Syrian Chef Mohamad Orfali: ‘I’m trying to educate people about our culture’
DUBAI: You can’t miss him. Syrian chef Mohamad Orfali is instantly recognizable with his bushy beard, slightly pointed mustache and signature round black glasses. And, along with his two brothers Wassim and Omar, he has risen to the top of the regional culinary scene.
In February, their restaurant Orfali Bros in Dubai was named the top restaurant in the Middle East and North Africa, and was recognized by Michelin a few weeks later. However, the road to these achievements has not been easy.
“My blood pressure was elevated and my mouth was dry,” the jovial chef told Arab News with a laugh, referring to the Fifty Best awards ceremony. “I’ve never been married before, but it felt like my wedding night, just because of how happy we were. The joy I felt came from the person we dined with, not the inspector.”
However, he acknowledged the sense of responsibility that comes with such an honor. “It’s great happiness, but at the same time, there’s fear,” he continued. “I’m scared because of people’s expectations. When you’re number one, they judge you differently . . . When they call our name, I think about what we’ve been through opening this restaurant. “
We meet during lunch service. Orfali Bros is busy, but relatively calm. The restaurant is billed as a modern bistro. Its high-ceilinged interior seats eight tables in limestone from Aleppo, with more seating outside. It has a homely feel – like you’re in Orfali’s restaurant and everyone is invited.
Orfali isn’t one of those chefs who stays behind the scenes, but rather roams from table to table, talking to guests, serving them food, and explaining what they’re about to enjoy.
“I love people and I get my energy from them,” he explained. “My food is different from what the UAE has to offer. It has my personality, my memories, and funny stories from my mother and grandmother. I’m trying to educate people about our culture. We tell stories.”
While we were at the venue, a man asked for a photo with the chef, and a kid approached to give him a high five. He’s a bit of a celebrity now, with a bit of a cool-uncle vibe.
Orfali was born and raised as an engineer and teacher in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. He explained that his hometown is the custodian of a culinary history unlike the rest of the country. “The food in Aleppo is the pinnacle of civilization,” he said. “It started with its early inhabitants. Colonists, foreigners, Orientalists and immigrants all went through.”
Aleppo’s cuisine has its own unique techniques and condiments – from dairy products to jams and meats – influenced by the outside world, from the Far East to Europe. This is a place that teaches future chefs a thing or two about taste. “Aleppo people are natural food critics. You leave Aleppo with a developed tongue,” says Orfali.
As refined as Aleppo’s cuisine is, Orfali laments that it has been stagnated by traditionalists. “We don’t like change,” he said. “The food in Aleppo is very prestigious, but at the same time, it’s not innovative. It stays the same. That’s where Orfali comes in.
As a child, Orfali never publicly expressed an interest in cooking, but he was curious. He recalls watching his grandmother, Umm Salah (who he calls his “first school”) cook in the kitchen.
In 1994, when Orfali was 14 and struggling academically, his father encouraged him to enroll in the city’s then-new culinary school. “I asked him, ‘You want me to be a chef?’ He said, ‘That’s called a chef.'” Orfali quickly learned that he appreciated the organization necessary for cooking and felt like he belonged in the culinary world.
Orfali left Syria in 2005 to study English in Dubai and Kuwait. His dream is to study abroad in France, the gourmet capital of the world, and work in a Michelin star restaurant. But those hopes were dashed when he finally got there. “Nobody accepted me because I have a Syrian passport and I don’t have a background working in a Michelin restaurant,” he said.
Orfali is back in the Bay Area and working with several different companies. But something is missing. When he attended an Andalusian culinary conference in Seville and was asked by a journalist to define Aleppo cuisine, he realized he hadn’t found his identity as a chef. “I don’t know how to answer him,” he said. “This is a moment of awakening.”
So Orfali went back to his roots and in 2009 published an extensively researched book, Ana Halabi (I am from Aleppo). It excludes typical Levantine dishes like hummus and tabbouleh in favor of ingredients from Aleppo. Two years later, he started showing cooking segments on Fatafeat, a Middle Eastern food channel. Orfali described the shoot as something “new, scary, difficult,” and it took him a while to get comfortable with the idea. He was originally scheduled to start appearing in 2006, but it took five years before he was finally ready to start filming.
“I have no news of (2006),” he explained. “I feel like I’m going to be just another chef on TV, preparing another meal. There’s nothing special about me.”
His move to shake things up by presenting molecular gastronomy—a radical departure from regional norms that have been criticized online—perhaps reinforces Orfali’s point about resistance to innovation. Despite some resistance, his nine years at Fatafeat gave Orfali confidence and inspired him to pursue his own projects.
In 2015, the Orfali brothers established Orfali Bros as a teaching institution offering cooking classes. They didn’t open their bistro in Dubai until 2021 – after numerous delays, in part because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said running a restaurant is the hardest job in the world. “It’s like a baby. You have to take care of every detail.”
The 25-course menu reflects Dubai’s diverse culture. “We don’t serve Syrian food – even though we are Syrian boys and proud of it,” Orfali said. “We are a restaurant from 18 countries and we speak food.”
Some of the star dishes include Shish Barak a la Gyoza – a creamy combination of Syrian and Japanese cuisine; Come to Aleppo with me – an exquisite rendition of the Aleppo staple cherry kebab; and Corn Bombs – corn layers in different forms , from grilled to mashed corn, on a small tortilla, generously sprinkled with Parmesan cheese.
It appears that Orfali has finally achieved his dream. But, he said, his aim is higher. He wants to open an academy of the same name in Syria or the UAE to teach Arabic and Aleppo cuisine to younger generations.
“I hope in the future someone will say, ‘I graduated from Orfali Bros Academy,'” he said. “This is my dream.”