People differ in their relationship with food. Some only eat to survive; others live to eat. We also differ in our food preferences as some of us are inclined to follow specific diets for personal or health reasons. Hence, restaurants should be able to respect people’s dietry needs by providing food and drink that meets those needs. Unfortunately, accommodating people’s dietary restrictions and awareness about nutrition are relatively new concepts for restaurants in Qatar. Although food is indispensable, it is strange that some perceive a culinary career to be of lower status. This widespread view might make it challenging to pursue a career as a chef. Challenging this norm, Chef Noor Ahmed Al Mazroei emerged as a Qatari chef utilizing the art of cooking to create healthy dishes that suit a wide range of dietary needs. So, who is Noor Ahmed Al Mazroei?
I am a Qatari woman who wanted to share her message, hoping that it would benefit society. However, I wanted to share it my way, whether through my passion for cooking or through my previous occupation.
Did you always aspire to be a professional chef?
I loved cooking since I was a kid as I used to help my mother with her cooking. I remember admiring my grandmother as she cooked (Bedouin Majboos) for us on our desert trips. I always asked her for the recipe as I had a passion for learning and understanding recipes. The challenge for me was in the way society belittled those who cook. Cooking was not a career option or even an option in education because I come from a family that put great importance on education and they wanted me to pursue a degree they deemed more traditional. Therefore, it was important for me to pursue a more traditional academic route. I was excellent in my academic studies, graduating in first place in high school due to my score and fifth place in Qatar. I was even honored by Her Excellency Sheikha Moza Bint Nasser. After that, I studied Business in Ireland. However, I studied there for a year before returning to Qatar due to my pregnancy complications. After returning, I continued my education at Qatar University and graduated with distinction in Management Information Systems.
During my academic journey, my passion for cooking was always present. The challenge was in finding the best way to share this passion with everyone. For example, I was not able to share my passion on national television as it was unacceptable to appear on TV for me at the time. I didn’t work after graduating as I wanted to be free to take care of my daughter, who has special needs. The situation remained the same until I came across Mada Center that provides assistive technology for people with special needs, and I decided I wanted to work in providing accessibility. We lacked centers that offer help for people with special needs. I suffered a lot in finding one for my daughter. I also suffered from the way society looked at her. This suffering inspired me to work in this field. I used to participate in online groups that discuss different special needs. However, these groups were all non-Qatari groups that I participated in when I was in Ireland. I joined Mada and worked for them for ten years. However, I wanted to do more, so I applied for a master’s in Special Education (MSE) for severe to moderate disabilities, a program offered by Qatar University. There were no Qataris enrolled in it. This journey was a tough one as I was studying and working at the same time. I was almost going to quit, but well-wishers around me advised me to continue because we lacked Qatari experts in this field. So, I gathered all my energy and completed the program. I continued working for Mada and, thanks to Allah, became the Director for direct services for people with disabilities. I supervised all Autism and learning disabilities cases and all major local projects in Qatar for people with special needs. My job was to evaluate the different centers and provide them with assistive technologies. Also, I contributed to creating the association for the families of Autistic kids. I had a great passion for my work because of my daughter’s situation. I had to leave my job to give my daughter and her many operations my full attention. However, I did not want to stay jobless, so I decided to focus on cooking. At the time I was focused on uplifting the image that society has towards cooks and cooking in general. Finding this way became my challenge as I wanted to set a standard for a career in cooking. I started working with a chef in the Museum of Islamic Art. My goal was to be a specialized Qatari chef that can be trusted. My desire to create my own path was the hardest challenge. However, my motivation was my allergy to certain foods, such as dairy products which made it hard for me to eat in restaurants. The restaurants in Qatar do not cater to people who have certain dietary restrictions. Hence, I started to create my own recipes and share them on Instagram. I was simply practicing my hobby and releasing my anxiety and tensions through it. Soon people started to send me requests to sell what I cook. But I kept refusing because I did not want to be a person selling from behind the screen. Later, I participated in the food festival. I decided to be a consultant chef and a trainer and specialize in creating recipes and improving menus for restaurants. My passion is not limited to cooking, as I put great effort into learning by attending online courses in restaurant management and similar topics.I did all this because of my love for cooking and nothing else. The problem that I kept facing was that some people were disregarding my work because I am Qatari. They would ask me to work without pay, but I refused to work with them because I understand my talent and know my worth. I had to learn by myself how the market works, how to create recipes, how to sell them, how to train, and how to introduce my services. I was the first Qatari chef to put her recipes in well-known restaurants. Another challenge was appearing at the food festival wearing Abaya and Sheila as people were advising me not to do so. But thanks to Allah, I was proud to appeare at it wearing the Qatari traditional modest clothes. Furthermore, my appearance on TV could have been unacceptable by society. However, thanks to Allah, I successfully chose the places and events with a good reputation until I created a name for myself. I was also successful in choosing good content to share on social media, and I think I worked for seven years before earning any money, but it turned into a career after I started training for very long hours. Regardless of the companies, I work with, I still insist on working according to my standards regarding advertisements or any other work. My main goal is that when tourists come to Qatar for the World Cup 2022, they would not ask why our restaurants do not serve specific dishes. For example, gluten-free or vegetarian or dishes for people who suffer from allergies.
What is a personal goal that you want to achieve as a Qatari chef?
