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Cooking up success: Nasif's culinary wins through unwavering values and morals

Nasif is a young chef from the Maldives who refuses to compromise his values and morals, yet crossing step after step towards his journey to success - proving that integrity and a positive mindset pave the way for excellence.

Ameera Osmanagic
17 June 2024, MVT 14:11
Mohamed Nasif, a Demi Chef de Partie from Addu City currently working at Four Seasons Explorer, Palau -- Photo: Nasif
Ameera Osmanagic
17 June 2024, MVT 14:11

“Do you still not smoke?” “No, I don’t!” Mohamed Nasif, a demi chef de partie onboard the prestigious Four Seasons Explorer – a luxury floating resort currently cruising amidst the breathtaking Rock Islands of Palau, replied chuckling when I reminded him of a statement he made as a 17-year-old.

Those who know Nasif would remember him as a young boy who would pedal his bicycle along the busy Hithadhoo Link Road every day to make his way to Suvadive Café where he worked as a waiter. But in doing so, he was not just a teenager going to his side gig to make some extra cash – he was a symbol of integrity and dedication.

How? Well, you must read to find out.

You see, Nasif cycled to work simply because he didn’t want to break rules. At a time when most 17-year-olds would scoff at the idea of having to ride a bicycle to work, Nasif chose to honor the law and his principles, demonstrating a level of responsibility and maturity far beyond his years.

Now at the age of 23, living abroad and with the world in his palms, Nasif could turn the trajectory of his life in any direction he wants – but he still stands firm by what he said back when he was 17.

“I prioritize self-discipline a lot, so I don’t smoke. I also ride my bicycle to work and when I’m out and about because I’m not 18 and don’t have a license,” is what he said back then.

So, what’s Nasif’s story? Let’s start from the beginning.

Discovering Nasif

My first encounter with Nasif was at Suvadive Café, as he came to wait on the table I was at. Although I had frequented the café often, I had never quite experienced the level of service at a restaurant as I received that day. I felt as though I had finished a meal at a five-star restaurant, and his level of service was that of a seasoned maître d'.

Every time I went back, it was the same enthusiasm and passion that he demonstrated – and it was not just me who noticed. Anyone who went to the restaurant witnessed how he went above and beyond for his customers. If there was an elderly person, Nasif would guide them into the restaurant holding their hands. If parents went in with children, he would entertain the little ones so their parents could have a moment to take a bite.

But what many didn’t know about the bright-eyed boy was that he was still in high school earning his level two diploma in hospitality. Primarily brought up by his bon’da mamma [grandmother] and dhontha [aunt], Nasif had his eyes set on the Four Seasons’ Hospitality Apprenticeship.

You might have put two and two together by now. He was amongst the 32 apprentices who got selected that year to go to Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Landaagiraavaru. Out of those 32, eight students made their way into the kitchen. Not only that, but after a year-long hustle of switching from section to section, learning the basics of how different kitchens work while still studying for theory and practical exams, Nasif made his way into the top two who got offered jobs at the resort.

“I wanted to become a pastry chef at first, but when I started the apprenticeship, I discovered that I was more into hot and cold kitchens."

“The apprenticeship was one year. During that time, we had to work in a different section every four weeks – hot kitchens, butchery, cold kitchen, stewarding and so on. That’s what we did the first six months.”

“Then in the second leg of the apprenticeship, I specialized in the grill restaurant and graduated in 2020 right before Covid,” Nasif summarized the programme as best as he could.

But after all that hard work, landing a full-time job at the resort meant he had to start from “scratch”. According to the resort’s practices, those who work in the food and beverage sections must start from stewarding – meaning he had to clean the kitchen, pots, pans and stoves.

Why, you might wonder.

“There are a lot of Maldivians who have completed the Four Seasons apprenticeship programme. Those who are at the top now as executive chefs, sous chefs and those in the management level became so strong [in their fields] because they started from scratch – for example from stewarding, they know what it feels like to be a steward,” he explained with gratitude in his voice for Four Seasons.

