Food is something that has the power “to give us comfort and joy. It should never make us feel bad,” says Tala Bashmi, a Bahraini chef who clearly knows what she is talking about as her views resonate with a lot of people.
Young, bold and extremely talented, Tala made headlines recently when she was judged Best Female Chef 2022 of the debut edition of Mena's 50 Best Restaurants.
Often referred as the voice of “modern Bahraini cuisine,” the chef-patron of Fusions by Tala was presented with the inaugural award at a function at Abu Dhabi earlier last month.
For nearly four years now, Tala has been having patrons at the boutique restaurant, which forms part of the iconic Gulf Hotel in Bahrain, quite literally eating out of her hands. Most known for her explorative and innovative recipes with an underlying regard to traditional regional cuisine, she believes in celebrating tradition. One such example off her menu is “ghoozi tacos.” (Ghoozi is an Arabic dish usually served during celebrations consisting of cooked lamb served on a bed of aromatic rice sprinkled with onions, raisins, cashews, and lentils.)
“Bahrain is small in size, but its cuisine is big on flavour,” says the award-winning chef, in an exclusive interview to Friday. “The country’s population is almost a 50 per cent of expatriates and so everyone brings their own identity. Also, Bahrain used to be an integral part of a busy trade route. So, we have had that cultural exchange with food for centuries now, which has transmitted into our cuisine.”
While striving to maintain the essence of the traditional cuisine, Tala places a larger focus on her diners. “For me it’s not just about the dishes, it is also about the mentality of people towards food that I am trying to change,” she says. “I always use the example of famous Italian chef Massimo Bottura who served three pieces of tortellini to a crowd of Italians; they just lost it! In our cultures there is a concept of consuming large quantities of food – this is because of our mentality. I find that a lot more challenging than to transform a traditional dish to modern. It’s something I fight against on a regular basis.”
The culinary journey
Born and raised in the tiny but cosy island, a neighbour of the UAE, Tala grew up in the lap of warmth and influences defined by a nurtured childhood. Be it trips to the fish and vegetable markets with her father, picking fresh produce from her mother’s vegetable garden, or enjoying her favourite Bahraini dishes prepared by her grandmother, memories of a precious childhood remain the foundation of her interest in cooking and food.
“As a child I was very fond of food. My father taught me all about the ingredients. He would tell us stories about the history and culture of Middle Eastern cuisine. My paternal grandmother always made and piled my plate high with favourite Bahraini dishes. I still use her recipes, and in fact, have added one of her best ones to our menu at the restaurant. The recipe is her own and I have kept the essence of it entirely, only changing the presentation. This is what gives me comfort even today, the memories of her food and recipes.”
Thats said, Tala’s induction into cooking was through baking. Pleased with the immense joy her dishes brought to the faces of those she served, she entered the world of cooking through ‘Baked by T’ – which became an instant hit in Bahrain. It didn’t take long for a clutch of social media awards to come her way. She then joined The Gulf Hotel Bahrain as a trainee and worked her way up before deciding to take a break to puruse her Masters of International Business in Culinary Management at the Culinary Arts Academy, Cesar Ritz, Lucerne, Switzerland. During her time here, she worked at Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois and the 1 Michelin star Prisma, where she experienced both what a restaurant should be and what it shouldn’t.
On completion of her course, she moved back to the Middle East, where she participated at the renowned MBC show Top Chef (Middle East & North Africa) competition, reaching the final, before heading home to Bahrain to open her inaugural restaurant, Fusions by Tala.
At her restaurant, Tala prides herself in her daring spirit and willingness to experiment with a range of ingredients and techniques that come from different parts of the world. Her approach to welcome her diners is to first observe them and understand how adventurous they can be. “I like to think I can read the guest when I see them – what they would like to order and what they would like to eat. It is also something I have to ask of my service. For instance, one of the questions we ask is whether they eat raw meat. In our part of the world, eating raw is not common, especially among the older generation. It reveals a lot about how willing, or not, they are towards trying something new. I have had people request for extra well done meat – and it really hurts, I am not going to lie!”
With her recent achievement, she hopes she can attract diners who are more open to new ideas and tastes. “I hope we can have more people who are willing to trust me and what I am trying to do, and are also willing to try something new.”
Paving the road ahead
In becoming the Mena's first female chef to win the coveted award, Tala welcomes the huge responsibility of being an inspiration to young girls and women in pursuing a career in culinary world. “It is a big responsibility but I feel I am happy to carry it and inspire people in general, and women in particular, to participate in the field. I hope it brings them joy the same way it does for me.”
