Beirut-based Chef Yasmina Hayek Reveals Her Secrets On Leading A Kitchen

BY Ayesha Sohail Shehmir Shaikh / Oct 15 2019 / 18:19 PM

The thriving Lebanese chef tells us what differentiates a good chef from a great one...

Beirut-based Chef Yasmina Hayek Reveals Her Secrets On Leading A Kitchen
Photography by Carl Halal
Yasmina Hayek

Born and raised in Lebanon, 23 year old Yasmina Hayek grew up in a family of restaurateurs, deeming food an integral part of her life from an early age. Hayek’s family would often host grand dinners while loved ones gathered around the table and she would occasionally bake at home, but she never imagined the tradition would flourish into a lifelong career.

In fact, she was sure she wanted to be a doctor. Perpetually an observer to the connectivity and joy that her mother’s cooking brought to the people around her, as time went on, Hayek contemplated pursuing a career in the culinary arts. “I thought that working in a kitchen might be a happier place to be, at least for me,” she shares, realising that it might just be the perfect balance between science and art. “It allows people to connect, share and be happy.”

Freekeh and roasted butternut

Photography by Carl Halal

In 2014 at the age of 18, Hayek packed her bags for France, enrolling in a culinary arts and management course at the prestigious Insitut Paul bocuse in Lyon. “Going to culinary school was one of the toughest experiences of my life,” she admits.  “I think it was the first time that I chopped carrots and onions - I even got injured and fainted without anyone paying attention,” she laughs.

“Honestly, you grow so fast in this industry especially when you give so much that it can be easy to stop. But I think learning the hard way pays off much faster and we should never give up.”

In Paris, Hayek gained invaluable experience working at several Michelin starred restaurants alongside renowned French chefs Jean-François Piège and Mathieu Pacaud; this was only the beginning of a great chef in the making. In Denmark, where she lived for six months, Hayek worked with Danish Chef Rasmus Kofoed at the prominent Copenhagen–based Geranium restaurant, which today is known to be one of the top five restaurants in the world.

It was here that she learned the importance of communication skills as well as the challenge of being a female in the industry. “It’s very hard for women to find their place in a kitchen and requires a lot of patience, perseverance and strength,” she expresses.

Lemon poppy seed semolina cake made by Yasmina

Photography by Carl Halal

“I used to work eighteen hours in a three Michelin starred restaurant without losing track by staying positive and by taking every day as a new challenge to accomplish my goals. It is not always easy, but doing what you love makes you hold on tight and delivers results.”

Currently, Hayek is working in her hometown in Beirut, Lebanon, as a chef at fine dining grill house La Parrilla Summer and a group of family-owned restaurants which specialise in local Lebanese cuisine including Em Sherif, Em Sherif Café, Numero 6 and Em Sherif Sea Café. Em Sherif, reminiscent of an ancient Lebanese mansion, serves authentic Lebanese cuisine and is housed across the Middle East including Dubai, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Bint Em Sherif, an expansion of the family brand catering to a younger audience is also underway.  Through her extensive experience, Hayek says she has learned that while presentation and taste are essential, the latter is key to a memorable meal. 

Yasmina preparing her signature lentil salad, one of her favourite dishes

Photography by Carl Halal

“Presentation is pleasure for the eyes and is the first impression one will have but at the end of the day, if the taste is not there then presentation is useless,” she says. “And what makes a great menu is variety; whether it concerns the taste or the product, every dish needs to stand out.”

A meal which Hayek cherishes greatly is a lentil salad with a pomegranate molasses dressing, a traditional Lebanese dish which she describes as a burst of flavours. “I think it is super simple, very healthy and it’s perfectly balanced in sweetness and acidity,” she says. 

“I love working with vegetables because I think it is harder to make them taste good.” But her favourite dishes are among those which evoke nostalgia and childhood memories. “The meals that have a story behind them - for me, those dishes always win.”

In April this year, Hayek catered for the opening of Beirut-based WIP Gallery, where she prepared local Lebanese cuisine resembling art works by artists such as Brooklyn-based Eric Shaw, Prague-born Jan Kaláb and Los Angeles-based Maxwell McMaster, to name a few. “It was a way to make them discover our local flavours in an artistic way, that’s what made it special,” says Hayek. “It’s important to relate to the brand and create a story inspired by the philosophy of the brand.”

Lentil salad with a pomegranate molasses dressing

Photography by Carl Halal

Hayek’s secret to a perfect meal is to find a balance between texture and flavour through the combination of salt, fat, heat and acid, as coined by American Chef Samin Nosrat. “Salt and heat improves the taste and acidity creates balance, so I think these four elements are very important to have a complete dish,” she shares. “When I cook anything, I try to look for textures and flavours while at the same time, all these elements enhance the flavours.”

While culinary intricacies and techniques are crucial, Hayek firmly believes they should not be the sole focus in the kitchen, especially when leading a team. What’s equally important, she says, is communication. “Technical skills are undeniable, but social skills have a huge impact on a team,” she says. “The chef is a leader in his kitchen; it is a very humane job that requires knowing how to read people and deal with every team member in order to make it work and create cohesion.”

Her advice on what makes a great chef? “I think anyone can be a good chef but a great chef needs to inspire and aspire - he needs to set the right example and earn respect by persevering and controlling the quality of his food, motivating his team and building it properly in order to create a healthy environment. He needs to master all these techniques and be a mentor.” She laughs, adding, “He of course will be a great cook as well.”
Ultimately through her cooking, Hayek is aspiring to leave her footprint in the Middle Eastern region and beyond - one that will become her legacy. “It is very important to believe in one’s dream and seize opportunities,” she says. “Because things don’t happen for those who wait.”

From the fall 2019 issue of Harper's Bazaar Interiors