Switching her abaya for a chef’s coat, Chef Khulood Atiq stormed into the culinary industry with full swing. With a career in food dating back to 2008, this UAE-based chef not only crafted a niche for herself by creating Emirati delicacies but also clinched the title of the country’s first female national chef. She talks to us about this amazing feat, the challenges along the way, and the road ahead. By Bayar Jain
Travel + Leisure India: How did you venture into the culinary industry?
Chef Khulood Atiq: Back in 2006, almost no Emirati food was available in the tourism industry. You would generally see Emirati food being cooked at homes and as deliveries at restaurants for feasts. Usually, Arabic and Indian cuisines were served to tourists as local food. My passion for cooking arose when I realised that I wanted tourists to discover authentic Emirati cuisine for themselves.
Travel + Leisure India: What are some challenges you had to overcome to break into the largely male-dominated industry? How did you overcome it?
Chef Khulood Atiq: There were numerous challenges I had to overcome as I was not a familiar face in society. Everyone assumed I couldn’t handle the pressure because I was an Emirati chef, let alone a woman standing in the kitchen amongst all-male colleagues; wearing a chef’s coat instead of an abaya! People assumed I wouldn’t be able to handle the long hours or the pressure of the kitchen but, thanks to the encouragement and support of my family who stood by me and motivated me to achieve my mission and support my country, I succeeded. I am proud to say that despite all the challenges, I saw people’s perceptions change when they saw my commitment and I became a role model for other Emirati chefs.
Travel + Leisure India: How do you adapt your traditional dishes to suit global palates?
Chef Khulood Atiq: Emirati food is originally served family-style, but to appeal to a global audience I had to present it in a more appealing and practical way. When I started serving Emirati food at international events, I focussed on delivering the same great traditional taste but in a modern setup. By giving traditional a modern twist, I started creating fusion dishes after carefully studying each country’s unique food culture.
Travel + Leisure India: Tell us about your collaboration with Emirati Cuisine Programme and how it came into being?
Chef Khulood Atiq: My collaboration with Emirati Cuisine Programme started when I wanted to introduce Emirati cuisine to tourists’ restaurants and in Abu Dhabi hotels. We started with 4- and 5-star hotels around Abu Dhabi, and it was an incredible success. Soon, many other hotels came to us and enrolled their chefs. Initially, chefs used to go to our training centres, but we realised that it would be more efficient and convenient for the chefs if we went to them. That is when we started conducting training in Abu Dhabi hotels based on a schedule, which proved very successful. We didn’t stop during the pandemic either as we continued conducting online courses.
Travel + Leisure India: What, according to you, makes Emirati cuisine stand apart from other cuisines?
Chef Khulood Atiq: I believe that the Emirati cuisine is full of delectable flavours, and is rich in ingredients and spices. The unique spices we use—our Emirati spice mix—differs between each family’s recipe, with some having secret ingredients which are not shared with others.
Travel + Leisure India: Any myths about Emirati cuisine that you’d like to bust?
Chef Khulood Atiq: Yes, that drinking milk and eating seafood together will cause reactions to your skin. That is not the case and it is only a myth!
Travel + Leisure India: Your top five Emirati dishes?
Chef Khulood Atiq: There are many Emirati dishes that I like, but personally my five favourite dishes are Maleh, Balaleet, Makbous, Muhalla bread, and Thereed.
Travel + Leisure India: What are some changes you’ve noticed in the industry post-COVID-19?
Chef Khulood Atiq: There is definitely more awareness regarding health, safety and wellness in the industry.
Travel + Leisure India: Any tips for budding chefs?
Chef Khulood Atiq: Be passionate about what you want to do. Don’t embark on this amazing journey for the sake of fame; you must have love and passion for the culinary arts. Focus on creating a positive impact and set your targets. Work hard, be patient, and enjoy each milestone that you come across.