“You have to cook with your heart”
He appears on various TV shows and is amongst the most recognisable chefs in the Middle East. Recently he was in Dubai to organise a MasterClass at Helios, a restaurant at Dubai Marina, where he has designed the menu. A delight to interact with, Chef Joe Barza talks to CookeryPlus about life, food and cooking!
Joe Barza is not your conventional chef. For someone who began his career as a bodyguard, and then sought solace in the kitchen, he is deeply grateful to what life has taught him and he seems to translate this gratitude into the hospitality he showers on every guest, be it just serving them the best possible food or simply extending his generosity in whichever way he can.
His appearance may seem ‘tough’ on the outside, but once you get to talk to him, you realise that the chef in him is as soft and gentle as they come. Talk to him about how he began his career and he simply says, “I grew up in very trying circumstances. Food was the only hope and our survival depended on it. I know how to respect food and I hope this shows in my cooking.”
He has fond memories of his father and grandmother cooking for the whole family and as they belonged to a region called Tyre, in South Lebanon, fish was a staple diet. “If we caught fish, we had food and if we didn’t we would have to go hungry. We learnt how to be creative with fish everyday and even though I didn’t cook at home, I learnt a lot from watching my dad and grandmother.”
At 24, he was as raw as anyone else and he wasn’t enjoying the process of learning the art of cooking in Lebanon. It was his decision to head to South Africa that changed his destiny. “South Africa taught me a lot. It was the experience of 14 nationalities in a single kitchen everyday. And I was just 24 years old and like a sponge learning from anything and everything I saw. In the 5 years I spent in South Africa you could say I worked as much as a person would work for 15 years. It was almost 24 hours of work everyday and I was hungry to learn. This hunger kept me going.”
On his return to Lebanon at age 30, a lot of avenues opened up for him and today he is grateful for those tough years. “During those days I was not comfortable telling the father of my wife, what my profession was. But today, that’s not the case. Avenues for chefs have opened up and it’s a very respectable profession. I am very proud of this.” He reiterates this by pointing out that 20 years back, chefs from the Middle East were not popular internationally, but today they are among the most well known chefs in the world. People have started recognising the potential of the individual as well as the richness of the cuisine and the culture of the Middle East. There is no doubt about the pride he has for his culture and his desire to share richness with his food.
So does he believe that ‘French cuisine is the mother of all cuisines’? “There is history and heritage to support their claim and there is no denying the richness. However I can never better French cuisine or any other international cuisine. I can only understand it and attempt it but what I can do better is what my own culture and tradition has offered me and I am continuing to do that.” And this claim is well supported by the long list of awards that Chef Joe Barza has amassed during the last 2 decades. From winning the Salon Culinaire to being a judge on it and being a co-host of Emmy award winning television show ‘TOP CHEF’, Middle Eastern version, Joe Barza seems to have done and achieved it all.
And he does have a favourite ingredient. Most chefs seem to be diplomatic and never seem to respond to this question unless you persist, but not Chef Joe Barza. “I like the ‘freekeh’. It’s smoked green wheat that’s typically from the region and it is very healthy. I like the way they smoke it. It is an alternative to rice and is a big national treasure.”
So does he find it different to cook in a restaurant as compared to cooking at home? “No, it’s the same thing. A cook is an artist and whether he is cooking for family and friends at home or for customers in a restaurant, he has to put his heart into the cooking. Otherwise food will not taste the way it should. Passion and love for cooking shows in the taste of the food you serve and to me, there is no difference in cooking at home or cooking in a restaurant or cooking for prisoners in a jail. I love doing it all. The system may change a bit but the end result is the same.” Interesting thoughts from a very interesting personality.
Move the conversation to fusion cuisine and he gets a little serious. Fusion cuisine, according to him, is not about experimentation but rather a process that involves in-depth knowledge of food as well as cultures and tradition. “One can’t just mix cuisines and call it fusion. To be a true fusion artist, one has to really understand each and every aspect of the ingredient and also it is very important to understand and respect the cultures involved. It’s not just food you are mixing, it’s the combination of different cultures. Doing it without really understanding it or respecting it is wrong.”
So what excites him about food? “The food itself! I enjoy the smell, love the colour and savour the freshness. It activates all the senses in the body”, he respond spontaneously. The whole process of cooking and serving and ensuring that his art has helped feed another person is his reward. He truly enjoys what he does and it shows when this tough- looking character serves you his creation and looks at you anxiously for your response. Your appreciation to his food reflects in his expression and in that wide smile you can see what he means by ‘I give back in my cooking the gratitude of what the last 24 years have given me.’
We love your food, Chef Joe Barza and we appreciate your generosity with all our heart.