Name and Background: Ali Benali, Moroccan, 44 years old. married with 2 boys and 1 girl.
Education: University Degree in Business Administration, Culinary Diplomas from Emirates Academy in association with L’Ecole Hoteliere De Lausanne.
Current position: Executive Chef and the main driving force behind Makkah Clock Royal Tower’s, a Fairmont Hotel’s food and beverage team. Lead a brigade of 264 culinary devotees within 9 outlets and 15 kitchens. Restaurants supervised include: Atyaf (all-day buffet style dining), Aja (Asian), The Grill (fine-dining steakhouse), Al Dar (Lebanese), Al Dira (the first five-star Saudi restaurant in the Kingdom), Bharat (Indian), Zan (Iranian), and the Fairmont’s delightful cafes: Mirkaz and Mazaq.
How did it all start?
I grew up in the in the Atlas Mountains, with its famed cedar forests and traditional villages. People used the area’s generous soil to grow their own produce. My favorite places back home were the kitchens in the souk. Each tribe would rent a small room and prepare lunch in clay pots on the wood fire. It was a joy for me to walk around those kitchens and to admire the creativity of the tribe chefs. They were creating food from products they grew in their own soil for their families.
As a child, I learned 2 main principles: first to respect food as it is a gift from God, and second to live life with discipline. A lot of this came from my mother, who was a great cook, and my father who was a brave soldier (he fought under the French army in Korea in 1955). He was also a “bon viveur” – a person who truly enjoyed life!
As an Executive Chef, what are the key principles behind your culinary style?
Because of my respect for food, I forged a very authentic and classical culinary style. At Makkah Clock Royal Tower, a Fairmont Hotel, we strongly believe that food should have a personality and character. It should be healthy, attractive and tasty.
With regards to discipline, I learned to lead and achieve by respecting my peers and developing a sense of camaraderie in the kitchen.
What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?
I have always been a part of winning teams, and we’ve accomplished a great deal of success over the years in Makkah Clock Royal Tower. One of our recent achievements at the hotel was during last Ramadan when we catered a high profile event which included the King, 9500 VIP guests, 69 heads of Islamic states and 650 Islamic ministers!
What’s a regular day like in your kitchen?
My day in the kitchen is a very full. My approach is based on a blend of hard work, passion, emotion, teamwork, success, happiness and reward. Then hit repeat for the next day!
Last thing you cooked for yourself?
Shrimp Tom Yam Kung, I love Asian food and seafood!
Favorite food as a child?
Fried fresh baby anchovies…the ones you eat with the bones! We used to get them in Agadir port, in these amazing “frying stations” beside the fishermen’s boats. They are a very popular street food. The cook would buy the fresh anchovies from the fishermen when they returned from their trips and fry them on the spot! They would be served with a quarter piece of raw onion, green chili, and freshly baked bread.
Something in your fridge or freezer that would surprise people?
We (Makkah Clock Royal Tower, a Fairmont Hotel) have over SAR 2 million worth of food in our chillers and freezers, which will be served and consumed in the next 15 days or so.
As a young chef, were you ever inspired by a meal or dish in particluar?
“Paupiettes de Sole au Crevette” (Stuffed Sole fillet with Shrimp) was my first inspirational French gastronomic dish (when I was 20 years old).
Last restaurant you ate at?
I always look for unusual spots, because I have a pretty good idea about what well -known restaurant would serve. However, places like food Bazaars always bring surprises and new knowledge about different ethnic foods. My last meal was in a Yemeni restaurant where we had mutton feet soup and boiled mutton head!
The dish on your menu that will follow you wherever you go?
Shermoula stuffed veal pancreas.
What are your guilty pleasures?
Right now, 85% Chili Dark Chocolate (before going to bed.)
How do you think the industry will develop over the years?
When you read something like this from tourism authority officials: “The tourism authority has announced it aims to attract 88 million tourists by 2020 as the Kingdom focuses on developing religious tourism and business travel in particular,” you definitely feel astonished! You feel like you are part of an international mega project in every way. These developments will of course drive other economic sectors. I call this period the “hospitality metamorphose of Makkah!” All the leading 5 star hospitality names have started to understand that the Makkah market is a stable and powerful hub.
Your thoughts on the expansion of the Haram and its surrounding?
As a first step, this project involves the expansion of the Mataf (20 meters wide) at all levels. This will help accommodate a capacity crowd of more than 200,000 worshippers, including the terrace which will reportedly accommodate around 130, 000 pilgrims. This means that Government is working hard to give more Muslims from around the globe the opportunity to perform their spiritual journeys in comfort, by upgrading all the facilities in the Haram and its surroundings.
This is our main objective at Makkah Clock Royal Tower, a Fairmont hotel- to fuse modern comfort and signature hospitality in this amazing spiritual setting.
To find out more about our restaurants please visit Fairmont Makkah Dining