Covering Abu Dhabi Gourmet, a 10-day gourmet food extravaganza, we managed to speak with Chef Ingo Maass after his lecture on Fusion Food & the Splendor of Middle Eastern Cuisine. We discussed fusion, food and Maass latest cook book New Arabian Cuisine.
From an early age, Ingo Maass knew he wanted to be a chef. Maass took his first catering position at the young age of 16 as an apprentice chef in a traditional German restaurant located in the Town Hall in Kiel, Germany. After this he went on to work with restaurants and hotels across the world, gaining international experience at just 19 when he bought a ticket to Singapore to do research on Asian cuisine.
It wasnt long before he secured a position as Chef de Party in the Hyatt Hotel in Dubai, (June 1990) and within nine months he was promoted; at 20, he was the youngest Chef de Cuisine of an international five-star hotel.
His CV reads like a dream for aspiring chefs. After a brief stint at a Michelin starred restaurant in France, Ingo Maass traveled, finding work in Jakarta, followed by places as far away as Korea, before returning to Dubai and joining the Intercontinental Hotel as Executive Sous Chef.
Always in search of a greater challenge, his career again took him further afield to Algeria with another five-star hotel before eventually returning to Dubai at the JW Marriott Dubai.
He has appeared in the media, on the radio and even in cooking programs on Dubai TV, and in 2006 he released New Arabian Cuisine (NAC) which fuses Western cooking techniques with Arabian flavors.
New Arabian Cuisine has been a hit across the world and declared at the 2008 Frankfurt Book Fair one of the best foreign cook books. Can you tell us a little bit about the book? And what is fusion food? Can you give examples of some of your favorite dishes in the book?
The book is not just a cook book or a recipe book. It shares stories, history and other great information about the region and about the team that has created the dishes and how we created them. It talks about ideas behind the dishes and ways to adapt them to your region.
It explains the ingredients that are most unfamiliar. The book is not designed for total beginners, however there are some simple dishes that can be made by everyone. From simple to cook dishes with snacks for the evening, to complex to very difficult to cook desserts are explained. So we hope to give inspiration to professionals and also showcase some simple tricks that a housewife could integrate into her cooking.
The stories about the cuisine and the city make it a bit of a coffee table book that you want to read more often and not dump in the kitchen cupboard with other recipe books.
I love each dish in this book and it would be hard to point one out.
What inspired you to write about Arabian food particularly?
I have been living in the Middle East for many years and the beautiful flavors inspired me. Also because the cuisine has been underrated, I want to help lift this cuisine to be among the best in the world.
Raman Khanna, director of Development at ALDAR Hotels, described how fusion can sometimes end up as confusion, quoting an example of a curry pasta dish as the worst form of fusion food he had ever encountered! Some recipes just dont go together; how do you test what works well, and how long did it take to develop the recipes in New Arabian Cuisine?
It took two years to complete the book. The recipes are based on the knowledge gained in the last 12 years. Confusion comes only when you do not test and try too hard to do something new. Its like in music when they created New Jazz. Hardly anyone understands it and it is not rhythmic. Foods have to blend with or complement one another or give a great contrast in flavor, consistency or color. But not everything fits. This topic is very vast and cannot be generalized.
Do you think people particularly in the Middle East will accept this new take on traditional food?
Yes, absolutely. I have tested it in many functions and VIP dinners.
What has the response been like in the Gulf amongst those that have tried your food?
Fantastic. With great joy and surprise on how well it works. Never have I received criticism.
Some will argue that tabouleh should stay the same; you famously added pineapple to the traditional Lebanese salad in one of your recipes. What would you say to people who balk at such additions?
Try first and then talk, … Tabouleh is not Lebanese first of all, I guess the Syrians eat tabouleh as much as the Lebanese. And I do not change the traditions, whoever wants to stick to the old can do so happily. Tabouleh with pineapple and lentils gives a fresh touch and a bit of sweetness. The lentils are not much different from burghul, but bring a slightly more nutty flavor so the blend becomes very harmonious.
You are one of the few chefs who have attempted and succeeded in delivering Arabian fusion food. Why do you think so few Middle Eastern chefs have tried to develop the cuisine, and what advantage do you believe you had as a foreign chef when it comes to developing, reshaping, or reforming traditional Arabic food?
It took a long time for European chefs to rethink their cuisine and people are used to following the tradition. So it is natural to cook dishes the way you have learned them from your mother or ancestors. Not every musician is a composer. Not every chef is a creator. Most chefs are happy to learn the traditions and to follow them. And that is already an art. Only very few chefs mix up things. Same in the music, same goes for art. Once a trend shows success, people follow that like a fashion. With the mixing of cultures in melting pots like Dubai, the food will continue to develop. And chefs will learn from each other.
You have also worked with Lufthansa and introduced the New Arabian Cuisine to the Business and First Class travelers on Middle Eastern routes. How much of a challenge was it when it came to developing plane food? And what challenges did you face?
Well, food for planes is a whole different technique because the dishes are re-heated and not all foods are made for that. However, due to my experience with Emirates airlines many years back it was not difficult for me and my team to adapt the new Arabian cuisine for fliers. It is always important that the dishes have a good part of moisture to keep them from getting dry. As the Lufthansa team is very well experienced, cooperation was nice and smooth and not many challenges were encountered. Airlines work similar to big hotels so even for the organizational part there was a good understanding between the two.
Im sure many of our readers would like to know if your book is available in Saudi Arabia? And if not, is it available online?
The book is available online with many different sites selling it. It is available in English and German at present. When in Dubai you can order the book to me directly or pay me a visit to get it signed personally. Contact me at email@example.com
If you happen to fly to Europe, it is available in most shops in the UK, Germany, Austria and Switzerland or can be ordered in a matter of a day or two.
What plans do you have for the future? Is a new Arabian restaurant in the works?
For the moment this cuisine is set for private exclusive functions and will not feature in any restaurant. However, in the future I have other plans and one day there will be a new restaurant.
People often ask us what is the best way to train as a chef. What would you say to an aspiring cook who wishes to develop a career in the industry? Are there any culinary art schools you would recommend?
The best way to learn cooking is to keep your eyes open every day. Cooking is not a scientists work that needs to be studied for years. Cooking is live and you learn it every day. Once you have your basic apprenticeship or basic cooking school covered that is when the real learning starts. That is when you should expose yourself to as many situations as possible to challenge yourself and to learn every day. Because you can never know all the recipes in the world and you will never stop to learn something new in this profession.
To complement this read as many books as you can and never stop experimenting. Here we go that is the best recipe to be successful as a chef.