I make no secret of the fact that I would like a little girl. After two boys, born a year apart, I feel like I could do with a little dollop of daughterly delight. So when I meet Lidija Abu Ghazaleh, self-taught chef, blogger and proud mother to Aidan, 10, Alexander, seven, and Valentina, four, with husband Ghassan, a Lebanese-Canadian entrepreneur, I need to know how she did it. The secret, she whispers conspiratorially, is in the timing.
Warm, ethereal and softly spoken, Lidija immediately feels like best-friend material. She gladly dispenses tips on how to host a Christmas lunch for 50, is happy to share her workout routine and is fearless in admitting that she still finds motherhood stressful at times. While we are talking, a lemon loaf magically appears, so feather light as to almost feel virtuous. The trick, she says, is whipping all of the wet ingredients into the dry, always by hand, and only ever using hot milk.
Lidija wears: Dress, Dhs9,970, Temperley London. Shoes, Dhs3,290, Christian Louboutin. Alexander wears: Shirt, Dhs300, Polo Ralph Lauren.Trousers, Dhs370, Ralph Lauren. Valentina wears: Dress and shoes, her own. Aidan wears: Shirt, jeans and shoes, his own
And Lidija should know. Born in Montreal to Serbian parents, she is the glossy founder of Lidija’s Kitchen, a Dubai-based catering company that has become the go-to for busy women, working mothers and hopeless hostesses across the emirate. Her name is whispered among those who are either too tired or too inept to throw dinner together and with the launch of her blog late last year, she is now reaching out to the masses.
At first, she says, she found the idea of putting herself and her work online daunting – transitioning from a self-taught baker immersed in her own kitchen to an internet authority complete with picture perfect posts seemed to require a talent that she didn’t possess. But having entered the digital age, Lidija now loves to blog and finds that it adds an exciting dimension to her kitchen skills. Most of the time, she has to squeeze her writing into the few spare hours that she manages to snatch between daily drop-offs and pick-ups, or late in the evening when the children are in bed. But beyond simply offering readers her recipes, Lidija wants to give a little insight into her own experience of motherhood in the UAE, and sweet snaps of her and Valentina on their way to a ballet class or shots of her family on a road trip to Abu Dhabi pepper her site. It’s a very modern representation of motherhood, mixing business with babies and affirmation that in this flexible, smartphone age, you really can have your cake and eat it.
Twelve years ago, Lidija and her husband, Ghassan, packed up their lives in Montreal and moved to Dubai after a very brief visit turned into a permanent move. “I came for a holiday and the first night that we arrived, I went to the rooftop terrace of the Jumeirah Beach Hotel and I said to Ghassan, ‘If you don’t take me here to live, I will divorce you!’. I just loved it”. Lidija cites their farewell dinner in Canada, surrounded by friends and family, as one of her most memorable. “We bought a great big capon and used up all of the herbs and spices that were left in our kitchen cupboards to season it and it was hands down one of the best dishes that we have ever created.” She refers to Ghassan often, whether it’s recalling their honeymoon in Tuscany when they stumbled across a trattoria that did “the best pasta ever”, or when she is talking about Coya, her favourite spot for date night. Theirs is an old-fashioned, modern day romance, one that began 21 years ago when their eyes met across a crowded room. “I wasn’t supposed to go out that night,” she explains of the evening when they first met. “But my friend dragged me out and I saw him and… I knew. We ended up talking and we talked and talked for about 10 hours straight. We literally drank coffee all night. And at some point I remember going over to a payphone – nobody had a cell phone in those days! – and I called my best friend and I said, ‘I have met the man that I am going to marry’.” Fifteen years of marriage and three children later, Lidija still describes Ghassan as “the love of my life, my absolute best friend.”
Lidija wears: Top, Dhs1,452; and skirt, Dhs3,760, both Madiyah Al Sharqi at BySymphony. Shoes, (as before). Valentina wears: Dress, Dhs2,600, Gucci. Shoes, her own
It would be easy, from browsing through Lidija’s Instagram and meeting her in the flesh, to assume that hers is the sort of pristine life that has happened effortlessly. But she is quick to rectify any misconceptions. Whether in the gym, at the table, at home or at work she adopts a carefully considered, organised approach and is a firm advocate of preparation. “People often say to me, ‘You make hosting a dinner look so effortless!’ And it does look effortless. But there is a lot of prep that goes into it and planning takes days. I don’t just turn up that afternoon and start wondering what it is that I am going to cook”. Where she can, she prepares big batches of ingredients in advance and then freezes them – from lasagnas that will serve as a main, to tart cases that she can fill closer to the time, and scone dough that she can pop straight into the oven at a moment’s notice.
Moderation is another one of Lidija’s commandments and while she wholeheartedly believes that nothing should be off-limits, she also calls for a certain level of common sense. “Whether they are gluten-free or not, you probably shouldn’t be eating a whole tray of brownies,” she philosophises. Gluten, sugar and dairy are, perhaps surprisingly, all very welcome in Lidija’s kitchen but she only ever uses whole, unrefined, preferably organic ingredients in her cooking. And, in a move that is likely to elicit a few raised eyebrows, she confesses that she only ever works with full-fat dairy. “I’m happy we live in a time that we have such variety in terms of dietary choices and can make informed decisions regarding what we eat. I just don’t see myself banishing gluten and dairy from my culinary repertoire anytime soon,” she explains.
This article originally appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2016 edition of Harper's Bazaar Junior.
Photography: Richard Hall. Styling: Benn Robinson at MMG. Hair: Theresa at Marquee. Make-up: Semira at Inglot. With thanks to La Serre and Al Barari