Fasting in the food industry

Dubai chefs, waiters and more who are fasting and working over Ramadan

Nachwan Koukach
Nachwan Koukach
Mirzo Hafizov
Mirzo Hafizov
Hamid Sheikh
Hamid Sheikh
Mehandi Mehtab
Mehandi Mehtab
Gulfaraz Ali
Gulfaraz Ali

When you work with food, and food is your passion, it can be hard to think about anything else. Buying it, preparing it, serving it, discussing it, delivering it: when your working day involves being around food, and satisfying the appetites of others, you may find yourself perpetually peckish. So, during the month of Ramadan, what’s it like to work in the food industry? Is it more difficult if you’re a Muslim chef or waiter and you’re fasting during the day, but still constantly bombarded with the sight and smell of delicious dishes? We meet members of Dubai’s fasting food industry workforce to hear about their challenges and experiences.

Nachwan Koukach
Executive Sous Chef, MÖvenpick Hotel Ibn Battuta Gate
Age: 26
Nationality: Syrian

What’s it like working in Dubai during the month of Ramadan?

Being in this region makes working while fasting more meaningful, especially during iftar, because we get to share the experience of Ramadan with our guests. Also, I get to experience how different cultures celebrate the Holy Month and get to know more about them through food.

How do you cope while fasting? Are you able to ‘detach’ yourself from the food?
As a chef, I’m used to eating last. Most of the time I cook for others first, then eat myself later on. However, I can’t see food in a detached, scientific way because for me it’s more of an art.

Are you allowed to taste the food as you prepare it?
No, I need to ask a non-Muslim chef to taste it. As a chef, this is the hardest part of fasting, because we prefer to taste the food ourselves. I have many years of experience so I can prepare dishes based on my recipes, but still, we always make sure we have at least one non-fasting team member on duty to taste.

How do you deal with the heat in the kitchen if you’re not drinking water?
After living in the Middle East for more than ten years, I’ve got used to the heat – even in the kitchen. I usually drink up to 2.5 litres of water in the evening and I avoid salty foods to stay in shape during the day. So far, it seems to be working!
Mövenpick Hotel Ibn Battuta Gate (04 444 0000).

Mirzo Hafizov
General Manager, The Ivy, Jumeirah Emirates Towers

Age: 27
Nationality: Uzbek

How many years have you fasted for Ramadan while also working in the food industry?
I’ve done it for three and a half years, since I first moved to Dubai. It’s much easier to fast in a city such as Dubai, where the Holy Month is respected and everyone participates in the spirit of Ramadan.

Is it difficult to fast while working in a restaurant?
Generally, it isn’t too difficult because working in a fast-paced environment makes time pass a lot quicker and takes my mind off feeling hungry. As a result, I prefer being at work than staying at home while fasting.

How does your routine at work change?
An average day for me isn’t very different. I tend to work longer during the day in Ramadan, and fewer evening hours. I follow the same routine as usual, albeit during our lunch break, when my team and I like to play checkers. (I always win, by the way.)

Are there any dishes on the menu you find particularly tempting while fasting?
I’ve always had a sweet tooth, so passing the pastry section is always tempting, whether I’m fasting or not. However, lately I seem to find it more difficult to resist the roast monkfish with lobster, potato and mussels, created by chef Ben.

What’s your favourite iftar dish?
I love the Emirati fish machboos, which is one of the Arabic dishes on the Ramadan menu at The Ivy this year.
The Ivy, Jumeirah Emirates Towers (04 319 8767).

Hamid Sheikh
Delivery driver, China Garden Restaurant

Age: 23
Nationality: Indian

How many years have you fasted for Ramadan while also working in the food industry?
Working at China Garden is my first job in the food industry, and I’ve been here for a year and half. Working with food during Ramadan doesn’t make a difference to me. I’ve been fasting since the age of 13 and I’ve lived all my life in India, where there are no restrictions on eating food in public, so I’m used to seeing people eat in front of me while I’m fasting.

Have you developed any special techniques to help you fast?
After my morning prayers, I mentally prepare myself for the day. I start by thinking about the delivery locations in my head to take my mind off the food.

Are you busier than normal with deliveries during Ramadan?
It’s a lot quieter, because people normally prefer home-cooked food and tend to order less from restaurants.

Are there any dishes on the menu you find particularly tempting while fasting?
My weakness is the chicken dumplings, so I make sure I stay away from the kitchen when they prepare them!

Where is your favourite venue for iftar?
My employers arrange for iftar at work, so I break my fast at work. If I didn’t, I’d probably head to Ravi’s in Satwa.

And your favourite iftar dish?
Spicy chick peas and harees, a traditional local dish, are my favourites.
China Garden, various locations including Safa Centre, Jumeirah (04 394 3434).

Mehandi Mehtab
Waiter, Zafran restaurant, Mirdif City Centre
Nationality: Indian

Is it hard to be surrounded by food while fasting?
I work in a restaurant and there’s food all around me – it is human tendency to want to break a routine. However, focus and prayer make it easy to resist temptation and I am able to do it quite comfortably. The joy of waiting to break my fast at iftar also helps.

What’s the most difficult part?
The aroma that emanates from the kitchen is tempting, but control is part of the test. Again, focus comes into play and my routine over the years helps me.

Are there any dishes on the menu you find particularly tempting while fasting?
The methi malai curry and jhingri curry are my favourites, which I look forward to having at iftar or later for dinner.

If you’re working during sunset, when do you break your fast?
Ideally, fasts must be broken within two minutes of ‘maghrib’ (iftar prayer), usually between 7pm and 7.15pm. I take a 20-minute break at iftar. It gets busy in the evenings, so I have dinner afterwards.

Where is your favourite place for iftar in Dubai?

It has to be the abra area of Bur Dubai. I break my fast at a mosque with my housemates and indulge in small snacks at local cafeterias, then stroll by the creek.
Zafran Mirdif City Centre (04 284 0987).

Gulfaraz Ali
Chef De Partie, Jigsaw, Mvenpick Hotel Deira
Age: 29
Nationality: Pakistani

Have you developed any special techniques to help you fast?
Because we’re so busy preparing the iftar buffet, it’s usually easy not to think about your hunger. It also helps not to look at the clock too much!

What do you find most tempting about the food in the restaurant?
The smell is always there. You can taste the aroma in your mouth, but can’t do anything about it.

Are you allowed to taste the food?
No, so we’re partnered with colleagues that can taste the dishes. This way we can still serve consistent food.

Is the kitchen busier than normal?
My hours get shorter, but the days tend to be busier. I prepare the iftar buffet, but I have to do so in less time.

Are there any dishes on the menu you find particularly tempting while fasting?
I find it difficult to cook masala gravy. The smell from the onion and spices makes it hard to resist.

If you’re working during sunset, when do you break your fast?
Our executive chef is very understanding: he fasts with us even though he’s not a Muslim. We like to break the fast as a team and the chef makes sure we have juice, dates and a pakoras on time, regardless of how busy the restaurant is. Once our guests have all eaten, we can then enjoy a proper dinner.
Mövenpick Hotel Deira (04 444 0111).

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