The hospitality with which Salam Dakkak, owner of the restaurant Bait Maryam welcomes her guests and her have finally won over the jury of MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants, who named her “Best Female Chef 2023” of the Middle East and North Africa. “I am honored to have been awarded the best female chef prize this year. In Bait Maryam, we bring people from all over the world together to enjoy a hearty meal prepared with love,” says the chef.
Bait Maryam: a tribute to her mother
The restaurant is a tribute to her mother Maryam, and “Bait” means home in Arabic. The restaurant in Dubai is like a refuge of sorts in a city populated largely by expats. “Bait Maryam is a place where people can come and feel at home, no matter where they come from. Those who miss the feeling of home away from home are the reason we opened the restaurant,” Dakkak explains.
The restaurant, which seats 45 guests indoors and 80 outdoors, is homey – decorated with vintage elements from old Levantine houses, its bright room invites you to linger. There are old shutters, lace curtains, colorful wooden chairs and tables or retro lamps, as well as fabrics with floral motifs. You simply feel at ease.
Salam Dakkak’s dream of becoming a chef
Salam Dakkak was born in Palestine and grew up in Jordan before moving to Saudi Arabia as a young woman. That’s where she met her husband and had her son Mohammad and daughter Nada. Later, the family moved to the USA and then to the United Arab Emirates. She learned how to cook from her mother. “My dream has always been to become a chef,” says Dakkak. “When I lived in Saudi Arabia, I taught Arabic cuisine at a cooking studio.”
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Everything is possible with passion
In 2017, Salam Dakkak opened her restaurant in Dubai’s residential Jumeirah Lake Towers neighborhood when she was 54 years old. “Cooking was an important part of my upbringing and is very much a part of who I am. When I cook, I feel happy, and I couldn’t wait to share this with the whole world. It has always been my dream to open a restaurant where everyone can come and enjoy homemade food,” says the chef. “At first I lacked the know-how, but with time and hard work I kept learning every day, and to this day I’m still learning. With passion, anything is possible.”
Typical Levantine menu with regional high-quality products
The passionate chef cooks authentic Levantine dishes from Eastern Mediterranean countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan. She inherited the recipes from her mother. In her cuisine, Dakkak uses authentic cooking methods to recreate Levantine flavors. “I believe in traditional cuisine and not machine methods. I believe that everything you do with your own hands tastes better than if you do it with a machine. Because love is transmitted through food and people feel that,” stresses the native Jordanian. “The only intelligent kitchen appliance I use is a combi oven, which never ceases to amaze me. The fact that you can bake several things in one oven at different temperatures is mind-blowing,” explains the chef.
One signature dish is Fatet Musakhan –shredded chicken with onions, served with garlic yogurt and fried bread. Maryam Fukhara is also a typical dish, which is kibbeh, seasoned minced dumplings with onions, bulgur wheat and pine nuts, in a tamarind-based sauce. The Maryam salad is a creation of rocket and beetroot mixed with yogurt, tahini and lemon juice and topped with walnuts. Her favorite dish is Mlokheye – a stew of malven leaves and chicken in a citrus chicken stock with rice. “It reminds me of my childhood and my mother,” Dakkak says.
She sources her ingredients from the region and values high-quality products and special spices. “Olive oil is my favorite ingredient because I use it in every dish. For us Palestinians, it is part of our culture and heritage. When we use a high quality olive oil, our food tastes even better,” Dakkak said.
For Salam Dakkak, her team is like family
Dakkak works in Bait Maryam with her daughter Nada Darraj. “My daughter and I complement each other. I couldn’t imagine the restaurant without running her. She runs the business side and I take care of the kitchen and the food. Managing a company and paperwork are not my strengths.” A good team spirit and motivated employees are very important to the chef. “For me, they are not so much employees, but rather my family. Without them, I wouldn’t have reached where I am today, and I really appreciate them. I make sure that the team I work with feels like they would with their own mother.” The shortage of skilled workers is not an issue for the chef. “We’re not looking for experienced workers as much as we’re looking for a certain personality trait, namely ambition. This is because we believe you can train them to become experts,” says Dakkak.
Connecting culture and food to experience
In her opinion, there is no difference between female and male chefs. “I don’t think women cook differently than men. But I think mothers generally cook differently, you can sense the love they put in their dishes. What motivates her every day are the positive reactions of the guests when they come to the restaurant. “That’s why I want to continue to innovate, maintain our standards and maintain the quality of service we’re known for,” says the chef. Gastronomy is moving towards a more authentic approach that people admire and are seeking today. “I am passionate about food and culture and how they connect in a way that really takes people on a journey,” she says.