Mohamad Orfali

Mo Story

In the midst of such great ancient civilization, it has to leave its mark on you: the old market with the aromas of spices, laurel soap and Aleppian za’atar, the vibrant colors and the impressive hand embroidered fabrics, the call for prayer emanating from the Umayyad Mosque on one side and only the best music the city has to offer (muwashah, qudud, and mawal) on the other.

Orfali grew up in the midst of an influential family, where his father was an engineer and his mother was a teacher. They played a big role in his and his both brothers’ Aleppian pride.

Orfali tells the story:

Things were not very clear to me, but my passion for food and everything related to it pushed me towards working in this field. This passion had a great impact on my family that both of my brothers, Wassim and Omar, followed my lead and entered the culinary world. They chose the art of Pastries and Boulangerie to cooperate with me in the future. As a young boy, I couldn’t have imagined reaching where I am now as a person who took it upon himself to spread centuries old culture in a cooking show. Not to mention my first book “I Am Aleppian”, which was released when I was just entering my thirties.

My preparatory diploma was a turning point in my life; I was never interested in becoming a doctor or an engineer, until the culinary school opened in 1994.

 

With my father’s huge support, I thought of enrolling in the school even though it wasn’t accredited as an advanced school of culinary arts. I felt learning about hospitality and culinary will be my profession despite the strong social opposition especially from my mother.
Having dreams of becoming a chef is not highly respected in my social circle nor in the middle east but it also took greater energy to convince my mother that this is the path I chose.

 

I used to work in restaurants alongside my studies to gain practical experience and launch my career. Hiding my identity to my friends and family was not easy. An unforgettable day was when the waiter did not show up for work, so I had to serve the guests instead, only to find a group of my friends at one of the tables, to my surprise and theirs as well since I- out of shame- had never told them that I worked at a restaurant. That day, one of the chefs at the restaurant persuaded me by saying that if I’m ashamed of my job, I should leave it. This is where the challenge began.

The beginning of all challenges in the culinary school:

We learned about the basics of the French cuisine but only in theory, since we did not have the funding to apply what we’ve learned. Actually, we students collaborated together to purchase ingredients that would help us apply some of the theories we’ve been receiving.

The school was teaching Culinary art, Pastries, Boulangerie, restaurant service, hospitality, and hotel management. Despite our teachers’ passion for the career, the curriculum was old and weak.

 

In 1997, top students from the intermediate culinary school were allowed to join the Institute of Hospitality Sciences in Aleppo where I finished my studies. During my time there I discovered my interest in the cuisine of Aleppo despite my ongoing fascination of the French cuisine. I was astonished at the fact that the Aleppian cuisine was not included in our studies even though we lived in the Syrian capital of gastronomy and art.
I had suspicions that some of what we have learned was not correct, especially

I tried to learn but…………..

There was no means of learning. Internet was not available in Syria late -nineties, and as I mentioned earlier the Syrian community was so not interested in hospitality sciences that finding books or references, even for the cuisine of Aleppo, was very difficult. I had to go wandering the sidewalks looking for used books at the street vendors’ stalls. I managed to find only two books about the French cuisine and one about the Chinese.

Back then; learning was basically a personal effort. My dream was to study in France, but my efforts to realize it were not successful at the time.

I graduated from the hospitality Institute without learning anything I hadn’t already learned in culinary school, but, nevertheless, the study was necessary for me to obtain a higher degree.
When internet and satellite dishes became available in Syria, I started fulfilling my thirst for knowledge, but I found the language barrier to be a great hindrance since most of the cooking shows available were in foreign languages. However, I started following French cooking shows despite the fact that I could only understand the ingredients and whatever techniques my eyes alone could pick up. I followed the French cooking channel Gourmet TV, and through it I was able to learn and got introduced to celebrity Chefs in France and Europe.

Working at restaurants gave me the chance to learn by repetition to reach the best results possible for each dish. At that time I was trying to communicate with Michelin stars-awarded chefs in France and Europe, such as: Ferran Adrià, Pierre Gagnaire, Joël Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Marc Veyrat, Michel Troisgros, and Paul Bocuse to study under their guidance. Even though they responded favorably I could not obtain the required work permit to work in France, also I tried many times to travel to restaurant El Bulli in Spain but unfortunately I could not.

All the ways lead me to Aleppo:

After 2 years of being away, I was on a vacation and was walking in the old streets of Aleppo in (Al-Jdayde) neighborhood near the restaurant of Mr. Abu Abdo Al Fawal; the most famous man and street food restaurant in Aleppo for more than 100 years. In moments of contemplation, I saw great potential in our cuisine and heritage, and I started to ask 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! And I did… I was wondering about the secret of this man’s success who is well-known worldwide!

I approached Mr. Abu Abdo Al Fawal without introducing myself to him, although he was an old pal of my grandfather Mohammed, and immediatley asked him about the secret of his success. He told me, with his kind personality, that continuity and popularity among people is a responsibility. He added that he had never imagined that he would ever give up his passion in cooking fava beans and being generous and kind to his clients- something he learned from his father.

His answer was more than enough to inspire and encourage me to go back to my roots.
On the same day, I was invited to dinner by an old family friend and neighbor, Mr. Nauman Wannes may he rest in peace. He played a very important role in the history of the Aleppian cuisine and one of the founders of the Syrian academy of gastronomy. I told him about my thoughts and he told me that we owe a lot to Aleppo and that I have the potential to add something new to the Aleppian cuisine. He suggested to me to take the initiative and to embark on it.

Life Tastes Beautiful

The focal point in my career came in 2007, when the first Arab cooking channel Fatafeat was launched. I was destined to meet its founder Mr. Youssef El Deeb for the first time in Kuwait. Mr. Youssef had just been to Syria and fell in love with our cuisine, especially the Aleppian dishes.

He asked me to prepare an idea for a television show in half an hour, but the idea was already ready in my mind; the Aleppian cuisine. When he came back to the conference room with one of his colleagues, he introduced me to him as one of the very first television chefs of Fatafeat. “If its Aleppian, it will be a great show,” he said commenting on my idea to present a television show about the Aleppian cuisine.

My show was supposed to launch from Aleppo in 2007, but special circumstances pertaining to the channel and myself pushed it back a few years.

In 2009, Mr. Youssef asked me to write a cookbook, and the first idea was a book about the cuisine of Aleppo and I started working on it. It was him who gave it the title: I Am Aleppian (Ana Halabi) referring to my great love and passion for the Aleppian cuisine.

The book was launched under that same title in 2012, after I built a fan base from the first season of my television show, which started airing on the 9th of July, 2011 under the title Our Arab Cuisine (Matbakhna Al Arabi)

The first season of Matbakhna Al Arabi the show revolved around the Aleppian and Levantine cuisines.
However the second season included