Today’s Chef in the Spotlight is someone I met at the recent food tasting at Casbah, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. Starting out as an adventurous man who had a deep passion for outdoor activities especially camping, Chef Mustapha often cooks for his friends. Ever since he laid his hands on cooking, there was no turning back. His restaurant serves a menu of inventive mezze and tapas, fashioned after modern Mediterranean cuisine with South African, Spanish and Moroccan influences and here is our interview with him.
1.What were your favorite foods growing up?
Lamb Tagine, a Moroccan national dish. My mother used to cook for hours
on very low heat and she served it with honey glazed quince.
2.When did you decide you wanted to be a chef?
Rather late in the early 20’s because I attended high school until 19
3.Where and when did your career in food begin?
In a big city hotel of Rabat the capital of Morocco, I started my professional
training in the cold larder section, learning the secrets of classic French
4.If you didn’t become a chef, what would you be?
Possibly an automobile mechanic as I have weakness for cars
5.Who/what has shaped your cooking the most over the years?
It was definitely my family because they celebrate any occasion with a
feast. I am very lucky to grow up around the food and food loving people
6.What are your favorite culinary weapons in the kitchen?
I enjoy my extended selection of knives each task with a specific knife.
Sharpening knives tend to be a “mental therapy” for me.
7.What influences your cooking style and particularly your menu?
Location, culture and ingredients availability dictates my inspirations. And
of course what my guests are looking for.
8.What is your favorite secret ingredient and why?
My home made fermented butter, which I use for my couscous
9.What is the one rule or value you try to instill in all of your staff?
Teamwork- “Learn from each other to succeed”
10.If I’m trying to watch my weight and I’m eating at your restaurant, what am I ordering to eat?
My favorite Tabouleh because it is refreshing, with a zing of citrus and
loaded with vitamins and minerals from the fresh parsley
11.If its my birthday and i am being super-indulgent and the sky’s the limit, what am I ordering to eat from your restaurant?
For those special occasions, one should start with a trio of Gazpacho
spectacularly presented on dry ice, then the super sized Boston lobsters,
which I normally prepare upon request on open fire and served with
cucumber Tzatziki. To end the meal, try the addictive Churros with spiced
12.What was the most challenging meal you had to make? Why?
I was once asked to prepare a traditional Bedouin meal with a desert deer,
which a Sheik family brought to my kitchen. They requested it to be slow
roasted with sticky rice for 12 hours. I did not look away nor close my eyes until it was served the following day!
13.What was your worst restaurant disaster?
There is this particular day that I had to prepare a BBQ meal for 150
guests outdoor. When the buffet finally started to roll, only did I realize that
there was no charcoal and fire! I ran to the supermarket next door and
cleared the whole shelf of household size charcoal bags! Quite a disaster.
14.What is your least favorite food?
I am a curious eater and will always try out new food. However, for some
reason, I stay away from commercially exploited animals and I have not try
watermelon in my life.
15.What is your beverage of choice?
A perfectly brewed Arabian coffee with a hint of cardamom
16.What are some recent dining and culinary trends you have been observing?
I feel that the cycle of cuisine has made a full turn back to the basics and
classic dishes find their way onto menus all around the globe
17.When you are not eating at your own restaurant…you are eating at?
I am one of those chefs who also cook at home, simple things yet
18.Which foreign country inspires your style most?
For some reason I am hooked to Greece. I was there for awhile and was
fascinated on how the local uses only freshest products with very little
seasoning and herbs to create a falvoursome dish.
19.What was the most spectacular meal you have ever had?
I remember there’s this snail dish served from a small stall in the country
side of Morocco. Prepared in a fine broth of herbs, it’s heavenly!
20.What is your best cooking tip for a home enthusiast?
Do not give up if something does not work out the first time, trial and error
needed to perfecting a dish.
21.What do you eat when you are home?
Depending on the time I have, could be a simple sandwich or a multi-
course meal, which I cook together with my wife
22. What’s a basic cooking technique that you couldn’t possibly live without?
I like cooking on an open fire. I find it very challenging as it is less predictable
and requires experience. It creates the most aromatic dish.
23. You obviously rely a lot on your sense of smell and taste. Why do you think that an educated sense of smell/taste is important to developing a good dish?
Smell is one of the 5 senses needed to enjoy food fully. Smelling would be
the most important step before cooking, during cooking and after cooking.
An important process is also to check/taste whether the food evolves correctly.
24. Finally, what is your advice for all those new, up and coming Chefs out there?
Enjoy what you do, even if it gets tough. Travel and learn about other food
cultures to open up your horizons. Read up history books of cooking to learn
how famous chefs have grown through their careers.
All Photos Courtesy of Mandarian Oriental, KL
BIOGRAPHY Chef Mustapha Benhadou of Casbah
Chef has approximately 15 years of experience whilst working with various 5-star hotels and renowned restaurants in the Middle East. Appointed as the new Chef de Cuisine of Casbah, Mandarin Oriental, Kuala Lumpur, he is renowned for innovative, elegant and flavoursome dishes,which personifies a new style of Mediterranean cuisine.
Starting out as an adventurous man who akin to outdoor activities especially camping, Mustapha often cooks for his friends. Ever since he laid his hands on cooking, there was no turning back. Mustapha creates an all-new innovative menu of contemporary Mediterranean with distinctive Spanish, South African and Moroccan influences. Making his debut in Asia, Chef Mustapha’s
styles are simple yet exquisite to taste. His epicurean hands are able to whip wondrous recipes – combinations of a solid base enhanced with unique fresh ingredients to create culinary creations built around enthusiastic creativity and masterful skills.
Chef Mustapha thinks that one of the most challenging fragment in a dish creation would be his guests’ reaction towards the new dish. “It is very important to me on whether my guest like what I’ve created. It is intricate to create a flavoursome dish without forgetting my guest preferences. That is why I enjoy having very open conversation with my guest and that is the only way to understand their needs and wants” said Chef Mustapha. Apart from culinary creations, another most important thing for Mustapha is to establish an efficient yet relax working environment for all his team. “I believe that panicky and tension will break the efficiency and productivity flow”.
Living by the phrase “Woosah”- To calm down and relax”, Mustapha a natural creative person takes great pleasure in listening to guest preferences, focus and blend it with his own culinary creativity to create something out of the norms in the culinary industry. When asked who inspires him, he proudly says it is his mother who had provide plentiful of positive praises and encouragement to make him believes that he is the best cook in the world.