Chef of the Week: Chef Sobah of Soneva Fushi, Best Chef in the Maldives
Maldivian born and bred, Chef Sobah is considered one of the pioneers of modern Maldivian cuisine. Chef Sobah has earned many distinctions and in 2015, he won the covetted ‘Best Chef in the Maldives’ award.
Chef Sobah serves as Chef de Cuisine at Soneva Fushi’s Mihiree Mithaa, one of the best restaurants in the Maldives.
We talked to Chef Sobah about his culinary background, Maldivian cuisine, his signature dish and more.
What inspired you to become a Chef?
From when I was a child I was always interested in food. My aunties were great cooks and they were my first inspiration. The Maldivian cuisine was not very well known, and I thought it would be nice if I could create something around local food that makes Maldivian cuisine renowned.
Where did you train to cook? Do you recommend formal training for someone who wants to become a chef (i.e. culinary school)?
I studied at the Faculty of Hospitality in the Maldives and this gave me a very good base. I come from a family with long traditions in local cuisine, so I learned a lot from those around me as I was growing up. When I became a chef at Soneva, I had the opportunity to work with some of the most famous chefs around the world. I learned, and still learn every day, a great deal from them. I think formal training is really important as it sets the base. Creativity and personal interest can help you shape your style but without a solid base, it will be difficult.
Tell us a bit about traditional Maldivian cuisine. What defines it and what are some of the most popular Maldivian dishes?
Maldivian cuisine has evolved over time since travelers started visiting the Maldives many years ago. While our cuisine is a melting pot of different cuisine influenced by the countries around us like India and Sri Lanka, it has actually developed into its own unique cuisine.
For a long time, Maldivian cuisine was defined by what we could grow here or what we could bring and keep for a long time but nowadays one can get almost anything in the Maldives, so our cuisine is still evolving.
Garudhiya is arguably our most famous dish in the Maldives and is an aromatic spicy fish soup
Coconut, fish, mostly tuna, and starch remain our staple though, but thanks to the abundance of spices we have, we created several curries that are incredibly delicious and unique to the Maldives. Garudhiya is arguably our most famous dish in the Maldives and is an aromatic spicy fish soup. There are so many great dishes here like Kulhi Boakiba – local fish cakes made of smoked tuna, coconut, and chili.
You are a champion of Maldivian cuisine. What challenges do you see to make Maldivian cuisine more popular both locally and internationally?
Thank you. There are quite a few challenges because we do not have many chefs that are experienced or knowledgeable in Maldivian cuisine. In fact, it’s the moms, aunties, and grandmas that are most likely our best chefs when it comes to our cuisine.
My goal is to keep these traditions alive by visiting schools and doing cooking classes and demos with children so hopefully, I can inspire some of them to become a chef too.
On the international front, it is even harder because Maldivian cuisine is not well known, so we have to work harder to get guests to our dining tables when we organize something overseas but for sure everyone who dines with us, leaves a changed person; in love with Maldivian cuisine whilst learning something truly new.
You have won many awards and distinctions. What is the next competition and award you have set your eyes on?
Thank you very much and yes, I have won several medals. Nowadays I mostly end up being a judge on those competitions. I get invited to all the competitions in the Maldives and sometimes overseas as well. It’s different to be on the other side but it’s a role I enjoy very much. It’s my personal goal however to gain a Michelin star for my cuisine. I hope Michelin will be coming to the Maldives as that is the ultimate prize for a chef.
Tell us a bit about your collaboration with Soneva. How did it happen and what attracted you to it?
Soneva is such a strong name in the Maldives. We are pioneers in fine cuisine and in fact we are the first to bring fine dining chefs as part of the culinary team. Before Soneva, there were no fine-dining chefs in the Maldives. It was my dream to work for a brand like Soneva and one day I took a shot when I heard there may be a vacancy. On my cook-off trial, I surprised them by cooking a fish underground, something that they were not doing at Soneva at the time. I was pretty much hired when they tasted that fish! It has been an amazing journey and the Executive Chef at that time was experienced in molecular cuisine, so we started to collaborate to make some local dishes more elegant. This was a great success and resulted in me having my own restaurant at Soneva.
Where do you source your produce and ingredients for Soneva? Can you please provide some specific examples?
Most of our vegetables and fruits are grown on the island. Ingredients that cannot be grown are flown in from all over the world and we tend to focus more on artisan products rather than commercial brands. Also, our SLOWLIFE philosophy ensures we look at seasons, organics and biodynamics and animal cruelty-free products as well. Fish of course is almost all local except some special fish for our sashimi and sushi, which comes from Japan directly or salmon which of course is not a local fish. We always prioritize local produce though, so as much as possible we gather our ingredients from sources close by. One important factor is that we almost have no food waste. Logistics can be quite challenging in the Maldives, so we always think carefully about our menus to ensure we have minimal waste.
How have clients’ tastes and expectations evolved over the past 5-10 years?
Our guests are very well-traveled and frequently eat at the best restaurants in the world and because of our reputation, their expectations are quite high. This puts pressure on us because it is not easy to create top-level cuisine on a small island, far away from markets and suppliers. We have approximately 30 Michelin star chefs visiting us every year. These chefs bring some great knowledge to us and therefore allow us to perfect the skills of our chefs as a result.
Do you have a signature dish or a favorite dish that you enjoy cooking?
Hmm, good question. I go through phases where sometimes I like to make super complicated dishes and show off my talents and other times, I could enjoy just a grilled tuna with quality oil, some herbs, and fresh leaves. I guess my ultimate favorite is probably the fish that I cook underground on the beach. The flavors you get from that are so much better than from a pot or pan.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a top chef?
Never stop learning. Always innovate, practice, keep up with what’s happening and be generous in sharing your knowledge with others as well. Never give up. It’s not an easy journey but it is a worthwhile one for sure.