long been an advocate of. “Whether we are buying local, regional, or international, I make sure to instill that ethic in my team so that they are educated on how we can make a difference through what we choose.”

Black Lime Lemon Tart

Recently, Sahar has launched a new menu in Burj Al Arab’s lobby lounge restaurant Sahn Eddar, highlighting local and regional ingredients in ways they hadn’t been explored before. “I wanted to play on nostalgia and the culture in the UAE while using the techniques that I have been learning throughout the year and present a culinary journey the guests would not experience anywhere else except with us,” she says.

Each dessert Sahar has introduced has three main components: The nostalgic ingredient, the surprise element, and the unconventional way that it is presented. “A traditional Umm Ali is a warm bread pudding served at almost every Arabic restaurant,” says Sahar. “Our 2.0 version is cold when you take a bite and all the slow release of  flavours will register as a nostalgic umm Ali - the rose, the pistachio, the coconut, the caramelised cream - but your mind will wonder why it’s not in its traditional form and it will take you through this journey until it installs.”

Chef Sahar in her element

Some other ingredients that have made it to the menu are dried black limes - while they are traditionally used as condiments for savoury stews, she has reinterpreted it into a tart complementing its mellow flavor with the tartness of a fresh lemon compote. Sahar has also created a contemporary eclair for the menu, made with pears roasted in raw Emirati honey accompanied by tahini chocolate cream and caramelised black sesame seeds.

“It is going to be dificult, the industry will not let you take shortcuts and you should not try to,” says Sahar. “Every stage is a learning process on its own. Be patient enough to go through it, put in the work and you will be rewarded with your dream.” Driven by her passion for creating innovative yet sustainable treats, Chef Sahar is surely set to take the world on a roller coaster ride of sweet surprises in the foreseeable future.

Images courtesy of the chef

From the Summer 2020 issue of Harper's BAZAAR Interiors