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In conversation with chef Eko Ridwan Zulfikar at Buddha-Bar Beach Abu Dhabi

Running the show at one of the world’s most renowned culinary brands is no easy feat, but Buddha-Bar Beach Abu Dhabi’s head chef Eko Ridwan Zulfikar makes it seem effortless. It’s only been a few months since its opening, yet Buddha-Bar Beach Abu Dhabi is on track to become the hottest hangout destination among the capital’s chic crowd. Although, you wouldn’t expect anything less from the renowned Parisian export. One of the many talents behind this success story in the making is the venue’s head chef Eko Ridwan Zulfikar. Complementing the restaurant’s picture-perfect setting at The St. Regis Saadiyat Island Resort, Abu Dhabi is a gourmet experience championing pan-Asian, Japanese and Mediterranean flavours, all curated by the culinary expert himself.

Tell us about your journey as a chef. How did it all begin?

“I discovered my passion for cooking when I had to take care of my siblings while my mother tended to my sick father. I would help prepare both lunch and dinner after school. This made me realise how much I loved spending time in the kitchen and that’s when I decided to become a chef. During my early days, I was eager to learn new things and this motivated me to participate in cooking competitions, some of which I’m proud to have won. Being born and raised in Indonesia, my culinary background revolves around Asian flavours. However, working across 11 different countries and experimenting with new culinary concepts and cuisines has helped me further develop these skills. In 2014, I was fortunate enough to see the fruition of my efforts when Buddha-Bar Dubai bagged an award for Best Bar Food.”

What is it like working in the Buddha-Bar Beach Abu Dhabi kitchen?

“Every day is an adventure at the restaurant. With a team that feels like family, we are always laughing and joking with each other, but we still work like a well-oiled machine during service hours. It’s entertaining to interact with people from different nationalities and watch the team learn new languages and cultural practices. We are all very close and always willing to jump into other stations and help without being asked. And with new promotions and dining experiences always in the pipeline, it’s quite exciting to put our heads together while experimenting with new concepts.”

When it comes to running a team, what values do you consider important?

“Family, loyalty and integrity; these are the values that I aim to instil in my team, and this motivates them to always give their best. I also push my chefs to continuously learn and feed their passion. In order to keep things exciting, I make sure to often move them between stations so that they can get the most out of their time here.”

With Asian cuisine, the competition in the capital is fierce. How does Buddha-Bar Beach Abu Dhabi stay ahead of the game?

“Anybody can follow a recipe and plate a dish. But I believe that our passion and integrity sets us apart and pushes us to achieve the best. As culinary experts, we aim to provide great tasting food and an experience unlike any other. A restaurant is not only about the chefs, it’s also about the service, the facilities, the promotions and the individuality of each staff member a guest interacts with. We work together towards one goal – to make Buddha-Beach Bar Abu Dhabi the best it can be. We motivate our staff to make personal connections with our guests and treat everybody who walks through our doors as a VIP.”

What can make or break a dish?

“Every great dish has three essential elements. Without these, there will be no taste at all. Time, passion and effort come before any other tangible ingredient and it’s the blend of these aspects that shines through in every dish. If a chef does not put his effort and passion into the dish and does not dedicate the time to better his craft, the results won’t be up to the mark.”

When it comes to taste versus presentation, how do you achieve the perfect balance between the two?

“We eat with our eyes first, so the presentation of a dish is what makes the first impression and tells you how a meal is going to taste. Having said that, flavour is, undoubtedly, the most important aspect. A dish may not look appetising, but if the taste is amazing, it will leave a lasting impact and also keep guests coming back for more. But finding the perfect balance between the components and presentation of each dish takes practice as it relies heavily on a chef’s experience and creativity. It’s all about understanding portion sizes, colour and textures.”

What is the best part about being a chef?

“The thrill of living a different day every day. There is never a fixed routine and you never know what the day ahead is going to look like. The kitchen could be extremely busy, stressful and frustrating on one day, but it can also be fun, quiet and entertaining the next. However, I believe a chef’s greatest satisfaction comes from a happy guest. It’s a fantastic feeling when we see guests leaving with a smile.”

When you’re not behind the scenes at the Buddha-Bar Beach Abu Dhabi kitchen, what’s your go-to meal?

“As an Indonesian, fish head curry is a dish I enjoy cooking. It reminds me of cold afternoons when my mother would have it ready for me upon returning home from school.”

So would that be one of the best meals you’ve ever had?

“Yes. I’ve eaten at some of the best restaurants around the world, but nothing beats a mother’s home-cooked meal.”

If there’s one person in the world you’d love to cook for, who would that be?

“I would really enjoy the experience of cooking for a president or leader of a country.”

Any tips for up-and-coming chefs?

“Always keep your passion alive, strive to learn as much as you can and push yourself to do better each day. Learning new recipes and cooking techniques is easy and will happen naturally as you work, but if you want to make it in this industry, you need to be mentally strong and focused.”

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