Words by: Fiza
We can safely say that tourism has become the lifeline of the Maldivian economy. The industry has grown rapidly over the past couple of years, making it the biggest employer as well.
Despite the increasing number of locals employed by the tourism and hospitality industry, it still remains dominated by expatriates. Managerial positions at majority of the resorts, both local and international, are filled with foreign executives. And if there is any one sector in particular that lacks professional local talent, food and culinary arts can be counted up there.
Ahmed Fatheen though, is clearly an exception. From a kitchen helper to a Senior Sous Chef at Bandos Maldives, Fatheen’s 13-year long career has proven that locals are just as talented in the culinary scene as their colleagues from around the world.
Taste: How did you get the opportunity to explore the culinary and hospitality scene?
Ahmed Fatheen: I finished high school back in my island (Foakaidhoo in Shaviyani Atoll) and came to Malé to find work. While I was searching for the best possible career options, I spoke to a friend who convinced me that hospitality was the most future-proof profession in the Maldives. So I joined Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa under their apprenticeship programme.
But a few months after I joined the resort as a kitchen helper, it had to be closed down due to the 2004 tsunami. Being Four Seasons, they brought in a team of chefs from Germany and conducted several courses in different areas of food production. That was a great learning experience for me, as I was given the role of a commis chef after the programme. I was there until 2008 when the company offered me the chance to transfer to the Four Seasons Resort Whistler in Canada to get more training.
After the two-year training programme in Canada, I came back to the Maldives, joining Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaa Giraavaru as a Demi Chef de Partie in the cold kitchen. I was there until 2012, when I got an offer to join Anantara Resorts Maldives as a Teppanyaki Chef. A few months later, I was promoted to the post of Junior Sous Chef, and I continued serving in that capacity up until I left Anantara and joined LUX* South Ari Atoll in July 2014 as a Sous Chef.
LUX* was a great experience too, but the distance to Malé proved to be a deal-breaker for me. So after about five months there, I took up the post of Senior Sous Chef at Bandos Maldives, where I am now.
T: What motivated you the most during the first few years of your career?
AF: Like most people who join the hospitality industry as a rookie, I was not really interested in pursuing a long-term career in the field. I just wanted to test the waters. But when I started working at Four Seasons, things started to change. I started to focus a lot on my self-development.
Transferring to a country like Canada also helped build my passion in food production. In addition to being part of a diverse workforce, my training was intensive and extremely demanding. Before that, everything seemed quite easy. But soon after I joined Four Seasons Resort Whistler in Canada, I realised that this is a very serious career. The high quality and work ethics expected of chefs were extremely high, and I was not used to such a culture.
The training itself was highly diversified as well. I was trained in various cooking styles and cuisines such as Italian, Mediterranean, Mexican and Japanese. Having knowledge and experience of such a diverse range of cuisines and culinary standards is truly a blessing for me, and one of the unique aspects that I bring to the table.
T: What is your speciality?
AF: Japanese cuisine. It is very easy to mistake it for being something simple and easy-to-make. But truth be told, it is one of the most challenging and exciting cuisines that I have experimented with.
My love for Japanese cuisine is further exemplified by the fact that it includes several forms of culinary arts. That is also one of the reasons I loved my time at Anantara. All the Anantara resorts in the Maldives have a huge emphasis on live cooking stations, and allow their chefs to showcase their talent to the guests. Having an interest in Japanese cuisine allows my skills to be presented in a way that I cannot do so with any other cuisine.
T: What is your main focus area?
AF: Taste and presentation goes hand in hand in food production. You can be the best in plating =and wow guests, but if it does not taste any good, there is no use of your presentation skills in the first place. I focus on both aspects because I truly believe that both are equally important.
That being said, plating has and will always have a special place in my heart. I consider myself a born artist. In fact, I paint and draw in my free time and I have even sold some of my pieces online. I apply a similar concept to my work in the kitchen, be it creating a new menu or preparing an individual dish. Before I begin my work, I sketch on a piece of paper, or sometimes in my mind, how the dish will look like when it is done. Then I ‘build’ the dish based on that sketch with a simple goal in mind; to impress the guest.
