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Reaching for the stars in the culinary world

Authentic stories, about the lives of quintessential Maldivians across the Maldives, exclusively brought to readers by The Edition.

Shahudha Mohamed
31 July 2019, MVT 13:15
Chef Sobah is proud of his Maldivian heritage. His magical restaurant on a pristine island introduces guests to both the culture and the cuisine of the Maldives, giving a taste of his homeland. VIDEO: THE TASTE MAKERS / SONEVA FUSHI
Shahudha Mohamed
31 July 2019, MVT 13:15

Easily one of the most enthusiastic individuals one could have the privilege of meeting, Sobah’s passion for culinary arts filled the room an instant after he walked in. Frankly, a single conversation with him left me, guilty of utilizing any reason to avoid the kitchen, contemplating the pursuit of cooking as a profession.

From a very young age, Eydhafushi-born Abdulla Sobah remembers helping his family out in the kitchen is a source of great delight. Hence, it would come as no surprise that being tasked with taking care of 10 scouts and fixing their meals as part of Jamboree training during his school years, served to distill his passion for culinary arts.

From then on, the determined youth’s heart was set stubbornly in stone. He never swayed or doubted his career choice, steadily making methodical decisions to make his dream a reality. Starting from humble beginnings of unpaid internships and hotel school, Sobah slowly but steadily climbed up the rungs, gaining experience and leaving his mark in the hotelier industry.

Ingredients for success

After graduating from hotel school, Sobah started his first real job in the hotelier industry in 1998 at Rangali Island Resort. The hotel extended an opportunity for him to work at Sri Lanka and after soaking up the learning experience, Sobah returned to Maldives and worked at the since-revamped Rangali, Conrad Maldives, for another year.

Chef Sobah posing for a picture with his colleagues. PHOTO: MIHAARU

He confesses to always having a career first mentality, constantly on the search for ways to develop his skills and advance his standing. This fuelled his next move to the prominent hotel chain Le Meridian at Kihaadhuffaru, and many decisions thereafter as well. Sobah stayed with Le Meridian until they closed shop, stationed briefly at Coco Palm Dhunikolhu before moving to Royal Island Resort for a better offer.

It was at this point that Sobah decided it was necessary to take a risk, albeit a calculated one, to catapult his career to the next level. Finding himself at a bit of an impasse, he realised that to evolve further, he needed to seek new mentors and work in different parts of the globe.

His cheery demeanour sobering a bit, he admitted, referring to his manner of choice in electing resorts and restaurateurs to work with, “I always ask myself, ‘how will they benefit me, and contribute to my development?".

This is how Sobah found himself joining the team at Soneva Fushi Resort.

Within the first three months of working in Soneva Fushi, Sobah got his first promotion - yet only a meager hint of the progression that was to follow.

Uber-competitive, culinary athleticism

Sobah was first bitten by the contest-bug in 2000, while working at Royal Island Resort. His then-mentor, a renowned chef and two-time gold medal winner at the German Culinary Olympics, suggested Sobah participate in the annual Hotel Asia competition.

“I never say no to a chance that offers me a chance to improve…”, Sobah said earnestly, “ I participated in two categories that year and won gold in both.”

The big win motivated him to take part in the competition each year, even as he moved to different properties and hotel brands - and Sobah never disappointed, bringing home an achievement in every category he competed in.

Having bagged numerous local competitions, he earned the opportunity to represent Maldives in a competition held in Lanka among 2700 participants from all over the globe. Against all odds, Sobah walked out with the silver - a notable achievement in his first ever international tournament that he would always look back on proudly.

However, the chef’s counts his most notable achievement as being crowned ‘Best Chef’ and ‘Best Maldivian Chef’ at the Food and Hospitality Asia Maldives (FHAM) Expo 2015.

“It is one of my biggest achievements in the field of culinary arts”, he beamed.

Sobah adorned in medals sitting in between his mother and father holding his trophies. PHOTO: MIHAARU FILES

It is evident how much the memory means to him, face lighting up with joyful radiance as he detailed how his family, friends, and co-workers had surprised him with a grand celebration, gathering at the jetty and his home to greet him when returned home with the gold. The team at Soneva went as far to organize a motorcade parading around Sobah’s trophies around Eydhafushi. The whole island shared his pride, joining in on the celebrations in recognition of the undeniable glory he had brought to his community.

