Interview with the Syrian chef Mohammad Orfali

The Aleppian chef talks about his experience and Syrian cuisine's future

Picture Courtesy | Mohammad Orfali is a Syrian Chef, Head of Culinary Discovery Networks and FATAFEAT TV


Syrian cuisine, tradition & contemporary challenges

That Syrian food has centuries of history and is known for its tradition might not be such big news, but how so little is known about it worldwide? Since more Syrians abroad have started to approach it as a business, Syrian food has gained more attention. However, the way how it is presented still seems to be taking baby steps. Surprisingly, some answers might be on adding modernity where there was only tradition.

Thinking about changing any aspect of a cuisine that has been working in the same way for so long (and that the majority of Syrians like this way) might be a long road though. How to do it? We talked to Mohammad Orfali, the Aleppian chef who is an expert in this matter.

Orfali, who is well-known for his show Our Arab Cuisine (Matbakhna Al Arabi), not only is an authority when it’s about Aleppian cuisine, but he also is a curious chef seeking for what comes next. In his opinion, technology and traditional food preparation can walk aside, and modern cuisine doesn’t stick only to modern techniques; instead, it goes back to the old ones if it suits better the cooking process.

ALEP: You tried different cuisines and it took you a while to come back to your roots. I liked when you mentioned "Leave foreign cuisine to their natives"*. How was your self-discovery process as a cook and on your identity?

ORFALI: Growing up in Aleppo and living in the midst of a great ancient city has to leave its mark on you.  When I returned to Aleppo after few years abroad, I was once walking near the restaurant of Mr. Abu Abdo Al Fawal and having a contemplation moment when I saw great potential in our cuisine and heritage, so I asked myself "Why don't I focus on my roots and go back to the cuisine of Aleppo? And leave foreign cuisines to their own natives!"

After focusing on Aleppian cuisine even further, I realized that it is no less important than any other foreign cuisine. My ambition and passion to know and understand more about the techniques used in Aleppian cuisine grew like never before.

Picture Courtesy


Picture Courtesy

ALEP: Syrian cuisine is a sacred thing for Syrians - "You shall not change it", they would say. Do you agree?

ORFALI: As Arabs, we have a limited outlook of our cuisine, especially within recent history. We consider Arab cuisine as a traditional cuisine, one we shouldn't change or develop dramatically. We eat chickpeas only as hummus with tahini and nothing else.

Modern or contemporary cuisine is about development though, it is not a rebellion against what came before it. Modern cuisine wouldn't even be possible without understanding the fundamental bases and classic techniques of traditional cuisine.

ALEP: Although Syrian cuisine is antique and famous in Arab countries, it seems not very known elsewhere. How do you call attention to it?

ORFALI: It is true that Aleppo is quite famous in the Levant, Middle East and Turkey and remains mostly unknown to the rest of the world.  Unfortunately, many people wrongfully describe Aleppian cuisine as fatty and hot dishes loaded with spices. I believe I ought to educate people about the real Aleppian cuisine in a distinctive way.  So I try to think and act strategically. And that is at the core of my responsibility on presenting Aleppian cuisine to the world and developing it in a suitable way for our modern age.

ALEP: We have seen that Syrian food has become a business for many people resettling abroad; people who used to work in other fields and now are cooks. It’s a challenge and many are learning by doing it. From your point of view, are there mistakes that these new restaurants make?

ORFALI: The problem is: when we (as Syrians) start making our food abroad, we don’t focus on one category. Back in Syria we had specialised people who could succeed because they focused on one category and presented it in its best. For example, people who make sweets: they first worked on themselves for years - aiming to be the best in Aleppian sweets. As well as kebab maker, shawarma maker etc…

Nowadays, Syrian restaurateurs have made a mistake when they tried to present all kinds of food in one restaurant, which makes the focus harder as two or even three categories lead to a low food quality. This will affect in a negative perspective.

In a positive perspective, our cuisine has a long heritage but no one has ever heard of it because of the lack of branding knowledge. But now after Syrian war, people who have established their restaurant abroad (especially in Europe) succeed in attracting Europeans and making them love our cuisine.

ALEP: Industries are being transformed in different ways and in the food segment it is not different. How do you see the field in the upcoming years?

ORFALI: In fact, the food industry has changed a lot, and it keeps changing every day because the chefs’ mentality is in constant improvement.

Before, chefs used to focus only on the techniques and on the recipe that a delicious dish requires in order to be made. But today the chef is attentive to the idea that he needs to be fully aware of where are the ingredients  coming from and how he can use his food sources wisely according to seasons in order to maintain sustainability in nature.

For example, when it comes to seafood dishes, chefs today are taking into consideration the types of fishes that are facing extinction, monitoring when such dishes are better served accordingly to specific seasons.

Thus, there are major improvements happening in the food industry today than a year ago. The industry witnessed a major shift from being the typical kitchen to becoming the avant-garde kitchen, which includes a lot of innovation, bold experiments and rejecting the norm along with emphasis on having the pleasant taste - not only the eye-catching dish look.

Today we see the food industry concentrating on the quality more than the quantity to show more of each ingredient's taste.

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ALEP: What are you working on now? What’s your next project?

ORFALI: We’re working on a new project called Orfali Bros. We are three brothers who have established a company for giving workshops and master classes on French sweets and pastry. To be clearer, I mean the French sweets that contain ingredients from Aleppian cuisine, such as cherry, Halawe, sesame and Tahini.

In this project we aim to show Aleppian sweets’ inspirations, how we transform batter into a very beautiful modern cake, and how we combine the pistachio and cherry to present different varieties of cakes. In conclusion, we are making modern pastry using ingredients from Aleppian cuisine.

The other project is the book Al Matbakh al Halabi, which refers to Aleppo Cuisine by Mohamed Orfali.

It aims to show how a transformation from the classical kitchen and the recipes that we inherited from our grandparents has occurred, and how the cuisine has changed since that time. We had approached sustainability in our cuisine in the past but everything has changed due agricultural and geographical aspects. So I am trying to let people know how our cuisine is seasonal and how we can change our thoughts without affecting the food's taste.

Alep: As a cook, you have worked in different countries, wrote a book and led a cuisine TV show. What’s the secret of success for you?

ORFALI: Actually, I don’t consider myself a successful person, I still am on my way to success. But during my career I have delivered an interesting message about the Aleppian cuisine to people.

With insistence, ambition, responsibility, honesty, reading and researching, and my passion for this career, I could be lead to where I am today, but I still am a learner.

*Orfali's website