I want to improve awareness around food. I Attend courses about nutrition. Of course, I am not saying that I am a dietician or a nutritionist, but I rely on a healthy diet to create my recipes. As a consumer, I make sure to request specific dishes from restaurants. For example, dishes that do not have eggs. The market will not change until there is a demand for it. And I emphasize this idea even when I work with restaurants. Qatari restaurants started changing their menus adding different options. I view this as a way of respecting others’ differences. When we respect their difference, we provide them with their specific needs. Qatari restaurants and our food will be the face of the country during the World Cup. Hence, it is important to spread awareness about food. Another goal that I want to achieve is to change the idea that Qatari dishes are not healthy. I think our dishes are healthy and can be plant-based. But they became unhealthy because of the use of unhealthy products to prepare them. For example, I made (Madrooba) with oats and spinach. I also created (Margooga) with vegetables. This means that our recipes can be made with healthy products and be suitable for everyone, even for tourists.
Can you tell as what is your role entails as a consultant chef?
I ceate or improve on existing menues. In order for me to do so, I will have to understand the goal of the restaurant, where it’s located, and what it aims for. So, I must have many sessions with the restaurant until I understand their goal. And after that, I can create a menu that suits the place and its target audience. This kind of work provided me with the experience and skills that I need to open my own restaurant soon inshallah.
Can you tell us about the Café that you are opening soon?
The cafe is called “Blended.” The inspiration behind the name is that the cafe is a project that belongs to four people: my husband, a food photographer, my friend who likes to read and to write, her husband, an expert in Information Technology, and myself. Since it combines different talents, we decided to call it: “Blended.” We hope it becomes a Qatari cafe where the customers feel as if they are in their home.
What lessons have you learned during your journey?
My work in providing accessibility for people with special needs has had the greatest impact on my life. The message that I wanted to share with everyone, including my daughter, who is impaired in mobility, is that people with special needs are not weak. They do not desire pity from us. I suffered greatly from people’s comments about my daughter’s situation. They would give me comments such as: “may Allah heal her,” “so sad!”, “why can’t she walk?”. I used to cry, and my daughter used to cry too, but we reached a level where we hear such comments and laugh at them. Some people want to paint a picture of my daughter as a weak person. But I always tell my daughter that I do not feel sorry for her. She does not have anything to make me feel sorry. Thanks to Allah, she has her own mind to think and decide. Furthermore, I always tell her that her situation is better than others and that she has a mother who can accomdate to her needs. It was hard for me to raise her because I raised her alone as I was divorced from her father. Being a divorced Qatari woman was a challenge by itself. Some people advised me to let my daughter be on social media as a public figure, but I always tell them that she will only appear on social media if she has something to offer. I do not think it is right to use her special needs as a means to gain fame on social media. In my opinion, that’s more like reducing her to her special needs . However, if she is using special assistive technology, she can appear in interviews and talk about it. But we, my daughter and I, do not accept that she becomes famous because she’s in a wheelchair. This is the message that I want to spread among people. When it comes to cooking, I want society to respect it as legitimate work. Someone being a cook does not mean that they are not qualified to do anything else or that they became a cook because they couldn’t find any other job. Cooking is a passion and an art. Furthermore, I learned how to manage a business through my experience in cooking. I have learned some tough lessons in this field. I went through some bad experiences as I was dealing with people who I trusted, but it turned out that there was a lack of confidentiality in our collaboration. However, it has made me more vigilant and cautious when dealing with others professionally.
Have you had to make any sacrifices in your journey?
Of course, you cannot earn anything without making sacrifices. I did not reach this point in life without facing obstacles. However, anytime I lost something, I would gain something else. There was no period in my life where everything was perfect, and that is normal. This is life. At the time I was taking care of my daughter, I wasn’t working. Then, when I was working, I was divorced and responsible for parenting three daughters. So, I was focusing on that at that time. And when I wanted to focus on cooking, I had to give up my job. It is a simple matter. There are phases in your life, and you decide what you will focus on in each phase. But you will have to sacrifice. Sometimes I sacrifice my time, happiness, comfort, and even my health, as standing for hours in the kitchen and continuously thinking are tiring. Nothing comes without any sacrifice, and the things that come fast can disappear faster. You must work properly, and follow your plan.
How did you face society’s judgment of people who cook as a career?
To be honest, I did not face it. I just continued working and only choosing to work on projects that I was fully convinced of. So, I did not care about people’s judgment. I refused many offers that would provide me with “quick money”—for example, selling food from my house. But instead, I decided to participate in events and festivals. I remember that on my first day at the festival, some passed by my booth saying that they did not want healthy food. But on the next day, people were lining up in front of my booth, and I sold more than I could handle. Some people would line up in front of my booth even before the start of the day at the festival. It was very exhausting. However, my goal was always clear to me. So, society was not able to judge me. And there is a lot of competition in my field. A lot of people will criticize you because they were not able to achieve what you did. Once, I received a comment on the way I wear my hijab and about me not putting on nail polish. I replied to them by saying that I did not appear on social media to present myself as the product. My product is the content that I provide. Those who want to criticize you will always find something to criticize even if there is nothing wrong. At the beginning I used to get upset over the criticism I received but now I have learned to accept it as part of the journey.
Do you think people have change their perception of your work now?
Yes, it changed a lot. People love what I do, and the way restaurants used to work with me changed as well. Now, they are excited to work with a Qatari chef and support Qatari talent. Some people do not share their talent on social media platforms because of fear of criticism. That is because people have started to focus more on appearance, making it hard for some to showcase their talent on these platforms. They fear what people might think and say about them. For example, once, I was criticized for not using filters in my videos. However, this is not the type of content that I want to present. Of course, I want to appear appropriately, but appearance should not become an obsession that stops someone from sharing their talent. Another problem is that some people do not know how to work professionally, which may create a bad impression for everyone. However, I believe professionalism is something that a person gains as they continue working. As we continue to work hard, the attitude of people will change.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
Be you, do what you love to do, and do not force yourself to follow a path that you do not desire. Do everything that you do with love and live your life.
- Interview written by Fatema Ahmad.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.