Meet the Chef: Culinary maestro Chef Aloraifi on elevating Saudi cuisine
Meet the Chef: Culinary maestro Chef Aloraifi on elevating Saudi cuisine
The entertaining and inspirational Chef Rakan Aloraifi shares his knowledge, insights, and anecdotes
Our relentless quest for the best dishes in the Kingdom has led us to Chef Rakan Aloraifi.
While chatting with the charismatic TV and radio personality, we learned that taste, presentation, and cooking techniques are the most important elements of a delicious platter - we also discovered that he holds a contrary viewpoint to those who claim to “possess an innate culinary knack,” instead attributing their prowess to the skilful application of precise culinary techniques – often unknowingly.
The more we talked, the more we came to understand why this celebrated Saudi chef is a harbinger of innovation and a source of gastronomic wisdom.
A Cut Above
When Aloraifi began his culinary journey over eight years ago, he quickly discovered the enigmatic world of Japanese knives. Guided by seasoned chefs who advised him to momentarily set aside his pursuit of specific recipes and concentrate instead on mastering the foundational principles of cooking, his passion for this sophisticated approach was ignited.
Aloraifi embraced this counsel, immersing himself in knives, fire manipulation, temperature dynamics (and their impact on ingredients), and the cooking process itself. By honing these essential techniques, he believed he would acquire the ability to prepare any dish with finesse.
Reflecting on his journey, the culinary maestro expresses his gratitude for the Japanese knife method. Not only did it teach him how to skilfully preserve and sharpen his blade, but it also revealed the secrets of cutting fish in a way that safeguards freshness, preventing rapid spoilage.
Culinary Fusion and Artistry
The Kit catering founder skilfully combines innovative cooking techniques with the rich tapestry of Saudi cuisine. While local culinary tradition tends towards generous servings, fine dining is rooted in impeccably portioned dishes, prepared just moments before serving. Aloraifi has been able to utilise his mastery of French and Japanese techniques to present Saudi cuisine in line with fine dining standards, offering flavours that perfectly match authentic tastes.
When it comes to his dishes, there isn’t an elusive secret ingredient; rather, through his extensive experience and participation in various competitions, he has discovered the importance of "properly adjusting the amount of salt" during preparation and cooking. A precise quantity must be added at each cooking stage, as incorrect amounts can significantly affect the taste.
A Visual Feast
Talking about dish presentation and its role in whetting customers' appetites, the World Certified Master Chef says: "I have attended numerous advanced courses on presentation, but what I found is that chefs teach you the basics, while the rest is up to your personal creativity and artistic vision. It is similar, to a large extent, to the work of a graphic designer. Dish presentation is personal – a design and creative process."
However, he adds there are established fundamentals that need to be applied. “For example, when serving a dish of rice and meat using a flat plate, the presentation should involve creating varying heights within the plate. The rice can be shaped into a raised square or circle, with the meat placed on top in an artistic manner."
The culinary profession often presents numerous challenges and demanding situations, and Aloraifi has navigated many throughout his career. He recalls a particular episode during a festival held in the desert that had over 1,000 guests – many who were senior Saudi figures.
There were two tents for food preparation: one for cold plates and the other for hot dishes. He was in the cold food tent, preparing smoked salmon dishes, and while the tent was air conditioned, it was still hot inside due to the location. The food safety officer at the site asked him to stop preparing the salmon platters, fearing they might spoil in such conditions.
“I had to find a solution for presenting these dishes,” he says. “I entered the refrigerated food truck with the team, bringing in all the equipment and dishes. We closed the door and the temperature inside was 1C, while outside it was over 40C. I spent about three hours in this truck, and when we finished preparing the dishes, we stepped out into scorching heat. At that moment, I felt like I was going to faint due to the sudden extreme weather transition. This was one of the situations I will never forget."
Despite the many demanding moments, Aloraifi also has light-hearted stories to share. He fondly recounts one involving a dish known as Kibbeh Hail – a creation he introduced early on to a restaurant's menu.
"I am proudly from Hail, and while I was working in a Saudi fine dining restaurant, I named one of the dishes Kibbeh Hail, which is commonly known as just kibbeh,” he says. “But I went further than that. I added Hail to all the ingredients – for instance, Hail pomegranate and Hail grape leaves, etc. People would ask me about the dish and why everything in it is from Hail. Fortunately, Kibbeh Hail was a great success and became one of the most requested orders during that period. I still serve it to this day. It is special to me as my name has become associated with it."
What Saudi Brings to the Table
Japan has cemented its global influence through the export of sushi, and the US has made burgers very popular across the world. So, what does Saudi need to export for the world to enjoy its food culture?
"Presentation and quantities are a challenge, and we are working to find solutions for it,” Aloraifi answers. “Saudi people are known for their generosity and feasts, offering large quantities that may not be suitable for upscale restaurants or the portions foreigners are accustomed to in their countries. Therefore, as Saudi chefs, what we do is present our national food befitting of fine dining standards. For example, we serve three main dishes, a salad, and a dessert, while elevating presentation levels to the max."
Aloraifi has his own perspective on the implementation of food sustainability.
He believes waste is not limited to big gatherings; that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are kinds of waste that many of us do not pay attention to, starting right from the farm. That’s why, when conceptualising a menu for any event, he begins by choosing seasonal ingredients. This approach not only helps local farmers sell their crops, but also ensures that he receives fresh produce harvested on the same day of cooking.
Additionally, Aloraifi always makes the most out of all his ingredients. For example, he uses chicken bones while preparing soup or sauce. For larger affairs, he tries to convince his clients to opt for a set menu instead of an open buffet because it helps to curtail lots of food waste. However, if an open buffet is preferred, Aloraifi skilfully manages the serving process according to the demand to prevent any potential excess.
As Saudi’s culinary world continues to evolve, Aloraifi's journey stands as a testament to ingenuity, tradition, and the steadfast pursuit of excellence – celebrating the art of gastronomy, one plate at a time.
Photography with thanks to Mohammed AlBaijan