Culinary Chronicles with Mohamed Shujau, Chef de cuisine at Kalhu Odi Maldivian Restaurant at Crossroads Marina

PUBLISHED April 02, 2024

In this Islandchief edition, we spoke with Mohamed Shujau, Chef de Cuisine at Kalhu Odi Maldivian Restaurant. His culinary journey began surrounded by the scents of fish prepared by his mother and grandmother, sparking a lifelong passion. Shujau eschewed traditional academics for a path of culinary exploration, honing his skills in prestigious kitchens worldwide. From Bangkok to Singapore, Texas to Egypt, his 15-year odyssey has shaped his vision for the future of gastronomy. Chef Shujau now shares his inspiring story and tantalizing culinary vision with Islandchief readers.

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in culinary arts?

Initially, my aspirations leaned towards becoming an electronic technician. However, what truly reshaped my path was the apprenticeship program orchestrated by Four Seasons. Through this experience, I realized that the culinary world offers not just a profession, but a platform for garnering respect and humility from patrons, consumers, or clients. As one progresses and accumulates experience, there's a parallel ascent in income and the fortification of leadership skills to helm teams. My inspiration stemmed from luminaries like Chef Kjell Kollin from Sweden and Chef Frank from France during my apprenticeship journey. Recognizing the scarcity of culinary professionals, I saw an enticing opportunity not only to immerse myself in this domain but also to pave the way for future recruits to meet burgeoning demands.

2. Reflecting on your upbringing surrounded by food in Addu, how did your family’s culinary tradition influence your approach to cooking professionally?

Growing up in the vibrant culinary landscape of Addu in the Maldives, I was immersed in a tapestry of flavors curated by my grandmothers' palates. Their culinary artistry instilled in me a deep appreciation for authenticity, a sentiment seamlessly carried forward by my mother, who masterfully reproduced those flavors without compromise. Each dish she crafted exuded richness and an irresistible allure, be it during intimate family gatherings, lively parties, or solemn religious ceremonies.

However, as I ventured beyond the confines of familial kitchens, I observed a dearth of these locally-inspired delicacies in the surrounding restaurants, a realization that fueled my ambition. Determined to share the essence of our culinary heritage with a wider audience, I embarked on a mission to elevate these traditional dishes, imbuing them with innovative presentations and irresistible appeal, thereby bridging the gap between cherished tradition and contemporary gastronomy.

3. Could you share a pivotal moment or experience during your apprenticeship at Four Seasons that significantly helped shake your journey?

During my apprenticeship at Four Seasons, I was fortunate to work closely with the Executive Sous Chef, who became my mentor. I shadowed him diligently, observing his daily routines from the crack of dawn till dusk. One aspect that particularly caught my attention was the meticulousness with which he conducted supply receiving. Every item was scrutinized without exception, leaving no stone unturned.

Curiosity got the better of me, and I couldn't help but ask, "Why?" The chef, rather than brushing off my inquiries, commended my inquisitiveness. He remarked that for every question I posed, he would offer three answers—a philosophy that struck a chord with me.

From that pivotal moment onward, I made it my mission to pose a hundred questions daily, aiming to garner three hundred answers. This thirst for knowledge became my driving force throughout my training, propelling me forward on my culinary odyssey.

4. You mention excellence in Japanese cuisine during your training. What aspects of Japanese culinary artistry resonate with you the most?

My fascination with Japanese cuisine stemmed from a convergence of factors. Firstly, the scarcity of proficient chefs in the region at that time piqued my interest in diversifying my culinary repertoire. Concurrently, Japanese cuisine enjoys global acclaim for its precision and emphasis on health-conscious preparation techniques.

Recognizing the potential for Maldives to cultivate a cadre of skilled chefs to meet burgeoning opportunities, I was drawn to the meticulousness and nutritional benefits inherent in Japanese culinary practices.

Moreover, I encountered a prevailing misconception in our community that sushi equates to raw food, a fallacy I endeavored to rectify. By elucidating the distinction between sashimi, the raw sliced delicacy, and sushi, which involves rice and various ingredients, I aimed to broaden culinary horizons and dispel culinary myths.

Given our abundant marine resources teeming with seafood treasures, mastering Japanese cuisine seemed not only logical but also strategically advantageous for my culinary journey.

5. Throughout your career spanning various locations and cuisines, which culinary style or technique challenged you the most and how did you overcome it?

One culinary technique that presented a formidable challenge was mastering the art of Tamagoyaki. Achieving the perfect temperature, delicately folding the egg in thin layers, and meticulously avoiding scorching over an open flame in a square copper pan—all while ensuring the final product emerges in a pristine rectangle shape—demanded precision and finesse. To conquer this culinary feat, I dedicated countless hours to practice, refining my technique through relentless repetition until I could execute it with unwavering confidence.