Mohamed Nasif during his apprenticeship programme at Four Seasons -- Photo: Mohamed Nasif

After working as a steward for nine months, a new batch of apprentices came in, and that meant Nasif could now move up the food chain.

“It depends on performance and the need for more hands in the kitchen,” he explained.

Nasif’s quick learning and adaptability meant his journey through the kitchen was also expedited.

“We first get placed in the staff kitchen, which is also normally a one-year assignment, but I got moved up within six months. I then got a cross-exposure experience at Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Kuda Huraa. I worked in the cold kitchen there for three months, and then moved back to Landaagiraavaru before getting the opportunity to work at Four Seasons Resort Maldives at Voavah, which is a luxury private island resort,” he explained with enthusiasm oozing out of his voice.

Amidst all this, Nasif also participated in two national level competitions – the Hotel Asia Exhibition & International Culinary Challenge where he secured a bronze and the Food and Hospitality Asia Maldives (FHAM) Global Culinary Challenge and Exhibition. He exited the latter with a silver medal to his name.

The Maldivian team celebrating their victory after securing a silver at the Alen Thong Golden Coffee Pot Challenge 2023 -- Photo: Nasif

Last year, Nasif was also among a select group of chefs who represented Maldives in the UAE at the Alen Thong Golden Coffee Pot Challenge and returned home with a bronze medal for the country.

From Maldives to Palau

Known in his family as his bon’da mamma’s ‘ran dhari’ [golden child], when Nasif’s name came out among the two people who had been selected for to go to Palau for the preopening of the Four Seasons Explorer, Nasif had a bigger challenge ahead than the trip itself – convincing his bon’da mamma to give her blessings for this trip.

Although he came from a humble home, his bon’da mamma and dhontha were the guardians, protectors and superwomen behind him, encouraging his every success. Especially for Nasif’s bon’da mamma, sending off her beloved grandchild so far away into the world was hard. The idea of no one being there to guide and support him was a nerve-racking thought. But it was his dhontha who convinced bon’da mamma and Nasif’s assurance that he would always stand by the values and teachings they instilled in him.

“She never had any of her children go abroad alone, but she trusted me to go abroad like this. Palau is a small country, and many don’t know about it back home. But bon’da mamma trusted me to travel so far away because she knows that I will not stray from her teaching,” Nasif explained the initial reactions.

And off to Palau he went.

There he works with four other Maldivian chefs along with the team there in the service kitchen onboard, as well as the kitchen onshore, creating meals not just for guests but also for the staff.

“How was it like there when you first went?” I asked him.

“When we first came the timezone change and everything was a bit challenging, but now we’re used to it.”

“Four Seasons treats us really well. Generally, in pre-opening we might not have gotten WiFi. To be honest the mobile data coverage here is pretty bad. But Four Seasons invests in us and provides us with WiFi so we can get in touch with our family. We don’t have any problems here. Connectivity with family is easy, we can call them anytime. So, I miss Maldives, but not that much,” he said singing the praises of his employers.

Before I could get to my next question, Nasif suddenly exclaimed, “the best part is!”

“I learned to make hedhika! [Maldivian teatime short eats]” we started telling me excitedly. “We don’t get short eats here for Ramadan. So, I learned it, and everyone was so happy because they got to try Maldivian food!”

“I didn’t even know anything about short eats – didn’t even think I’d learn, but I made everything from snacks like gulha and bajiya!”

They say a journalist should never reveal their source, but maybe the chef would.

“I just call bon’da mamma and ask her how to make it,” he easily revealed.

“But the thing is, I didn’t grow up working with bon’da mamma in the kitchen, so when she says things like ‘kaafooru thelhi’ [cardamom], I don’t know what that means, because I learned the spices in English. But bon’da mamma speaks entirely in Dhivehi to I have to translate it, haha” he explained in between chuckles.