With more options available for food enthusiasts who wish to take up culinary courses, Tala believes there could be an increased number of females in the field willing to consider being a chef as a career choice. That said, she also feels that there is a significant dearth of hospitality institutes and centres that focus on Arabic and Middle Eastern cuisine. While the existing offerings focus primarily on international, European or continental cuisine, there are few to none that offer training in Arabic cuisine. “I think this region needs to teach the foundation of Arabic and Middle Eastern cuisine. We continue learning French cuisine as our foundation when we need to know more about our own food and study and develop it to reach that level. This has been happening for years. This region has the means to support and fill this gap – they need to shift their focus. In the same way you study art history, you need to study food history. This is important for chefs to know and understand before they decide to embark on their careers, lest they become copies of each other.”
She believes that being the first person to do anything is always going to be difficult because one has the responsibility to pave the way ahead.
“Whether you are the first child, or first in anything else, you will face challenges because there is no road ahead – you have to pave it. Those coming after you may not find the road easy, but they will have a path to follow in the least. Within the hotel I was the first female Arab head chef, and people are not always receptive to working under a female head chef. And how many women are there in the field that are around? Not many. It is about having to change the way we think – I’m not a woman chef, I am a chef. Period.”
‘Difficulties shape you’
She is well aware of the fact that there will be challenges on her road to success. While Tala faced and successfully manoeuvred through obstacles at her workplace, she also had a brief difficult phase in her personal life. While living in Switzerland as a student and intern, her family was going through a rough patch back home. Her older sister who was in the US was fighting cancer. At about the same time she lost her grandmother. Alone in Switzerland, and working 18-hour shifts that left her with swollen feet gave her no solace of any sort. “That was the point I felt I couldn’t go another day. I felt like I wanted to be with my family. However, I pushed through it and decided I am going to get up, and I am going to show up and I am going to do this – and I need to do this to get where I needed to reach.”
Today, seven years on, with her family safe and healthy, she feels she would not have done anything different. “It has been a long road. Those who don’t know me don’t know what it took me to get where I am. People generally only see the tip of the iceberg. I wouldn’t change anything because that is what shaped me – difficulties shape you. When your path is easy, you will not be the greatest you can be. So I am thankful. I learned that I am very, very, very resilient – and that is what has been my biggest strength through everything.”
Tala’s resilience and her absolute passion for food and the work she does has brought her to the forefront where many have shied away from reaching so far. A testament to her commitment is the many accolades she has to her name today.
Quick bites with Tala Bashmi
Favourite chefs: Andoni Luis Aduriz from Restaurante Muaritz; Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz from Alinea. They are all based on their philosophy and how they approach food, although I have not tasted their foods yet. They all think out of the box – their theatrics and concept of dining keep diners thinking.
Soul food: Chicken broth soup
An ingredient that I must have in my kitchen: Salt. I use eight different types of salt in my kitchen.
On veganism: I think it’s the way forward. When you have a standalone restaurant, you can decide what you serve. However, as part of a hotel you have to be mindful of customer expectation. I am a lot more aware of what I serve and what I do not. It is very hard for a chef nowadays to create ethical food. I am much aware and try to limit certain items. I think vegetable base is the way forward. A trend would be to serve a blue dessert.
On work-life balance: I have dedicated all of my time to what I do. I have missed a lot of special occasions, and since the pandemic my mentality has shifted towards valuing the importance these moment. So now, I am planning towards finding a balance and working towards it.
If I was not a chef... I would have been lost, I don’t see myself doing anything else.
Awards and recognition
• MBC Top Chef Season 4 Finalist. Winning 4 challenges in a row including quarter-final and semi-final
• Co-host of Vice Arabia and Munchies series ‘Mal Awaal’ Showing on Munchies global, and Vice Arabia Channels
• Runner-up – Bahrain Delonghi Chef Competition competition (2017) at The Ritz Carlton Bahrain
• Runner-up – ‘Chopped’ competition judged by Chef Wolfgang Puck (2015) at his Four Season’s Bahrain Restaurant The Cut.
• Bronze Medal – Dubai World Hospitality Championship (2014) as member of the Bahrain team.
• IAA Social Media Award (2013)
• Personal home business ‘Baked by T’ social media account awarded by Information Affairs Authority (Bahrain)
• TCBY Frozen Yogurt Co. collaboration (2013) Invitation to collaborate on new yogurt flavour as ‘Baked by T’