Another culinary frontier that proved daunting was the intricate world of BBQ and smoking. The nuances of managing long cooking times, experimenting with various woods, navigating between direct and indirect heat, exploring different regions' barbecue traditions, and discerning between coals, wood, and fossilized wood presented an ongoing learning curve that spans a lifetime. Despite the challenges, each endeavor into the realm of BBQ and smoking enriched my culinary repertoire, underscoring the notion that mastery is an ever-evolving journey marked by perpetual discovery.

Early in my career, I grappled with the daunting task of conceptualizing and presenting new dishes on the menu. However, through experience and perseverance, I've cultivated the confidence to structure menus and craft dishes tailored to the unique concept of each restaurant. Whether it's a cozy eatery emphasizing simplicity and heartwarming flavors or a sophisticated establishment catering to discerning palates, I've learned to adapt, ensuring that each presentation embodies a balance of culinary artistry and rustic charm. This evolution reflects the dynamic expectations of guests, who seek not only culinary excellence but also an immersive dining experience characterized by thoughtful presentation and genuine hospitality.

6. As Chef De Cuisine, what strategies did you implement to ensure consistency and excellence in the dishes served at Kalhu Odi?

At Kalhu Odi, my foremost objective was to ensure that every dish encapsulated the essence of local hospitality and flavor, leaving a lasting impression on our patrons with every single bite. Central to this vision was the meticulous sourcing of ingredients from local producers, guaranteeing the authenticity and distinctiveness of each flavor profile.

To uphold consistency in both presentation and taste, I implemented standardized recipes, meticulously calibrated to ensure uniform portion sizes and a consistently impeccable culinary aesthetic. In streamlining our menu offerings, I prioritized dishes that showcased the richness of flavor without unnecessary complexity, facilitating swift service without compromising on quality.

Equally crucial was fostering a culture of continuous improvement and collaboration among my team. Through comprehensive cross-training across all kitchen stations, we mitigated operational bottlenecks and empowered each member to contribute to the creative process. This not only bolstered team morale but also nurtured a spirit of innovation, enabling us to seamlessly adapt to the diverse culinary preferences of our discerning clientele.

7. How do you balance preserving traditional Maldivian flavors while also incorporating modern culinary trends into your menu offerings? 

Maldivian cuisine, a fusion of Indian, Sri Lankan, Arab, and Asian influences, boasts a vibrant tapestry of flavors that tantalize the taste buds. My approach revolves around honoring this rich culinary heritage while incorporating contemporary elements to offer a fresh perspective without veering into ostentation. It's gratifying to hear feedback from customers who remark that my cooking evokes memories of their grandmothers' flavors—an affirmation of my commitment to preserving authenticity while embracing innovation.

To cater to diverse palates, I've seamlessly integrated local flavors into my recipes, adding an exciting dimension to the dining experience. By juxtaposing traditional ingredients with modern presentation techniques, I strive to create dishes that resonate with both Maldivian tradition and international culinary sensibilities.

8. From your insight of extensive International experience, how do you navigate cultural differences in taste preferences and dining expectations when developing menus?

When developing menus, my primary focus is on showcasing locally sourced ingredients abundant in Maldivian islands while imbuing each dish with a contemporary Western aesthetic and service standard. It's about striking a delicate balance where flavors remain authentic yet presentation undergoes a subtle transformation. Key to this approach is the judicious use of aromatic herbs to elevate taste profiles and ensure a memorable dining experience.

For instance, Garudhiya, a traditional fish broth, is reimagined as a sophisticated soup brimming with authentic flavors, offering a nuanced interpretation that appeals to discerning palates. By marrying traditional recipes with modern culinary techniques, I aim to bridge cultural divides and foster a deeper appreciation for Maldivian gastronomy on a global scale.

9. Could you elaborate on your biggest challenge while working in the industry and achievements that have helped in your personnel career trajectory?

One of the greatest challenges I faced was enduring grueling twelve-hour shifts without a weekly off for nine consecutive months, owing to a shortage of replacement chefs and the absence of labor laws at the time. This experience underscored the urgent need for talent development and recruitment within the industry, motivating me to cultivate the next generation of culinary professionals.

On a brighter note, my proudest achievement lies in being recognized as a brand ambassador by every company I've worked for. This acknowledgment has opened doors to numerous opportunities for growth, including participation in task forces and exposure to diverse culinary environments, facilitating my career advancement.

10. Looking ahead, what are your aspirations for the future of Maldivian cuisine and how do you envision contributing to its evolution?

My vision for the future of Maldivian cuisine revolves around nurturing a cadre of skilled chefs who will continue to innovate and elevate our culinary offerings. By empowering the chefs I've trained to develop compelling menus and create locally inspired dishes, I aim to catalyze a culinary renaissance that garners widespread recognition, perhaps even attaining Michelin star status. Ultimately, my goal is to propel Maldivian cuisine onto the global stage, where it can rightfully claim its place among the world's culinary elite.


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