Chef Talks: Lidija Abu Ghazaleh In Dubai

BY Katrina Kufer / Jun 12 2018 / 15:53 PM

Dubai-based Canadian catering chef and blogger Lidija Abu Ghazaleh talks to Bazaar Interiors about cooking with family, the necessity of memories and rustic ingredients, and the importance of elegant, accessible cuisine

Chef Talks: Lidija Abu Ghazaleh In Dubai
Photography by Aasiya Jagadeesh
Lidija Abu Ghazaleh

Harper's Bazaar Interiors: What brought you to Dubai?
Lidija Abu Ghazaleh: I’ve been in Dubai for 13 years. I’m originally from Montreal, where I met my husband. We came here for his work. On our first visit to Dubai, as soon as first I arrived, I looked my husband straight in the eyes and said, “If we don’t move here, I’m divorcing you!” [Laughs] It was love at first sight.

HBI: Did the lifestyle speak to you?
LAG: As a Canadian who never particularly enjoyed long winters, I really appreciated Dubai’s warm weather, and of course, the beautiful beaches.  I love the people, the cultural diversity and the overall vibe. It is quite relaxed and the environment makes it’s easy to live here. As expats who thought maybe we would stay for a couple of years, it’s been well over a decade and has become our home.

HBI: Did the ease of connecting with the city facilitate your jump into catering? Or was it continuation of your life in Montreal?
LAG: Definitely. My husband owned restaurants in Montreal, which were very central to our life there. We have always shared a love of food, and cooking has been a natural extension of both our relationship and our culinary passion.  Our love of entertaining was, and still is, central to our home, family and friends. In a way, food has brought us together, and we have many shared experiences based on that! [Her husband Ghassan interjects to echo that they cook together often and have a rich history of food memories] I remember while on our honeymoon in Italy, we were lost in somewhere near Cinque Terre in Liguria. We were starving after driving aimlessly through the mountains. We stopped at a small osteria off the side of a road, nobody spoke a word of English. A lovely Italian Nonna came out of the kitchen and handed us a plate of pasta we had never quite seen before. “Testarole,” she said and walked away.  It was by far the most incredible pasta we’d ever had, and under the circumstances, totally unexpected.

HBI: What about your own family background – are they equally as enamored with food?
LAG: The love of sharing has always been central to my family. As a child I remember countless family gatherings, picnics with cousins, aunts and uncles. The food was very simple, but it was always abundant, and the kitchen really was the soul of our home. I have loved to cook since I was little, days when I had an Easy-Bake Oven, playing with pots and pans in my kitchen, stirring flour with my hands… It was a passion ingrained in me from early on. I remember my mother singing in the kitchen, using her hands and never measuring anything! She could never pass on a recipe because we never knew exact quantities. She would say, “Just take five handfuls of this, or X handfuls of that” and it would all come together. That probably explains why I like to dive into my cooking with my hands! My husband always teases me and says I "manhandle" my food. Although I let it flow while cooking, when baking, I’m quite precise. As someone who writes and shares recipes, precision is a must.

HBI: So you experienced both the home and industry sides of the culinary world.
LAG: Yes. I’m either entertaining in my home, or helping someone entertain in theirs. I find home-based recipes truly magical – as are the stories that surround them.  My mother-in-law Ferial – an incredible cook and baker – wanted the recipe for my mother’s famous walnut cookies. Being very practical, Ferial went to the house to watch my mother make them. She stood there with a scale as my mother threw in handfuls of ingredients. She weighed everything before my mother mixed the cookie dough together. Did she end up getting that recipe? Of course. 
  I always say that I love how food has the power to connect and evoke memories, and it’s something that comes very naturally to our family. When our eldest son asked for a block of Truffle Pecorino for Christmas, my food loving heart skipped a beat! [Laughs]

HBI: What would you say was your first major accomplishment where you felt on a personal level that you had made significant headway in your cooking?
LAG: Although there’s not one specific turning point, gaining confidence in the kitchen over time has been a major accomplishment in itself. There were so many steps along the way, from teaching myself how to cook from books, magazines and cooking shows as a teenager, to diving into the catering world, to starting a blog and turning it into a culinary-focused website – all have been milestones that have had an impact on how I cook. I still remember a lasagna I made from scratch for my best friend when I was 12 years old.  She still remembers it.

HBI: So it’s a skillset that anyone could hone and grow into.
LAG: Yes, I believe that anyone can grow into it if they’re truly passionate about it. Having the desire to do something is the first step towards achieving it.

