The United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) is one of the most Filipino-dense countries in the world. Approximately one out of eleven people you’d meet in the Emirates is Filipino. If you go to main cities like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the probability increases manifold.
However, if you happen to be in Abu Dhabi and are expecting a chance meeting with Abu Dhabi-based Chef Nouel Omamalin of Etihad Air, that’s a completely different story. He won’t be an easy person to catch. Why? As an in-flight chef of the flag-carrier airline, the grandeur of Nouel’s job can be literally captured by this expression:
“He dines in Paris, breakfasts in Milan and lunches in London.”
In other words, Nouel is one of the very lucky ones who landed a job that many could only dream of. More on this and his soon-to-be-released book, where he shares his journey and creations as a chef up in the air, in the interview below.
Nouel was born to a family of Chavacano and Bisaya speaking lineage in Dipolog City, Mindanao. In contrast to today’s electronic world, his childhood was filled with social interactions with other children in the neighborhood. Nouel fondly recounts the outdoor games he played with his playmates: bato-lata (knocking a tin can down with a slipper), raya-raya (street board game), siatong (precision wooden stick game) and luthang (home-made bamboo air gun fight).
“Those were our real-life game consoles,” says Nouel.
Nouel’s mother was a cook and a baker. She owned a casual-dining restaurant and was fascinated with Spanish cuisine. No wonder Nouel grew up appreciating fine food and understanding the weight of kitchen work. In his teens, he started to learn how to cook. This exposure triggered his passion for culinary arts. It’s what led him to take up a hospitality course in college.
MFB: How did you get started in food? Please describe the first job you held in food, and the first job you held abroad.
NO: One day, my mother brought home a collection of recipe books from school, where she taught Spanish and Philippine history. The enticing food photography caught my attention prompting me to read the books from cover to cover. It somehow ignited a gastronomic fuel and I eagerly started trying out the recipes. There was no looking back since then.
My first official chef job was at the Hyatt Hotel & Casino Manila during the pre-opening phase as a commis de cuisine or kitchen assistant. Five years prior, I was already busy earning a living baking and decorating cakes. I also taught culinary classes in a university. Over time, when celebrity chef shows were slowly gaining momentum, I dreamt of becoming one myself. However, the only way to grow in this career and be properly recognized is to work in professional kitchens.
MFB: What brought you to the Middle East?
Nouel: In 2005, I received an email from a talent agent with a picture of Burj Al Arab, dubbed as the world’s first seven-star hotel. My heart skipped a beat! The next thing I knew I was already on the plane to Dubai. It was my first international travel. 2005 marked the beginning of my international career as a pastry chef.
Burj al Arab Luxury Hotel (Photo credit: Jebiga.com)
At the Burj Al Arab hotel, I was looking after two famous fine-dining restaurants – Al Mahara (the underwater restaurant with a huge aquarium in the middle) and Al Muntaha (a restaurant suspended more than a hundred meters from ground). Ala carte dessert preparation was my main role as a demi chef de partie of that hotel. It set the tone for my future influencing the way I approach my creativity – modern and upbeat.
Al Mahara Restaurant at Burj al Arab Hotel (Photo credit:Sfreelife)
Al Muntaha Restaurant (Photo credit: Jumeirah.com)
MFB: How did you land the job at Etihad?
Nouel: My role in Etihad Airways is Inflight Chef in first class, which seats 8 guests. I return to my real role of a chef patissier, as I prefer to be called, when my feet are back on ground on my days off when I have all the liberty to experiment and design desserts.
The inflight chef role is still in its early years. Etihad Airways has invested a lot of resources developing this new title as it has definitely created a unique selling point for the high-end market who want fine-dining experience at 36,000 feet. As I love traveling, working there is like living a dream.
Etihad Airways A380 First Class (Photo credit:Svenluckermans)
I expose the life of an inflight chef in my upcoming book, Nouel’s Nifty Chic Baking. It will reveal to you what it is really like to be cooking up in the air!
MFB: Please tell us about the book you’re launching this year.
Nouel: In college, I heard one of my professors saying there are three things one must do before life snaps out of you: plant a tree, father a child or write a book.
Since my high school days, I always loved to write. Over the years, I kept thinking about a book idea. It wasn’t until I joined Etihad Airways that I had a light-bulb moment. I also had the opportunity of time to act on my writing dream. With the help of a few esteemed collaborators, I drafted my first baking book, entitled Nouel’s Nifty Chic Baking.
The book is on its final stages of refinement. However, the conceptualization started back in 2013. I never thought it would take this much time to create a book. Nevertheless, it’s a relief that the people who helped me put this together want nothing but the best. As we say in the kitchen, good food takes time!
