x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

School of Culinary and Finishing Arts (Scafa) thrives in Dubai

The Life: A vocational training centre in Dubai offers school leavers a way into the hospitality industry.

Alisha Haque, who was brought up in the UAE, works with her father, Zaigham Haque, at his culinary school in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National
Alisha Haque, who was brought up in the UAE, works with her father, Zaigham Haque, at his culinary school in Dubai. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

The smell of warm pastry wafts through the corridors of the School of Culinary and Finishing Arts (Scafa) tucked under the Gold, Silver and Platinum high-rises in Jumeirah Lakes Towers.

Two pupils lean over a saucepan of wet dough as their instructor looks on. The ladies want to open a patisserie and are learning from the bottom up, first studying the basics of baking. If they decide to make a go of it, they can progress to Scafa's professional kitchen course and then the professional finishing course, which combines advanced cooking techniques with restaurant management skills. Pupils will get hands-on experience by taking turns to run Scafé, the bistro abutting the school.

The programme "sets up people to become culinary professionals, culinary entrepreneurs," explains its founder, Zaigham Haque, who set up Scafa at the end of last year.

Currently, the school is running classes for amateur enthusiasts, mothers and children, and schoolchildren.

It also has one-off themed classes teaching Moroccan cooking, for example. And it runs corporate team building activities where bankers and HR specialists have competed in teams against their colleagues to cook the best meal.

The school will really get going later this year when it starts enrolling school leavers who want to pursue careers in the hospitality sector. The first course is planned for April for school leavers from India who do their final exams in March. Then, in the autumn, there will be the first intake of students from the UAE.

Mr Haque is hoping his school will appeal to those who don't want to pursue an academic route at university. Vocational training centres are fairly thin on the ground in the Emirates. Scafa aims to fill at least part of that gap.

"There are enough kids out there who don't want to study any more, want to get into work as quickly as possible, don't get the grades, can't afford to - whatever the reasons may be ... there is not a lot for them to do in this country," Mr Haque says. "That was part of the initial thinking behind Scafa together with the hospitality sector and how robust it was, in particular after the world economy fell off the cliff. In the UAE in particular this remained one of the key pillars for the Dubai economy."

Mr Haque has experience in both business and education. He acquired a records management business that he built for eight years before selling it to Aramex. After a break, he then went to work for Gems, an education company, as the chief operating officer.

Inquiries about the courses have come from Asia, Africa and Europe. A major hurdle was getting approval for the school from Dubai's Knowledge and Human Development Authority. Having this means that the KHDA will attest the certificates that Scafa issues to those who successfully complete the professional kitchen course and the students can use those certificates to apply for entry-level positions anywhere in the world.

Scafa is also working with an external partner who organises visas, work permits and accommodation so that students can do internships in the UAE.

The hospitality sector is keen on the idea, according to Mr Haque.

"It's almost a no-brainer," he says. "It's fabulous for the hospitality sector. If you think about it there is no alternative. Every time you want an entry-level member of staff in your kitchens, you're going overseas."

And while he admits hospitality may not yet have much appeal for Emiratis, there are some culinary trailblazers setting new examples such as the Wild Peeta entrepreneurs and the chef Khulood Atiq.

"I think there is a niche that is emerging, there is interest in culinary entrepreneurship and that's something that our programmes look at," he says. "We have the faculty to teach it including the Arab chef of the year, who is French-trained."

As well as culinary training, Mr Haque is developing two other initiatives. He is in talks with an inbound tour operator to offer packages that include Middle Eastern cooking. There have also been discussions about getting involved in a project to codify Emirati cuisine.

"Emirati cuisine is dying out," he says. "The skills reside with these ladies who are in their 70s and once they've gone it's gone. [Our chef instructor] Francisco was involved in the revival and codification of cuisine in Chile so he has that experience."