the precedence of tradition
“When you do something, you must do it the traditional, proper way,” says Chef Ali El Bourji, Executive Oriental Head Chef of Atlantis, The Palm, Dubai, who was in Kuala Lumpur on a recent guest chef stint at the Mandarin Oriental Kuala Lumpur’s Mosaic recently. “Hummus, for example, must be pre-soaked for 15 hours. No more, no less. Then you boil it for another two hours. You cannot take short cuts. That is the only way to cook Lebanese food.”
That adherence to tradition is remarkable. Some might call it old-fashioned, but if that makes El Bourji a Luddite, then we support him, for his food is remarkable. Hailing from Zahle, part of the fertile Beqaa Valley that is the farming heartland of Lebanon, El Bourji grew up among optimal produce. “I don’t like to open cans,” he says, “so I only use the freshest ingredients.”
His hummus, lovingly and painstakingly made, is blessed with a rich creaminess that is proof that his direction is correct. We taste it in the crisp Fattoush salad, in the luscious balls of labnah cheese, and the traditional grape vine leaf Warak Arish – three of the many, many mezze prepared by the chef. Long cooking characterises his other dishes as well; the Ouzi rice baked in puff pastry benefited from attention to detail, while the lamb shoulder gained a tenderness that can only be achieved by slow-roasting. The only time El Bourji resorts to speed is at the grill station, where koftas, brochettes and Shish Taouk require a deft hand – and a searing flame – to get just right. That is the traditional way to do it, and El Bourji’s wholehearted adherence to that is delicious to behold.