T: What are your biggest accomplishments?
AF: I have won several local and international awards, including the Best Maldivian Chef title at the Hotel Asia International Culinary Challenge three times. At last year’s challenge, my team was also voted the best from amongst some 35 rival teams.
I also won a silver medal at HOFEX 2017, which is Asia’s leading food and hospitality trade show. I consider it as a gold win because a simple mistake made me lose the top prize. Since it was the first competition I participated in where individual freezers were provided, I lost track of time and took more time frying the ravioli. The judges were all very impressed with the taste and presentation of the dish, but they had to deduct marks for the extra time I took.
Right now, I am preparing for an international culinary challenge in September. I was hoping to participate in this year’s Hotel Asia International Culinary Challenge as well, but I would not be able to make it since these two competitions fall on the same period.
T: Why do you think local chefs are very few in number?
AF: There is still a belief that locals are not talented enough to experiment with different types of cuisine and deliver the best. This definitely needs to change. There are several local chefs in senior positions at renowned resorts across the Maldives, but they have always been in the shadows of the large number of foreign chefs in the industry. The change begins at the top – the owners – and goes all the way to the bottom – the person. My career is proof that local chefs can deliver just as well as our colleagues from other countries, regardless of the choice of cuisine.
The lack of available training options here in the Maldives is a major challenge as well. Of course, the Hotel School (Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Studies of the Maldives National University) conducts several courses in culinary arts and food production, but the options are still limited. Not everyone can afford to go abroad for studies. So, there is an urgent need for the Hotel School to expand its offerings and ensure that qualified, experienced lecturers are available to teach and guide aspiring chefs. When it comes to food production, experience and practical know-how is just as important as the theory. So experienced lecturers are a must!
T: Considering the relatively few number of professional chefs in the Maldives, do you think there are enough opportunities available for locals to excel in this profession?
AF: Resorts constantly look for local chefs to join their team, while some provide great internship opportunities that allow you to learn from the experts and get hands-on experience. Although options are limited, the Hotel School is a great place to start your training.
I should also note the amazing work done by Mariyam Noordeen and the Chefs Guild of Maldives, which I am very proud to be a part of. From creating a common platform for all local chefs to come together to share their knowledge, to providing a number of opportunities for training and showcasing local talent abroad, they are doing a phenomenal job. And part of that job is helping more people join this industry and achieve their goals.
But having opportunities and actually taking up on those opportunities are two different things. The latter is purely personal, and can only happen if you are committed and passionate about pursuing a career in this field.
T: What is your message to aspiring chefs?
AF: I have met several individuals who come to Bandos for our internship programme. They quit after sometime saying that this is impossible. If that is the way to go, I do not think you can excel in any field.
When it comes to food production, you have to be extremely passionate about it, especially because every single dish you prepare needs to be perfect. You need to focus on the very minute details and several others aspects, including hygiene and personal preferences of the guest.
So, even if you join this industry out of sheer interest in cooking or to test the waters, you need to find your passion along the way – and not too far in. For me, it came while I was following the training programme in Canada. Since then, every step I took has been part of a grand vision and those decisions – be it a new job or experimenting with a new cuisine – has culminated in my success. I am now the Senior Sous Chef at a reputed resort in the Maldives, and I have undoubtedly achieved my target!
T: What is the next step for you?
AF: As long as time permits, I will continue to serve and wow the guests that visit the Maldives.
But being financially independent has always been one of my biggest dreams. To achieve that, I opened a Japanese restaurant called Oishii in Hulhumalé about a year ago. Hulhumalé is good, but I want to give a glimpse of new and varied cuisines to the local community and reach as many people as possible. For that, Malé is still the ideal place and I have now found a great location.
The new and improved Oishii will open in Malé in about two months, offering locals several culinary delights. It will remain a Japanese restaurant, but we will introduce new concepts to the community. Live cooking and the use of liquid nitrogen are just a few hints to name. My partner and I are extremely excited and we are confident that our fellow Maldivians will be very impressed!