Chef Abdulilah Shadoud heads the kitchen at Kuzbara, the international restaurant at the Marriott Hotel Downtown, Abu Dhabi. (Photos: Natasha Amar)
Chef Abdulilah Shadoud’s career spans more than a decade, including a spot on Abu Dhabi TV’s Matloob Chef, and today he heads the kitchen at Kuzbara, the international restaurant at the Marriott Hotel Downtown, Abu Dhabi. The Syrian-born chef says he loves Abu Dhabi because the city embodies a vibrant cultural smorgasbord, and at Kuzbara he combines his special brand of creativity, passion for cuisine and traditional cooking sensibilities to serve up authentic Middle Eastern fare in a contemporary setting.
Marriott Traveler sat down with Shadoud to chat about his vision for the restaurant, culinary influences and whether cooking on television is more difficult than in a restaurant.
What excites you most about your job?
It’s very important to keep challenging myself, to always try to look for new ingredient combinations and cooking methods. Here at Kuzbara, I have the opportunity to work with chefs from many countries, which gives me exposure to other cuisines. I also really enjoy interacting with guests who might be curious about Arabic cuisine and sharing with them the unique stories around the dishes.
What is your vision for Kuzbara? What can guests expect at the restaurant?
At Kuzbara, there are several live cooking stations serving dishes from the Middle East to Southeast Asia. My vision for Arabic cuisine at Kuzbara is to showcase it in its many forms — from traditional Arabic mezze to lesser-known dishes that you wouldn’t find at every other Arabic restaurant in the city. The name Kuzbara translates to “coriander” in Arabic, an herb that is used in cooking around the world, from the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia to the Arabian Peninsula and Mediterranean. Of course, it might be used differently depending on the cuisine; some use the seeds while others like the flavor of the fresh herb.
What is the one dish that you recommend guests try at your restaurant?
I always recommend guests try the Arabic mezze, such as hummus, moutabel, tabbouleh, meat kibbeh, spinach fatayer and sambousek. This way you get to sample a nice variety of Arabic flavors.
Do your own roots influence much of your work today?
Absolutely. I have always worked with traditional recipes from Syria. Did you know that pistachio is called halobi in Arabic? The name of the city Aleppo in Syria comes from this word. I like using pistachio in various dishes, including my famous Jebneh kebab. The Jebneh kebab, with halloumi cheese, pistachio and Syrian chili powder, is very well received by our guests — actually, it’s a family recipe handed down through the generations.
In Syria we’re used to cooking with ingredients that are easily available in the local markets. This is how this recipe came together. The combination of the meat with pistachio and cheese is quite interesting.
What’s that one rule that you always stand by in the kitchen?
Arabic food should be prepared traditionally by hand rather than using machines. It makes a world of difference to its authenticity, freshness and taste. It’s how your mother makes it at home, you know. Here at Kuzbara, even with something as simple as hummus, we always make it by hand; we don’t use a mixer or any machines like other restaurants routinely do.
What is your favorite cuisine?
I love Mediterranean cuisine because a lot of the ingredients used are similar to those used in Arabic food, such as olive oil, tomato and cilantro. I also really like Italian cuisine. I think it’s healthy and delicious.
What makes Arabic cuisine special?
Arabic cuisine is strongly influenced by many countries in the Middle East, each bringing in its own unique ingredients and tastes. That’s why it’s never boring — always diverse and full of flavors. Arabic food also takes inspiration from cuisines that have been historically and geographically close, such as Indian food. The spices from India found their way to the region using the old trade routes in the Gulf, and you can see the influence on the local cuisine.
Do you have any favorite spices, ingredients and condiments?
Well, I like sumac and za’atar. Sumac grows in mountainous areas and is widely available in the Mediterranean. The sourness of sumac is important for salads such as fattoush. Za’atar is also called “Arabic rosemary” and is used commonly in Arabic cooking. An interesting fact about the spices and ingredients we use here at Kuzbara is that we source them from countries that actually produce them to ensure that the authenticity of flavor is not lost in our cooking.
How was your experience at Abu Dhabi TV’s Matloob Chef?
Being on TV and having an audience watch me do what I do best was a great experience. I learned a lot of new things. The biggest takeaway was that the show must go on; there is no time to redo anything.
Was cooking on TV more challenging than cooking at a restaurant?
Definitely. Having limited time to prepare each dish in an unfamiliar environment with a new set of tools was quite challenging.
How do you like to spend your free time?
I really enjoy food photography. I developed photography as a hobby in recent years. It’s a great extension to what I do on a daily basis, where I’m not only cooking the food, but also taking pictures of it. This gives another dimension to my greatest passion: food.
What do you think about the food scene in Abu Dhabi?
Over the last seven years that I’ve lived in Abu Dhabi, I’ve sampled many cuisines that are now available in the city. With new and young chefs at the helm of restaurants, the food scene has also evolved with creative presentation styles, new cooking methods and cuisines that weren’t commonly available before, like Peruvian cuisine.
What’s your favorite Arabic restaurant in Abu Dhabi?
In my opinion, Sambusek is one of the best traditional Arabic restaurants in the city, yet the presentation is contemporary. I really like the tabbouleh there; the chef sources fresh parsley and creates the salad from scratch. You can really tell the difference in the freshness and taste from other places that buy parsley that’s already chopped and then prepare it.
Where do you recommend people go out to eat in Abu Dhabi?
Kuzbara, without a doubt. You have so many different cuisines in one restaurant, including my beloved Arabic cuisine. There’s definitely something for everyone here.