Ayyoub Salameh, the executive chef at The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort, on his Jordanian mother’s inspirational cooking, his culinary guilty pleasure, and unleashing his dancing talents
Words by Charlotte Hogarth-Jones
Chef Ayyoub Salameh has a passion for creating contemporary, elegant new dishes, and has cooked everywhere from Milan and Florence to The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort. Today, he oversees the island’s four restaurants, serving up delicious Mediterranean and Asian cuisine – as well as some of his Jordanian mother’s tried and tested secret recipes.
Who taught you to cook?I definitely got my palate from my mother. She’s an incredible chef, who makes everything from scratch. Our basement in Jordan is full of homemade preserves. Every couple of months she’d bring out something different to surprise us. In the restaurant today I do the same, from pickling green beans and cauliflower to making chili sauce and fresh Japanese mayonnaise.
What food did you grow up on?We’d start every day with a halloumi omelet, a plate of arugula and tomato, and some freshly baked saffron bread. Our parents would make my brothers and me have salty olives, too, to remind us to stay hydrated, and we’d have spicy extra-virgin olive oil, made from the olives in our garden.
Can you remember the first thing your mother taught you to cook?Saffron rice. I didn’t want to learn how to make it because I thought it was so basic. But she told me that if you can cook incredible rice, then you’ll always be able to cook everything perfectly, because that’s the hardest thing to do.
Where’s home for you when you’re not in the Maldives?Melbourne – there’s no foodie destination like it. As soon as my plane lands I’ll head straight to South Melbourne Market, and buy all my vegetables, fish, cheese. Then I’ll head to Gazi, a great Greek restaurant, or Corda, an amazing Thai place, both run by old friends.
What do you do when you’re not cooking?I never miss the gym. I’ve lost over 42 lbs since May, but I don’t go for health reasons – I just like to start my day energized. If I don’t get there by 2.30pm then I feel like a zombie.
What’s your guilty pleasure food?Steak. If I’m good, I’ll have 300g of lean, grass-fed rib-eye. If I’m feeling naughty, I’ll get a lovely piece of grain-fed Australian beef that’s a lot fattier.
How long does it take you to create new recipes?It depends. I come up with something new each morning, often after chatting to guests at dinner the night before, but other dishes take much longer. It took us two-and-a-half months to develop the perfect pastrami. I have one rule: if it doesn’t satisfy me, then it’ll never go out to my customers.
Who is your greatest inspiration?Sergio Mei, a wonderful Milanese chef. He was more than 70 years old when I worked with him, and I learned so much. The most important thing he taught me was how to train people. It’s not enough to be a great chef; you have to develop a team of equally good cooks in your kitchen, too.
What’s the strangest request you’ve ever had?A guest once asked for a saffron and black truffle risotto, but without the rice, – so it was basically just a bowl of truffles. I did it, and he was very happy. In fact he asked for truffles for breakfast the next day, too.
What’s on your kitchen playlist?Every morning in the kitchen we sing All The Way Up by Fat Joe and Remy Ma after our meeting. It makes the team happy, which makes me happy. Sometimes I even unleash my dancing talents.
Is there a culinary trend you detest?I find it sad when people try to turn very simple dishes into haute cuisine, but end up sacrificing flavor. I had a tom yum soup recently where the essence was cubes of jelly, broth was poured over the top, there was some dry ice, and the chicken was powdered. It might seem “wow”, but the flavors were completely lost, and that’s what cooking is all about: flavor.
Your address: The St. Regis Maldives Vommuli Resort