HBI: Tell us more about your personal trajectory after coming to Dubai and catering, starting your blog…
LAG: I’ve always loved to entertain and the idea of comfort food fused with elements of fine dining. I started taking on small private catering jobs around the time my second child was born. It was very organic and just grew out of my love of cooking. Two and a half years ago, I started a blog called Lidija’s Kitchen. It was at that point that I realised how much I loved breaking down the cooking process through writing and photos that others could follow and draw inspiration from. Then, I started my culinary spotlights, where I go into the kitchens of some of the world’s best chefs and restaurants, and together, we cook. I’m humbled to experience the magic that goes on behind-the-scenes with these amazing chefs. It’s been an eye opener.

HBI: Do those spotlights, at restaurants such as BB or Coya, play into the recipes you create?
LAG: Yes they do. I’ve picked up a lot of tricks. In fact, just yesterday I made a version of a ‘secret’ recipe that I learned during a recent spotlight. Nearly every chef I’ve worked with has a part of their own personal background infused within their cooking. It’s personal, I relate to that.

HBI: So how would you describe the effect of your background, with all your travels, on your style of cooking?
LAG: Simple, elegant, delicious – that’s what I want people to feel when they eat my food or try my recipes! [Laughs] Feeling the love when you cook is important – I try not to cook when I’m angry. The element of sharing is definitely present in my cooking, as is extending warmth and making people feel like they are truly a part of our home when at our table. My travels always have an impact on my cooking in one form or another. Seeing the world through food as your lens opens up endless possibilities in the kitchen!

HBI: What sort of ingredients and flavour profiles do you gravitate towards?
LAG: I’m really open to everything. I love regional flavours and the mix of sweet and savory together. When I moved to the UAE I started putting dates into just about everything! Farmer’s Markets and local ingredients are much more prevalent than when I first moved to Dubai. Although we have yet to see the day when we can cook with food within the ‘100-mile radius’, there’s a lot to be said about the ease in accessing global ingredients in Dubai. This is something that is quite unique and I feel reflects the diversity of the population. For example, it’s mango season in many surrounding countries, and I’m currently eating mangoes from Pakistan, India and Egypt – we’re fortunate to have them all available here.

HBI: Is there anything you stay away from when in the kitchen?
LAG: I can appreciate molecular gastronomy, but I wouldn’t want to experience it in my own kitchen. There are a lot of food trends, and a lot of room for growth here. There are some food trends I was never interested in or was late to the bandwagon. Chia, for instance, was a trend I never got into.

HBI: How are you helping shape the Dubai food scene?
LAG: We often get the food on our plate and its delicious, however the work, love and passion that goes into it often goes unseen. There is so much involved in the making of a dish. Not just in the kitchen, but through the people and the stories behind it. My aim is to capture the essence of what goes on behind-the-scenes. Through my website and upcoming video series, I want to make it accessible and to showcase elegance with food as a driving force.

HBI: What advice can you give to burgeoning recipe-makers?
LAG: I would say start by learning the bones of a recipe. Once you’ve mastered it, you can start to make substitutions and trying new things. That applies to cooking and baking. If there’s an ingredient you’re curious about, go for it! Cook with your heart, don’t be afraid of taking risks, try new things. For example, I’m starting to explore more vegan cuisine. Although I eat almost everything, I’ve always shied away from vegan food. I used to be someone with a mental block against it, but I’m becoming more open. More restaurants are becoming inclusive of dietary choices as well as social responsibility, and that’s important. Social media has played a huge role in making dietary ‘trends’ more accepted through visual appeal.

HBI: Last question – what would your final meal be?
LAG: Can I just throw in a ton of things? [Laughs] There are too many to mention! [Laughs again] If I had to choose, it would be the most succulent filet mignon known to man, crusted with black pepper and served rare. Saffron risotto, oozing with Parmegiano Reggiano. Sweet, juicy tomatoes salted and drizzled with olive oil. There would be grilled sea bass, perfect pan seared scallops, and tuna sashimi.  Avocados would make their way into a salad of baby greens with Dijon vinaigrette. Homespun vanilla ice cream, puddles of chocolate ganache, the biggest chocolate souffle you’ve ever seen. My mother’s walnut cookies, and my mother-in-law’s jam filled sablés would sit side by side. It would be a massive table, and I would share it with the people I love.

Shot on location at Gagganau Galleria Dubai; cutlery courtesy of A'ish Fine Dining; dresses courtesy of Satchin and Babi and Borgo de Nor from Matches Fashion; shoes by Christian Louboutin; hair and makeup by Blowout & Go. Photography by Aasiya Jagadeesh.

View 4 must-try recipes by Chef Lidija here.