By Nourah Amer Al-Oseimi
Exclusive to The Times, Kuwait
Kuwaitis love food, this is no secret. In fact, Kuwait aspires to be the World Food Capital by 2030. This is an industry that has been booming relentlessly and shows no sign of stopping. However, when thinking of food and Kuwaitis, the underlying assumption is that we are predominantly consumers rather than creators.
This was my assumption too until I met Basmah Marouf, 28, executive chef and culinary extraordinaire at one of the town’s hottest dining spots – Madison and Heig. My first question for Basmah was on her earliest memories of food and whether she knew this was something she wanted to do for a living. “I always ate well as a kid, I wasn’t a picky eater. I’d spend every summer in Italy.”
“The idea started brewing in college, towards the end of my first Bachelor’s degree [in Advertising]. I would cook in college out of necessity, nothing special or complicated. That was my first exposure to cooking.” Basmah is the proud recipient of two Bachelor’s degrees, one in Advertising and another in Food Service Management. She also holds a degree from Johnson and Wales Culinary School and an MBA from Florida International University. I was notably impressed by how well-educated she is.
Towards the end of her first Bachelor’s degree, Basmah moved away from campus to South Beach, Miami. She explained that during this period, Miami was “undergoing its own culinary revolution” and so she spent a lot of her time dining out and experiencing new things. Upon witnessing all of this, a fire was ignited within her towards the culinary universe. Alas, she was held back by her own doubts and trepidation and so she pursued an MBA instead. It was only when Basmah heard that one of her friends was about to join Culinary School that she realized, “if he could do it, so can I.” And indeed, she did. Basmah returned to Kuwait a little over a year ago, in April 2017. “I wasn’t looking for a job in the beginning because I didn’t think chef jobs for locals even existed. I was put in touch with one of the co-owners and managing partner [of Madison and Heig] through a mutual friend.”
“I met with him and he showed me a presentation of the concept and I remember seeing a New England Lobster Roll, it’s American food, I can do that.” Basmah went on to create a 10-course tasting for the owners, they thoroughly enjoyed what she had to offer and hired her on the spot. At the time, the restaurant had not been constructed yet and so Basmah was fortunate enough to be included in every step of the way.
“I got to be involved, I got to go in the kitchen and look into the plans. I got to be a part of that, which is super awesome, I didn’t think I could get to do that so early in my career.” In addition to being involved with the design of the kitchen, Basmah was asked to complete the crucial task of creating the menu. “To date, that is my biggest accomplishment in my career.”
I asked Basmah about her process when undertaking this challenging task. “I pulled a lot of my inspirations from food that I like to eat, I like food that is salty and sweet. That’s why in many of the savory menu items, you see fruit.”
“Presentation wise, I like things to be a beautiful mess. I don’t like things to be so meticulous. That was a challenge with my staff to undo a lot of the training they have. Just throw it on the plate and let it blend the way it blends.” I’ve dined at Madison and Heig quite a few times prior to my meeting with Basmah, and I was always impressed by how competent and friendly the staff were.
Was Basmah the driving force behind this excellence? Basmah confirmed to me that as the executive chef, she was responsible for some of the hiring decisions. “I did most of the interviewing, and was involved in the hiring of the kitchen staff, we do everything here, we don’t have a central kitchen where things are packaged and they come with a specific set of instructions. Everything is from scratch. I can’t teach someone how to do the basics, staffing has been one of the biggest challenges.”
Basmah is quite picky on who gets to be a part of her high-performing team. “It’s hard to find staff who have the skills; skills can be taught, but to have the care to follow the recipes and do the job well. I am lucky to have an amazing team; I know everything is happening the way it should be, because I have a staff that cares.” Despite her pickiness and impeccable standards, Basmah also harbors deep gratitude and affection towards her staff. “I treat my staff like customers. Their needs are a priority. You have to put that care into your staff and you see it back in the quality of the work. If you don’t have that kind of work ethic with your staff, you’ll fail.”
Basmah’s positive treatment of her staff is clearly reflected in the overall positive ambiance that has been cultivated since the restaurant’s opening in December 2017. I asked Basmah what a typical day is like for her at Madison and Heig to which she responded “on a day-to-day basis, I supervise all aspects of the back of house, making sure everything is up to standard. During rush hours you can find me standing at the expo counter, calling for and pushing plates, making sure they look good. I also do a lot of menu development as our menu is constantly changing, we are aiming to have a fully revamped menu by next season” In spite of being a highly educated woman, Basmah insists that everything she knows about how to run a restaurant is purely from her work experience.
At this point of our conversation, I found myself wondering about the future of Basmah’s culinary creations; will the focus remain on American Bistro foods? “Right now, it’s American, I’m sure in the future that will change. Eventually I want to delve deeper into Italian cuisine, because that’s just home for me.” As our conversation came to an end, I asked Basmah about the challenges that persist in the culinary community in Kuwait and whether she had any advice for aspiring chefs.
Basmah explained to me that chef positions in restaurants for locals usually do not offer competitive packages and so many Kuwaitis feel discouraged to work as an employee in a restaurant and instead opt to open up their own place and work there. I instantly wanted to know if that was Basmah’s plan in the future, to open her own place.
“Sure, but not now. It’s not glamorous, people think it is, but it’s really not. It’s hard work, it’s one of the hardest jobs out there.” “As a chef, you have to be an accountant, a cook, an artist and a whole list of other things that people don’t realize it takes to be a chef.” That sounds like a lot of work but Basmah has observed that the culinary community is definitely growing in Kuwait and her advice to culinary hopefuls is that “it’s never too late, one of the reasons I was scared to apply initially is I thought I was too old and too late in the game. It doesn’t matter, you can go to culinary school when you’re 30 and 5 years later you can be an executive chef somewhere. It’s never too late, I wish I had told myself that and gone to culinary school earlier. You have to really love what you’re doing in order to stick through it, you have to be a really hard worker.”
For more information on Chef Basmah visit @ chefbasmah on Instagram For more information on Madison and Heig visit @madisonandheig on Instagram
Nourah Al-Oseimi is a 25-year-old Kuwaiti who holds a Master’s degree in Business Administration. Nourah has worked in different places such as the Central Bank of Kuwait and the United Nations. She serves as a free-lance contributing writer to the Times Kuwait – Newsmagazine. Her column – Essentially Kuwaiti – will feature an in-depth look on exceptional young Kuwaitis and their efforts towards the realization of a New Kuwait.