by Iyath Adam
For our interview article this time, we interview Chef Mariyam Najfa – better known as Naju Rachey – a consultant chef who has made the menus for some noteworthy restaurants.
Read on to find where, and more about her process and experience as a chef consultant in the Maldives!
Lonumedhu: First things first, tell us a little bit about yourself. What sparked your interest in the culinary field?
Naju: My grandmother was a cook, and I was always interested in cooking, even when I was little. When I was studying for my O Levels, my father took me aside one day and asked what I wanted to become. At the time, my older sister was studying to become a chef in Malaysia. I think everyone expected me to go forward in accounting and get a job in that field, but that didn’t really interest me, and I was never really into theoretical studies. So,I told my dad that I would like to study culinary arts as well. I went to study in KDU College in Malaysia. So that’s how it started.
Lonumedhu: What has your experience been in the industry so far?
Naju: During studies, we had to do industrial training for six months, and I did mine in Male’. I worked at Four Seasons for four months and in Bandos Island Resort for two months. I also worked at Nasandhura Hotel for a while.
While I was studying, I got the opportunity to make the menu of Seagull, which they used for a while. Because of that, I thought that making menus and doing consulting work would be a really good way to go forward and that’s what I do mostly. Some notable places I’ve made the menu for include, Blue Bay, Marine Drive and Kavarana. And currently, I am the consultant for Patio restaurant which recently opened in Hulhumale’.
Lonumedhu: What does being a consultant entail?
Naju: Consulting work includes staff hiring, staff training as well as menu making. For example, let’s take Patio. The management reached out and asked for me to make the menu and pick out a team for them. So, I went to Sri Lanka and chose my team. Then, I discussed with the management what kind of dishes they want or what kind of feel they want the restaurant to have. After that, I choose certain dishes which I feel would go well with what they want. Then, I sit with the team and the head chef, and we slowly compile recipes and test them out. The final dishes are then given for approval and if the management is happy with the dish, it will go on the menu.
In my case, making a menu is a long process. I like to be inspired by the restaurant itself and any dish will be customised to fit that. All my recipes are created on the spot. I might take inspiration from online articles or dishes, but the final dish will depend on my mood and what I feel when I go into the kitchen at that day. And I only put-up foods that I find delicious. For instance, there won’t be a lot of sweet dishes on the Patio menu, because I’m not a very dessert person (laughs).
Lonumedhu: Where do you draw inspiration for new dishes or plating designs? What do you focus on the most?
Naju: I like to follow the current trends when I’m plating. These days, any plate will first reach social media before it reaches our mouths. So, I like to plate dishes that will both look good in pictures and make you want to eat it. For all consultancy work that I’ve done, all the menu photos are real, edible dishes, no food swaps made to make the dish look more appealing, and that’s what I always strive for.
Lonumedhu: Do you have a favourite ingredient?
Naju: Garlic and potato. Definitely two of my favourites. They’re so delicious!
Lonumedhu: There must be many chefs that you admire or look up to. Who would you say is your favourite chef?
Naju: My grandmother. She was a very good, very talented chef. The first dish I learnt from her was dhonkeyo kaju or banana fritters, which is a very fond childhood memory of mine. Internationally speaking, Anthony Bourdain is one of my favourite chefs too. He’s very real, and blunt – kind of like me (laughs).
Lonumedhu: What do you hope to achieve next in the culinary field?
Naju: A long-time dream of mine is coming true very soon, hopefully. And I hope you guys come as well. That’s all I want to say for the moment!
Lonumedhu: What’s your advice to aspiring young chefs?
Naju: This is an amazing field, but only if you are really willing to give it the time and energy. When I was studying in college, a lecturer once asked – in a hall of about a hundred students – who wanted to be free during holidays, Eid, Christmas, Halloween etc… and only about four students didn’t raise their hands. I was one of them. And I remember him saying that all the students who did raise their hand can leave this field, because it requires a lot of hard work. So, that’s what I want to say too. If you have the passion for it, and dedication, this will absolutely be the right field for you.
Lonumedhu: Is there anything else you want to add before we end the interview?
Naju: Yes, a huge thank you to my mother. My father was the one who facilitated my education but when he passed away, my mother was the one who took on his mantle and ensured that me and my sisters succeeded. So, I want to really highlight that and give that dedication to my mamma.
Lonumedhu: That’s really sweet, Naju. Thank you so much for your time, and yes, we hope to see your long-time dream come true as well!