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The curious cook
by Manjula Ramakrishnan January 12, 2018
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Mohammad Orfali, Syrian chef from Aleppo has specialised in both Aleppo traditional cuisine as well as modern Arabic cuisine. With 18 years of culinary expertise and kitchen management experience, Orfali also has a master’s degree in The Art of Preserves and the Sous Vide cooking certificate from Le Nôtre Paris School. His first cookbook, Ana Halabi published in 2012 focuses on both the history and gastronomic delights of Aleppo cuisine and has proved to be an instant hit. Working on third season of the show Modern Cuisine on Fatafeat television channel as Head of Culinary Arts, Chef Orfali speaks to Panorama about what excites him about cooking.

What is the format of the show and what gives it its distinctive edge?
Modern Cuisine is a food show that takes molecular gastronomy and modernist cuisine to a whole new level. It uses specialised equipment and techniques to push the limits of taste, texture and perception, thus taking culinary physics out of the lab and into your kitchen. It is different from the rest in the same genre for it is the only avant garde cooking show in the entire Middle East with recipes from different cuisines cooked in a modern gastronomical style.

As a fervent foodie, how did such a passion start?
Curiosity, a deep sense of my heritage and plenty of madness pushed my boundaries to cook with the kind of meditation that transforms food into art, evoking beautiful memories. Exploring the world of gastronomy and being overwhelmed by its huge dimensions proved to be the most enriching phase of my culinary journey. I knew that food was an ‘experience’ but it was the Culinary School and study of classical French cuisine that changed my basic concepts. I was convinced that cooking is not about satisfying physical hunger; it is an emotional art directly connected to our feelings, passions and memories.

What is it about food and cooking that interests you?
We can talk about the importance of expensive or high-quality ingredients and techniques in food preparation. Of course, they play an important role in the culinary arts. But, to me, how the brain perceives the food and how that food stimulates happy memories is even more important. Our memory stores flavours and connects them to places, moments, happy or romantic, and emotions, like childhood surprises. Consider the power of smell and its ability to transport you to another time and place. My experience tells me that taste is exactly like that. And this is why I consider artful cooking such a joy.

The food scene is a dynamic one, with constantly changing tastes…
It is constant learning; it is not a simple art of copying from another chef’s style, but it is a beautiful exchange of ideas. It is important for chefs to be sincere and honest when using techniques picked up from other chefs by giving credit to the owner of an idea. With the current cyber age my experience comes from reading books and following works of great chefs humbly, for there is no end to learning. I have an insatiable appetite to develop and improve my skills constantly.

Almost everybody is into healthy eating these days. How will the show promote this?
I believe that healthy eating is all about moderation. In Modern Cuisine the recipes are all in small portions. This by itself, I believe, is a step towards changing your lifestyle and eating habits.

What are the main ingredients and unique element in Aleppo cuisine?
After an extended period of exploration, personal contemplation and in-depth study of Aleppo cuisine, I have catalogued the amazing cuisine into seven distinctive groups; it is an art form of cooking inspired by several ancient civilisations; it is one the founding Culinary Arts of Middle Eastern cuisine; it is as classic as it is modern; it represents the four seasons; it also represents the joy of the six basic tastes; it is built on unique, native ingredients and it is the art of creating harmony between flavours and aromas. The unique recipes include a number of fascinating techniques and chemical reactions ranging from fermenting, curing, and dehydrating and other physical processes that cause the ingredients to change shape and color.

What kind of culinary research has gone into your evolving as a chef?
Again, my curiosity leads my passion. I’m not a chemist or a physicist; I am a curious cook who loves to cook and always strives for perfection. There’s never a time when I don’t try to use a variety of techniques, and discover new ones. Developing the cuisine is crucial, and this even includes developing the traditional techniques that became dispensable in return for including more modern techniques.

 

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