Imagine you run a chain of restaurants that for some reason are not doing as well as they could. Or perhaps you have just opened a restaurant and want to make sure you have the right formula to make it successful. Where do you go for help? Step forward Chef Faisal Aldeleigan.
Through his Bahrain-based company, Chef Faisal Consulting, the 36-year-old Saudi offers a complete transformation service. He will revamp your menu, create new dishes and sauces, reorganize your kitchen, overhaul costing, train your staff and manage the marketing and branding. He will even make sure that you don’t spend money where you don’t need to.
“When you invest, you have to put your money in the right place,” he says. “There is no point in investing money on equipment you don’t need or that will not help you.”
Since launching his company in 2017 he now has around 100 clients all over the GCC.
The biggest challenge for any restaurant, he says, is “how to be unique.” How do you make one chicken-themed restaurant different from the other one down the road?
“First we do research,” explains Chef Faisal. “What are the competitors offering? What are the ingredients the restaurant can easily get from local suppliers in the region? It’s easy to bring in high-end ingredients from all over but if the restaurant can’t reproduce the dish, everyone will be disappointed.
“The service is very individual. Lots of places serve dynamite shrimp, for example, but I will not make the same sauce for two clients.”
Chef Faisal is a highly accomplished cook, having trained in the UK and in Italy and run his own restaurants in Bahrain, but he comes at the restaurant industry with a businessman’s brain because, before answering the call of the kitchen, that’s what he was.
He grew up in Dammam on the east coat of Saudi Arabia, studied finance and gained an MBA at the New York Institute of Technology just across the water in Bahrain and worked in banking for nine years. But cooking fascinated him even as a boy.
“My mother didn’t allow me into the kitchen because she is very organized and likes things tidy. But I would watch her and I loved tasting different foods. In fact, I was difficult because nothing made me happy. I was always complaining that this food or that dish wasn’t right. I was a fussy eater.”
At college, he could not afford to eat out so he would cook for himself and his friends, who told him his meals were better than restaurant food.
“It wasn’t serious at that stage but I liked experimenting and knew I wanted to open a restaurant,” he says. “I knew about business but I knew I had to learn about cooking professionally and running a kitchen.”
He also had to keep earning a living, so he had to fit in doing courses at Ashburton Cookery School, one of the top cooking academies in the UK, and working in restaurants in Florence, Italy, around his job as treasurer of a debt-management company.
In 2011, he opened his first restaurant in Bahrain, much to his parents’ astonishment, because he hadn’t told them.
“They were quite shocked, yes. My mother wanted me to be either a doctor or an engineer. That was the dream but it wasn’t MY dream. I couldn’t even convince her to let me cook for her until about five years ago. But my parents accepted I was mature enough to make my own decisions.”
Only after a year did he feel confident enough to quit banking and concentrate on cooking full time. One restaurant eventually became four. Then another restaurateur in eastern Saudi Arabia asked him to help overhaul his establishment. Chef Faisal’s ideas worked; that restaurant became one of the most popular in the region and is booked up for weeks.
Word got around and others began coming to him for advice. He was so busy revamping other restaurants that he eventually decided to close his own restaurants and in 2017 launched Chef Faisal Consulting.
Having turned his back on high finance, it was his background in that world that proved every bit as important as his culinary knowledge.
“I liked numbers and they help me still to this day. My style as a chef is different because I know about business. It’s no good creating an amazing sauce for a client if they can’t sell it. You have to think about who your target customer is and what you can do within your limits.
“You can make a really good sandwich and sell it for Dh20 and customers are happy. Or you can make a sandwich with special meat or fancy ingredients and charge Dh100 but no one will buy it. “
Whether his client is a large chain or a small independent or a start-up, Chef Faisal always starts out the same way – by doing extensive research.
“What is the concept? If it’s Japanese food or French, I study it and learn. If it’s a concept they have seen in Dubai or London or New York, can we recreate it? What is the competition like? How can I make the kitchen run more smoothly? I want them to be successful. If they add value to their business, I add value to myself too.”
He now also works with factories, helping them produce easy-cook meals such as ready-marinated chicken.
As in the UAE, there is a growing trend throughout the Gulf region toward healthier food.
“During Ramadan, people will stick to the traditional foods, but the young generation is more health-conscious and willing to prepare healthy meals,” he says. “Covid-19 has made people more aware of what they eat and after long fasting, they need to boost their immune systems.”
Creating vegan menus can be challenging, but it’s a challenge he enjoys. “I can make a sauce or gravy out of vegetables and it tastes yummy. I always use fresh ingredients – no canned food, no ketchup, no mayonnaise and no sugar.”
How usual is it for an Arab man to enjoy cooking?
“Before, men might cook for an event or when camping but on a professional level, they were not good. But it’s totally different now. We are seeing more Saudi chefs. The problem is that the pay is not that good, but money alone is not what drives a person. When you create a plate of food and make someone smile … well, let’s just say banking doesn’t give you the same feeling.”
At home, Chef Faisal likes to keep things simple. “After cooking all day I don’t feel like eating much, so a small sandwich or shawarma can be enough.” But his family – he is married with a son and daughter – are happy to taste-test anything that comes out of the company kitchen. And these days, he is definitely allowed into his mother’s cooking space.
“Oh yes. She still doesn’t really get what I do but she likes tasting the food I make. My style is fusion – I’m always mixing, making unusual combinations. She tells me, ‘I don’t know how but you’ve got something.’”
Not sure what to make for Iftar? Check out Chef Faisal’s recipe for a healthy Asian rice bowl.
Anna Pukas has reported from all over the world as a foreign correspondent for British media. She is now an editor based in Abu Dhabi.