x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

MasterChef Australia finalist takes Middle Eastern food Down Under

MasterChef Australia finalist Samira El Khafir is presenting a contemporary take on Middle Eastern cuisine in her new restaurant Modern Middle Eastern.

Samira El Khafir poses outside her restaurant Modern Middle East at the Australian Islamic Museum in Melbourne. March 6th 2014
Samira El Khafir poses outside her restaurant Modern Middle East at the Australian Islamic Museum in Melbourne. March 6th 2014

Back in her home city of Melbourne, the Australian-Lebanese MasterChef finalist was recently tasked with preparing a multi-course menu for high-profile guests including UAE government officials and the treasurer of Australia, Joe Hockey.

The occasion was the opening of the Islamic Museum of Australia, part of which hosts El Khafir’s restaurant Modern Middle Eastern.

The banquet was essentially the eatery’s first day of business.

“It was pretty similar to the Dubai experience,” she explains. “That was a long day, and a few things didn’t go as I planned and I learnt a lot. The opening was much harder, it was such a big night and I didn’t want to mess it up.”

Judging by the success of the February 28 event, Modern Middle Eastern is set to become a favourite haunt for Melbourne foodies and MasterChef Australia fans.

El Khafir treated the high-powered guest list to a colourful spread featuring entrées including kataifi prawns with muhamaara sauce and dukkah crusted scallops with saffron aioli.

This was followed by mains featuring marinated chicken with couscous salad and lamb tajine with freekeh and pomegranate salad.

The dessert was a knock-out: a thick mud cake with chocolate mousse, smoked salted caramel and burnt orange zest.

The feast was a calling card showcasing El Khafir’s new culinary ethos of blending the traditional with the contemporary.

And El Khafir is relishing Modern Middle Eastern’s potential.

Tucked away at the back of the museum, the outdoor cafe boasts small mosaic tables overlooking a lush walking trail.

“After MasterChef, I am not interested in cooking traditional food anymore,” she says.

“Like the museum, I want it to be an adventure that is full of glamour and entertainment. This is where I am right now.”

To say that El Khafir’s life has changed since coming third in last year’s fifth season of MasterChef Australia is an understatement.

The quiet and intense figure of the first round emerged as a dynamic and feisty contestant. El Khafir admits the programme was self-­revelatory.

Her decision to enter the show last year was not so much driven by a chance to showcase her culinary skills, but as a way to heal herself from the dredges of postnatal ­depression. On air, however, El Khafir soon realised her pedigree as an exceptional cook of traditional Middle Eastern cuisine was not enough.

MasterChef judges – the chefs George Calombaris and Gary Mehigan plus the food critic Matt Preston – were looking for culinary discipline to complement El Khafir’s freewheeling style of home cooking.

“The biggest thing I probably learnt was how to prep,” El Khafir says.

“When working with George he would stress how important it was to keep it clean, to work hard and be organised, because that was the key to a great dish.”

MasterChef Australia’s combinations of Pressure Tests (where contestants are forced to recreate a signature dish) and Mystery Boxes (cooking something up with random ingredients) also forced El Khafir to ditch preconceived notions.

The end results were killer combinations – dishes such as spicy spatchcock accompanied by duck and couscous stuffing with saffron purée. There was also her mouthwatering modern baklava injected with the milk pudding ­mahalabia.

Those dishes feature in Modern Middle Eastern, with a menu boasting some of El Khafir’s MasterChef winners and regional staples “with a modern twist”.

The restaurant doesn’t spell the end of El Khafir’s television adventures, however.

She is presently working on a self-funded pilot for a new cooking show where she prepares contemporary Middle Eastern dishes from various Australian locations.

“There will be an Arabic version which I hope to show for Middle Eastern networks,” she says. “The show basically gives you a tour of Australia through its people and markets, with me cooking from different locations. The English version will be posted online soon to see the reaction. It’s one of the many projects I am working on.”

The ‘Pork Episode’

She refers to it as the Pork Episode. Samira El Khafir describes the controversial MasterChef Australia challenge of preparing a pork dish as “cooking blind”. “I am a very competitive person so there was no way I was going to walk out,” she says. “Because of Ramadan I am used to cooking without tasting. But with pork it was hard because I had never seen it in my life and I never cooked with it. My dish was a disaster.”

sasaeed@thenational.ae