Breaking Boundaries: Chef Bader Al Shaik is on a mission to popularise Saudi cuisine

The globe-trotting Saudi chef, chats with FACT about working in one of the world’s best restaurants, his favourite places and the bright future of Saudi cuisine.

Chef Bader Al Shaik could be very different to the man before me. Often, young chefs exude sanctimonious, big-fish-in-a-small-pond bravado when success comes too early. Bader displays no such shortcomings during an exchange over Microsoft Teams. He is humble and softly spoken. He fleetingly mentions his achievements, but his eyes sparkle when he speaks of his childhood, family and the enormous potential of Saudi cuisine. Pomposity is an ill-fitting robe that is not his size. 

During a press trip to South Tyrol, a wintery, snow-laden corner of Northeastern Italy, I heard about Bader. I did not expect to find a chef from Saudi Arabia there. 

Bader is currently on a three-month placement at Atelier Moessmer Norbert Niederkofler by acclaimed Chef Norbert Niederkofler. Over a career spanning decades, Norbert has become one of Italy’s most accomplished chefs, punching in two three Michelin-star and Green star restaurants with World’s 50 Best Restaurant awards too. Bader finds himself in Italy’s frosty South Tyrol at Atelier Moessmer only months after it secured three Michelin stars within less than a year of opening. 

Bader is halfway through his tenure at Atelier Moessmer Norbert Niederkofler. At the time of this interview, he was rotating between different stations every two weeks. “This is an eye-opening experience for me”, notes Bader, affording him more than just memories to bring home.

Giving up accounting for cooking

Bader’s interest in food was forged at home. He talks fondly about his childhood, his mother’s day-to-day cooking and his memories of Friday family gatherings, a habit that continues to this day. He effuses that “during the week, we think about what we are going to [cook] on Friday.” He talks passionately about his family’s travels where, upon returning home, they would band together to re-create those dishes at home. 

Yet, a culinary career was not a foregone conclusion. Bader set his path towards accounting, graduating with honours until a fortuitous call came from his sister, who, unbeknownst to him, had enrolled him on Masterchef Arabia. 

“She called to tell me that I was going to Dubai in two weeks.” The rest is history. Bader won Masterchef Arabia in 2014 out of over 100 contestants, thereby shutting the door on accounting. “Cooking chose me,” he smiles. 

His story is exemplary: he abandoned a career coveted by many to slowly accumulate a culinary education abroad. From Masterchef Arabia, Bader’s brief stints in Le Cordon Bleu Los Angeles matured into a three-year culinary course at Le Cordon Bleu Paris, where he returned to Saudi Arabia in 2021. “I learned about Le Cordon Bleu through the movie Julia and Julia,” Bader admits.

Bader’s culinary education brings him to Norbert Niederkofler’s Cook the Mountain philosophy: cook what grows locally and seasonally, use the whole animal – not just the prime cuts – and use traditional cooking methods. There is no sous vide or liquid nitrogen here. Bader explains that Atelier Moessmer uses similar cooking techniques familiar to those in Saudi Arabia, but notes that older techniques like woodfire cooking and smoking on the grill are no longer prevalent. Bader is excited to resuscitate it on his return to the Kingdom.

Saudi cuisine’s future is bright, and Bader wants to be involved

We acknowledge that regional cuisine is not as quick to modernise as the foreign imports. Bahrain’s Chef Tala Bashmi is the exception. His excitement grows, reinforcing the value of Saudi food and his desire to tell its story. “People eat Saudi food at home instead of going out to eat it. I want to change that. I want people to learn what [Saudi food really is]. What we have [and] the techniques that we have. It is really fascinating. It is an amazing cuisine.”

Bader al Shaik will return to Saudi Arabia to advance modern Saudi Arabian cooking. His consultancy advises imported restaurants on adapting to the Saudi palate. He works with Maiz in Riyadh’s Bujairi Terrace, Dice and Black, among others. 

Bader recommends Maiz. “It is really good Saudi food from between [Saudi’s] thirteen regions, where each region is represented with one or two dishes.” For casual eating, he recommends the stuffed dolma from Riyadh’s Takueria, who make tacos from a Saudi perspective. His favourite coffee shop is Floated as “they make the best waffles.”

Saudi Arabia’s dining scene is soaring, and significant investments are being made by the government and abroad. It’s a vibrant space for Bader and other talented Saudi chefs. I cannot help but think that we will hear more about Bader al Shaik in the coming months and years. 

GO: Follow @bader_alshaikh92 on Instagram for more information.

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Liam Collens
Liam Collens is a reviewer and drone photographer based in Dubai. He is passionate about good food, restaurants, travel and drone photography.

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