This book is a collection of my various interpretation of classical recipes bordering mostly on modern concepts. I am a huge believer of keeping the classics alive by transforming them into something well-received in the current times. I am a nostalgic person and we must respect heritage – wherever it is from.
Nouel’s Tablea Souffle Pancake
Interestingly enough, some recipes showcase my Filipino heritage. I used tablea and choc-nut as part of the ingredients and re-interpreted my mother’s custard cake and sylvana conjuring a totally inspiring dessert.
Candied Lemon Mocha Sylvanas (Photo Credit: Dafna Ljubotina)
The book is set for online launching in Amazon in both print (on demand) and e-book formats. Hence, it will be available internationally. I am also planning to launch it back in the Philippines as a way of giving back to my country the success I have achieved through the years.
MFB: About how many Filipinos live in Abu Dhabi? Where does Filipino food stand in the Abu Dhabi food scene?
Nouel: There are about 700,000 Filipinos living in the UAE, 250,000 of them are residing in Abu Dhabi.
We have a steady increase in the number of UAE-grown Filipino restaurants in Abu Dhabi. Popular national brands like Max’s Fried Chicken, Chowking and Jollibee set-up establishments in the Middle East.
Filipino cuisine here or even abroad has not really gained so much momentum and popularity. However, I did hear my foreign friends mentioning a few Filipino restaurants in Abu Dhabi that are of great interest they would actually return to sample other Pinoy fare. For certain, what I do know is in the Philippines, the drive to make our culinary heritage more competitive against other cuisines, especially Asian, is in motion.
I personally believe Filipino chefs are daunted by the already popular cuisines of Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam or China. There is a strong hesitation in putting our own cooking on center stage beyond satisfying the Filipino palates. On the other hand, I have seen very few Filipino chefs in this region who had the opportunity to be trained in the finest kitchens, all the more Michelin-star restaurants, or even simply having the courage to showcase Philippine cooking so it can slowly gain worldwide recognition.
I don’t believe we don’t have a fighting chance. It’s just a matter of having the right Filipino chefs who want to brave the gastronomic world.
As far as my pastry skills are concerned, I do have that motivation of re-creating a Filipino recipe into the new macaron of the century. It just needs commitment and drive to get this realized. I am working on it. And I am hoping for the best. Should my first book provide me the leverage of popularity and respect it deserves, then it would be easier to move to the second step.
Choc-Nut Cream Puffs (Photo credit: Dafna Ljubotina)
MFB: What are the greatest challenges you faced as a chef in the Middle East? What do you consider as your greatest achievements?
Nouel: It is tempting to say my being Filipino already comes with certain prejudices. However, I have proven that belief wrong many times. The challenge has always been how to get the rest of the culinary community to recognize a Filipino chef as at par with any talented contemporary chefs. I remember how my previous boss fought for me to receive the same salary grade and benefits as any European chef. He said, “you have the same skills as any other chefs I interviewed and I still don’t understand why they look at your passport and say you deserve less”.
My greatest achievement has always been being able to rise to the top (having been appointed as the executive pastry chef of various international hotel brands, for example) and having that satisfying feeling you are at par with every other contemporary chef in this world. To be recognized for what you really are worth is the best achievement!
MFB: Have you showcased Filipino-food-inspired pastries/dishes at Etihad?
Pastry-wise, there are several limitations on board the aircraft in the name of safety. However, I do remember cooking Sinigang for one of the nannies of a royal family. I asked her if I could prepare a dish that would keep her comforted on our 14-hour flight. And she said she missed sinigang. Luckily, I had some items that would allow me to do that.
There was also one other flight where I had just one guest in first class. It was his first time flying on first class and with a chef. The moment he found out I was Filipino he asked if I could create something different for him. I was quick to convince him to have a tasting of Filipino greats. I offered a 5-course degustation menu bordering on my versions of adobo, sinigang and ensaladang Pilipino.
MFB: What are your plans in the next few years?
Nouel: I will continue with my role in Etihad Airways until that calling to remain on ground becomes strong enough. I do want to open my own patisserie, an R&D laboratory and consultancy business. I enjoy developing recipes from scratch. I very well reflect on that as a skill I got from my father, who loves to invent.
And I will continue writing books.
MFB: What advice can you give aspiring Filipino chefs in the UAE?
Nouel: Don’t underestimate your heritage. There are many wonderful things about our culture and cuisine. Go against the flow and don’t get into the trap of comfortably falling back into safe spaces. If you feel you don’t have enough confidence or knowledge, invest on them. Financial challenges can’t be denied. However, I barely had money when I first worked overseas. Hence, it is not an excuse. It is a matter of how much you want your future to be like and not what the present can only provide. The more you dream the more that dream comes true.
*Nouel Omamalin is one of the contributing authors of our upcoming book, My Food Beginnings – a collection of Filipino food memoirs.
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