In 2016, the very next year, Sobah’s work was nationally recognized by the government and he was awarded the prestigious President’s Award, celebrating his contributions in the field of culinary arts. Sobah quips the award served as a major motivating factor to stay on the path he had carved for himself, pushing him to keep getting better at his craft, with the knowledge that a whole country believed in him and his abilities.

Chef Sobah posing for a picture with the President's Award. PHOTO: SOBAH

Settling into Soneva

Sobah describes his integration into Soneva’s unique philosophy as something akin to fate - a far departure from his rather practical allusions throughout the entire conversation. However, it doesn’t seem a far cry to dub Soneva Fushi as being the place he truly came into his role.

Perhaps that is because it was the chain’s founders, Sonu and Eva, who finally gave the rising star a wide enough berth to truly express his art.

Nevertheless, his thirst for learning did not wane over the years, and a large part of his time is still dedicated to bettering himself. As such, one of the key experiences Sobah recounts, since joining the Soneva team, is the time he spent training with world renowned Michelin starred chef, Gaggan Anand, whom he credits with truly immersing him into the world of progressive cuisine and molecular gastronomy - Gaggan’s calling card.

Now, as he enters his ninth year working at the renowned resort, Sobah has not one, but two dining experiences in Soneva attached to his name.

Out of the Blue by Sobah - an over-water restaurant located in Soeva Fushi. PHOTO: MIHAARU

One, 'Out of the Blue by Sobah', is an over-water restaurant offering Asian cuisine during lunch time including dishes from Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, Japanese and Maldives. According to Sobah, the restaurant offers a variety of Japanese cuisine for dinner.

Chef Kenji Gyoten, the youngest three Michelin-starred chef in Japan and one of only four sushi chefs in the world with three Michelin stars, serves up meals at the sushi bar.

Right above the sushi bar is as open Teppanyaki offering a gorgeous view of Baa Atoll, and if all that is not compelling enough, the restaurant is complete with its own wine cellar, chocolate room and bar.

The second restaurant Sobah’s, located on the uninhabited island of Mendhoo just 15 minutes by boat from Soneva Fushi, is the first fine dining restaurant to ever serve authentic Maldivian cuisine with a signature, contemporary twist.

Of course, being located in a five star luxury resort, the restaurants also caters for destination dining adventures - the most famous perhaps, Sobah’s freshly caught reef fish, baked and smoked under the sand. However, the restaurant is temporarily closed at the moment, while Sobah explores different paths into his career's future that takes him a little too far from home.

Catapulting Maldivian gastronomy

The hotelier industry in Maldives have always served up mouthwatering platters stemming from cuisines all over the world, but for Sobah, the lack of representation of Maldivian cuisine in our resorts was a major cause for concern.

“During the past few years, I have witnessed a number of changes in the hotelier industry but I haven’t seen much development in terms of Maldivian cuisine. We get the same Maldivian food that we used to get 20 years ago,” he said, quoting examples of food available from local cafes - the usual short eats, street food and dishes.

His determination to elevate his home cuisine led to Sobah taking the task upon himself, and answering the question; how does one take centuries old tradition and soar to new heights without losing the familiarity of authentic Maldivian tastes?

At this point, the Chef de Cuisine launched into a passionate dialogue on the topic, expressing his opinions on the issue. “Many of the guests visiting Maldives do not simply want to gaze at the ocean and go swimming. They would also expect to try the cuisine here. They want to experience it. But it is not really available, not with the true authentic flavours.”

“So, I’d say, in that regard we’re sort of stuck. Other world famous cuisines are evolving but we are not really able to represent Maldivian cuisine in the same way.”

Demonstrating a trait reserved for only the most passionate of people, as he briefly narrated the gastronomical techniques he chose to use in his recreation of the beloved local ‘Kandu Kukulhu’ dish, Sobah’s explanations are enunciated with animated hand gestures that have his captive audiences salivating at the mere idea. His pride in the successful experiment was apparent by the fervent tone of his voice that rose and fell as he illuminated a side of a traditional dish I had never anticipated before.

Sobah's rendition of 'Kandu Kukulhu', one of his most popular dishes. PHOTO: SOBAH

Sobah prepares the ‘havaadhu’ – a concoction of perfectly balanced spices – just as our ancestors did. His process of ‘havaadhu dhevun’ – cooking the mixture until the condiments were perfectly roasted – usually takes up to four or five hours as he roasts is over a slow fire to achieve maximum flavor.

