Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 November 2019

Midnight at the Emirates Palace Ramadan tent suhoor kitchen

Thousands have attended suhoor at the luxury hotel so far this year, with a range of regional favourites being prepared under the watchful eye of chef Yahia Al Mustafa

Rows of manakish, plates heaped with mixed grills and portions of steaming rice, the careful preparation of creamy hummus and fried halloumi cheese — it is midnight at Emirates Palace

Chef Yahia Al Mustafa paces the kitchen floor: every dish must be perfect and every order must be right. Then he gives the signal.

“Move, move, move,” he shouts. “Yallah (let's go), yallah, yallah,” he says, clapping his hands and dispatching the servers with steaming platters of food.

Close to 400 people are at the famous luxury hotel to enjoy suhoor — the meal before fasting begins — in an atmospheric Ramadan tent. A staff of 25 chefs and servers are working at full throttle.

“There is pressure. But I enjoy it,” says Mr Al Mustafa 31, a Syrian who has worked at the hotel for the past 10 years. “We are sometimes screaming, ‘give me that, move that, go now’. But you see the results of our work immediately.”

Suhoor at the hotel has grown from a simple meal to become a longer, more social experience that runs from 10pm to 2am every day during Ramadan.

In one corner of the kitchen, chefs bake bread in a huge oven, while in another, felafels are being carefully fried. In between are dozens of cooking and cleaning stations, with streams of servers ferrying food in and out.

The suhoor menu is à la carte and one of the most popular dishes is fried chicken liver. Fatayer — a type of Egyptian pie — is also ordered a lot and the hotel recruits chefs from Egypt to make it. They whirl thin pieces of dough into the air and fold them with cheese and salt before they hit the oven and are then shipped out to guests.

Mr Al Mustafa is fasting and his team starts work at 5pm, chopping vegetables and preparing marinades. Some nights the tent is at maximum capacity and they serve close to 700 people in just a few hours.

Chef Yahia Al Mustafa at work in the Emirates Palace Ramadan tent. Victor Besa / The National
Chef Yahia Al Mustafa at work in the Emirates Palace Ramadan tent. Victor Besa / The National

Susheel Kumar, 30, is a junior sous chef and has worked at Emirates Palace for the past five years. From Hyderabad in India, his favourite dish to prepare is the fried chicken liver. “We take Indian clarified butter, which is called ghee, sauté the liver in it and then add pomegranate syrup,” he says. “People here love it.”

Several thousand people have come to the tent for suhoor so far this Ramadan. And by 1am, people are still streaming in. Some order plates of meze and sip mint tea. Others smoke shisha and talk into the early hours before another long day of fasting begins.

For most, it is a peaceful and reflective time. Outside the palm trees sway as the waves of the Arabian Gulf break on the hotel's white sand beach. But in the kitchen, there is no time for reflection.

Fatayer, a type of Egyptian pie, is very popular. Victor Besa / The National 
Fatayer, a type of Egyptian pie, is very popular. Victor Besa / The National 

“I’m screaming sometimes,” says Mr Al Mustafa. “Some don’t like that, but once we finish and leave the kitchen, we leave all those things behind. We are like one big family here.”

As a young chef in the Samir Amis hotel in Damascus over a decade ago, Mr Al Mustafa admits there are times when he cannot believe how far he has come. He is now among the more than 50 nationalities that make up the staff at Emirates Palace.

“I feel proud of myself to work at Emirates Palace," he says.

Now married with five children, he still misses Syria and visits at least once a year to see his parents.

When the last of the guests have gone at 2am there is still work to do. The kitchen must be cleaned and reports sent. When he reaches home a few hours later, it can be hard to unwind.

“It is hard to relax but once everything has gone well, you feel peaceful.”

Updated: May 25, 2019 02:46 PM

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