“Even if I want to make a Maldivian curry, I just call bon’da mamma,” it’s clear who the chef in Nasif trusts when it comes to authentic Maldivian recipes.

While still on the topic of cooking, I had to ask, “you told me you’d never work with alcohol. Is that still true?

“Yes!” he said with conviction. “If there’s a dish with alcohol, another chef would cook it. Mostly we don’t even use alcohol in cooking. Sometimes there’s products also, which another chef would cook because in each kitchen there are several chefs. Mostly it’s a non-Muslim chef who’d cook the products related to pork and alcohol,” he explained how he has come this far in his career without compromising his values.

“What about your license? Have you gotten it now?” I had to ask.

“Yeap! Got my car license here in Palau in fact! But I got my motorcycle license back in Addu when I turned 18. Can’t drive a motorcycle without a license hahah!” he understood why I asked.

Voices from home

As an established chef, thousands of people would have gotten the opportunity to taste his food – but have bon’da mamma and dhontha?

“When I went to the resort [for apprenticeship] after Suvadive, I didn’t get much holiday while there. Then I had to come here [Palau] and since I knew I wouldn’t be able to go [to Addu] much, I thought I’d go during last year’s Eid.”

“So, I went and cooked for everyone. I cooked Arabic food for bappaa [dad], and then I cooked for mammaa and dhontha and bon’da mamma as well. I cooked in three houses separately,”

I reached out to Nasif’s dhontha to find out what she thought of his cooking.

“So magical! No one can beat his cooking, he’s the best” dhontha’s verdict was out.

I spoke to dhontha for an hour or so, and in every word she had to say about Nasif, one thing was clear as day – she loves Nasif like her own child.

“I want my own children to be like Nasif – not chefs, but embody the kind nature and good character of Nasif,” she said emotionally.

“I miss him. A lot,” dhontha said and asked me to tell Nasif, “come soon, dhontha misses you a lot,” and recalled how Nasif would always bring a packet of betal leaves for her and never miss celebrating a special occasion.

But it was not just dhontha who had glowing words about Nasif.

“His approach for work is exceptionally positive, consistently seeking knowledge and asking questions… Nasif’s dedication and competence in his culinary journey has been commendable,” Ahmed Mazim, Chef de Partie and former supervisor of Nasif said.

“The first thing I have to say [about Nasif] is his willingness to help others. He is the most supportive colleague anybody could ever wish for… The best memories of me working with him was trying his spaghetti carbonara at the live station,” Ali Saeed, a former colleague also fondly recalled.

Back to the roots, back to Maldives

Nasif’s time in Palau will not be permanent. As much of an adventure it is, Nasif plans to return back to Maldives this September and spend some time with his family before returning to Four Seasons back home.

I asked if he’d drop by Suvadive Café while in Addu.

“I actually even went back to work in Suvadive after my apprenticeship – during the Covid break. They needed the help, and I didn’t have anything to do at home, so I went as a captain. I worked both in the kitchen and in service too,” Nasif said, going on to say that he would very much love it to collaborate with Suvadive someday in the future.

He also mentioned that his first mentors from Suvadive, Shifaz and Thaail still remain in touch and catch up from time to time.

“So, what’s next?” I asked, eager to know his plans for the future.

“Learn more about different cuisines. As a chef, to become stronger and to grow [in the field] I want to learn cuisines in detail. I know Japanese a bit, Italian and Arabic too.”

“Immediate target is to learn the cuisines as much as possible. Growth in the kitchen is a long process. There’s a lot to experience. You need 2-3 years of experience in a single section. So, get more experience and eventually to be in a management position in the kitchen before I retire,” his answer was straight forward.

So, what does it take to achieve success in this field?

“All about the positive mindset, because there will be days where times are very tough. You must face those days with a positive mindset. You can’t grow with a bad attitude. You can be very strong in a speciality, but you will never grow with a bad attitude.”

You heard him. A positive mindset is key!