The finely sliced tuna, wrapped and cooked in havaadhu is accompanied by ‘kurumbaa hevaa’ (the flesh of young coconuts) and dehydrated ‘kaashi’ (mature coconut) retaining the pure white colour with added crunch, served with sea water jelly - to adjust the seasoning according to one’s taste, in an exciting way.

Sobah however, is adamant about not waving from the use of local ingredients to preserve the recipe’s original flavours. The idea, he says, is to discover new means of expressing traditional concoctions by toying around with the physics and chemistry of food, allowing for the entry of different textures and ways of presentation. “I do not want to use something entirely new to make a Maldivian dish”, he adds defiantly.

Chef de Cuisine at Soneva Fushi Abdulla Sobah preparing a dish in traditional Maldivian attire. PHOTO: SONEVA FUSHI

When elevating any dish, Sobah’s focus lies in the delicate balancing act that evens out all the flavours to tickle the taste buds just right. “Every dish must contain a starch, a protein and a carb”, this combination for Sobah, was uncompromisable.

The priority he gives for balance is also reflected in his life - the chef does not lack in a single area in his career. He divides his time equally between learning, creating, experimenting, competing and teaching.

The nomad chef

Nowadays, Sobah spends most of his year travelling across the world displaying his flair for cuisine to delight diverse audiences. He wows large crowds in high profile events catering to foreigners, giving them their first taste of refined Maldivian cuisine - Sobah’s specialty.

Sitting comfortably across from this writer, he’s just flown back into the country after a stint cooking in the United States, Nigeria and Germany - and he’s already preparing to grace tables in Bangkok and Saudi Arabia in the weeks ahead. It’s a demanding, fast-paced life, but it is clear Sobah wouldn’t have it any other way.

Sobah cannot help the smile that spreads across his face as he admits that the best part of his job is the feedback he receives from his customers. Some of them are willing to take a trip to Maldives just to savour Sobah’s cooking one more time. Others are excited to make their friends taste the scrumptious dishes served up by the expert chef.

Sobah's elevation of Dhivehi 'Bondibaiy', a sweet traditional dish especially served for ceremonious occasions, topped off with a scoop of ice cream. PHOTO: SOBAH

Throughout all of Sobah’s travels, however, he has heard more or less the same variation of comments. Anyone who savours Sobah’s cooking are greatly curious of how he manages to balance all the flavors in a dish where the taste and textures are perfect.

“I am able to give them a taste of flavours they have never experienced before and when I tell them the ingredients I use and the preparation process they are very interested. Some even feel like they prefer Maldivian cuisine above others”, Sobah’s pride in his Maldivian roots seeped out evidently as his voice rose while he explained foreigners' reactions to local cuisine.

Receiving such comments brings Sobah immense pride especially since Sobah considers holding on to the roots of his culture and heritage vital to his success.

Sobah, Al Dente.

Sobah also opened up about the challenges faced by those working in similar job positions in the hospitality industry.

His own journey wasn't particularly easy either, he says, expression alluding to a certain 'toughness' shared by local hospitality professionals. A firm character, well-timed smart decisions, hard work and consistent performances making are all part and participle to ones' survival in such a competitive arena.

Of course, there is always the option of venturing off the beaten path. “In terms of employment, there are many possibilities in the hospitality industry but often people feel like the only area to pursue is front office jobs.”

According to Sobah, youngsters are not fully aware of the endless opportunities in culinary arts, preventing them from pursuing it as a career.

“In this field, there are so many opportunities. You can always keep improving, and if you decide to quit the hotelier life you can even start up a business, ” he reasoned. “And it is a suitable, rewarding form of work for the artistically inclined and creatively minded”.

Sobah demonstrating how to prepare meals in a cooking class held for young enthusiasts in Soneva Fushi. PHOTO: MIHAARU

In order to encourage more youngsters to join the culinary arts, Sobah holds classes in collaboration with Soneva where he teaches batches of students the tips and tricks of the art of cooking. He spoke with pride about two of his students who were now making their way in the industry and pursuing further studies in the field.

A star in cosmic anticipation

Career-oriented as ever, Sobah now dedicates all his time to perfecting his craft through experimentation, elevating local cuisine to heights it has never reached before, taking his tastes across the globe and encouraging other young, enthusiastic Maldivians to follow in his footsteps.

One might think the chef has reached the epitome of success at this point, but there is still one major milestone remaining for the taste maker.

He will not quit until he has become the first Michelin starred chef in Maldives -- and we are here for the rest of his journey, wishing Sobah nothing but success.