During Ramadan, many of us frequent lavish iftars where everything is prepared and cooked to perfection, but it is easy to forget the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes – from the intensive cooking behind closed doors, to the organisation and distribution of the service staff.
Earlier this week, Weekend was invited to Byblos Sur Mer at the InterContinental Abu Dhabi hotel, where we were given a first-hand look at what goes into creating their breaking-of-the-fast feast.
“Iftar is absolutely not a joke,” Danny Kattar, an experienced chef and the hotel’s director of food and beverage, told us. “Because the iftar time is set, we are all working towards that target. No time is wasted and minutes are all accounted for.”
Who’s coming for dinner?
The iftar crew make their way to the restaurant at midday. The team is made up of seven cooks, led by head chef Raed Zaytoun. Their first job is to take a collective look at the number of guests booked in for that evening’s sitting. It is then that the team make their way to the central kitchen, where their next job is to gather the necessary ingredients. “Not every day is the same,” Kattar says. “We always have about 20 per cent more [people] than what is booked. Ramadan is mostly last-minute.”
Now is the time to start preparing the ouzi. The lamb, which is the star of the Byblos spread, is a popular iftar staple. The meat is slowly cooked and served with roasted nuts and raisins over rice. After it’s marinated, it goes into the oven. “There is no time wasted when it comes to the ouzi,” Kattar tells us. “You can’t put it in the oven at 5pm and have it by 7pm. It requires a certain temperature and time – there are no shortcuts to it.” While the pièce de résistance is cooking, another of the chefs begins working on other time-consuming dishes that use slow-fire techniques, such as fawaregh (stuffed-intestine sausages), vine leaves and stuffed zucchinis.
A traditional Lebanese spread has a generous number of side dishes, so it is at this juncture that a trio of chefs begin to prepare these, so that they will all be ready to be plated up by iftar time. This phase of the set-up is split into two parts – the first is the cutting of the parsley and other ingredients required for dishes such as tabbouleh and fattoush. The second part sees others focused on the pre-prepared ingredients – such as the vine leaves – and working on setting up the next batch of ingredients in readiness for tomorrow night’s cold mezze production.
The service team arrives
The band of waiters arrive about now. The first order of the day is to receive the daily briefing from the restaurant manager. The 20-minute conversation covers the most positive and the more challenging aspects of the previous night’s service. There’s also a review of feedback from customers, before Zaytoun emerges from the kitchen to share details of the day’s specials and provide the waiters with key information about which menu items should be highlighted to that evening’s customers. “We call it a target dish,” Kattar reveals. “So when people sit down for their meal, we explain what the dish is about and why it is one of the favourites.”
All about the specials
Byblos Sur Mer is renowned for its expansive list of specials, so with this in mind, chefs are allocated specific roles according to their skill set. When we visit, the dishes of the day include dolmas and a lamb leg served with oriental rice. When it comes to the work required in putting these together each day, Kattar describes this as “a totally A-Z job” – the chef collects the ingredients and creates the dishes (to Zaytoun’s satisfaction), before placing them on the specially designated culinary stand in the restaurant a few minutes before sunset.
Time for the set-up
When it comes to the set-up, the general rule is that everything should be ready for the main event at least 30 minutes beforehand. With iftar time set at 7.04pm, at 6pm sharp, the food begins to emerge from the kitchen. It is the responsibility of the chefs – with the assistance of the service staff – to place and arrange the food. Five of the cold mezze dishes, which include dips and salads, are taken on to the floor, closely followed by 16 additional hot dishes, which are displayed on the central buffet counter.
A few minutes before the sun goes down, the mighty ouzi is brought out and placed at its own live station, and a dedicated chef takes up position behind it.
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After all the hours spent working with fresh ingredients to create delectable dishes, you would think the culinary team would be due a decent break. “It doesn’t work like that?” Kattar says. “It is five minutes – some dates and water – and that’s it.” This is showtime: the hustle and bustle begins and the team man their stations and sweep the restaurant – quality control!
By this time, the suhoor team is already in the kitchen preparing for the second service of the evening. It’s an entirely different team, and it isn’t as challenging a prospect as the iftar, according to Kattar. The iftar team bid farewell to their colleagues and head home to relax, before doing it all again tomorrow.
Iftar at Byblos Sur Mer is from Dh225 per person. Suhoor requires a minimum spend of Dh150. For more information, visit www.dining-intercontinental-ad.ae