As of 2015, there were 4,783 restaurants in Kuwait, a figure that has exponentially grown since then. Just like any popular industry, there are always key influencers who prompt the public to question the norm and dare them to explore different perspectives.
As far as Kuwait’s food and beverage (F&B) industry is concerned, Faisal Al-Nashmi is one such character who cooks to bring art, philosophy, culture, and genuineness to the market.
We sat with Faisal who walked us through his journey and growing relationship with food; a relationship that spans everything from passion to business.
In the first part of the interview, we see the world of food through Faisal’s eyes as an artist:
Q: Where were you born and bred?
A: I was born and bred in Kuwait, but I spent my high school years in London, UK, and my college years in Florida, US.
Q: These are some very critical years in character building. Would you say that spending them abroad influenced your decision to become a chef?
A: One hundred percent. My story starts in London. As a 15-year-old, I wasn’t so excited about leaving my hometown in Kuwait. My first week [in London] was made even harder by being robbed. Traumatized by the incident, I strictly spent my two years in the city between home and school. At home, I spent my time with my mother who watched nothing but BBC Food. This is what sparked my love for food and culinary arts.
Now of course my mother was a great cook. However, I never picked up the skill or know-how from her.
I slowly started buying ingredients from the market on my way home and trying my hand at cooking, and by the end of my two-year stay in London, I decided that this is what I wanted to pursue in college and in life.
But back in Kuwait, there were no available scholarships for studying the culinary arts. So I had to select another field which was film and photography. I studied film and photography for four years in the US before returning to London for another year to study and get a degree in culinary arts at Le Cordon Bleu.
Q: How did your family react to your decision on dedicating your life to the culinary arts?
A: My father was not the kind to tell me not to do something, but he was concerned about the narrow window of opportunity in the culinary field if I ever decide to change jobs. He asked me to consider a degree that would support me in the future. His opinion was convincing to me and that’s why I chose another undergraduate field, but one that was still under the creative umbrella: film and photography.
Having graduated and satisfied my father’s wish that I earn a degree in a secure field, I told him it was now time to pursue my own dream. And he was fully supportive.
Creativity has always assumed a big space in my life. But expressing this tendency for creativity through food came later in life, and frankly, it was unexpected.
Q: Tell me more about the relationship between food and creativity.
A: You must be creative to be a chef. A chef is an artist and the plate is his canvas. When a chef comes to create, (s)he must dip into their wealth of emotions, experiences, and past events. Then they need time to conceptualize and execute a piece of art. This is how new items come to be.
However, this concept of cooking is not quite popular or prevalent in Kuwait and the region. We don’t have enough understanding or appreciation for what it means to be a chef.
Now of course we have to understand that there’s a difference between a chef and a cook. A cook is basically a person who follows a recipe or orders. A chef is passionate, knowledgeable, and well-versed in the culinary arts. To become a chef who is capable of creating and innovating, you must work hard, exert a lot of effort, and be a natural artist.
Q: What do you think inspires you to cook?
A: I like to travel to get inspired whether it’s a summer vacation or a weekend getaway. I travel to see other restaurants, meet other chefs, listen to their thoughts and how they come up with them, and catch up with local and global trends.
Q: If we consider cooking an expressive means of communication, a language if you will, what would you say you evoke or communicate through your food?
A: The majority of the food I cook reflects who I am, my experiences, ideas, or even emotions. Despite my keenness on relating my creations to my personality, I have to be considerate of presenting them in a digestible way. It comes down to an equation that factors in understanding people’s perspectives and the originality of your own character and style.
As early as Al Makan, my first restaurant, this attitude set me and my partners apart from other restaurants.
Q: Let’s talk a bit more about Al Makan as a place for both food and art.
A: The two-story space consisted of the restaurant called Street which is largely based on Asian street food and the cafe area at the ground level. And then upstairs was the gallery space where artists used to showcase their work and the art studio, a space for hosting small workshops, lectures, meetings. All of this was of course in the name of art promotion.
This format lasted for four years until we had to temporarily downsize the features so we can resume operationally.
Q: What triggered the idea to offer art and food under the same roof?
A: Badr Al Hassan, my partner, and I graduated from Miami, home to a district called Wynwood that was full of gallery spaces, studios, restaurants, and cafes. It was very popular, especially among the artists. Having lived pretty close to Wynwood, we would visit almost every week. It was very genuine and the farthest from commercial.
We wanted to introduce this to the Kuwaiti scene. Of course, we used the available resources to localize the concept into Al Makan.
Al Makan was a great hub for artists both locally and regionally because they were missing such space to meet, connect, showcase their art, and enjoy others’ as well.
They wanted to look at art and eat art at the same time.
Q: You talk about people’s expectations when they visit a restaurant, but I see that you totally broke this rule through the Experimental Eatery. Tell me more about it.
A: The motive behind the Experimental Eatery was creating a platform for a chef to speak.
But furthermore, it was a space to experiment with all the senses through the elements of design, aroma, food and dining, and the overall atmosphere.
A unique menu was developed for each event, all of which were around 15 in total, never to be repeated elsewhere. This included never repeating the tableware, interior design, or any other detail that the guest encountered.
These dinners allowed me to showcase my skill to the people in my full creative capacity.
Despite how much I enjoyed the Experimental Eatery, I wouldn’t dare bring these items to the restaurant because people wouldn’t accept them. As opposed to the Experimental Eatery, people don’t go to restaurants to experiment. They go to restaurants to eat satisfactory food. Everything else from interior design to ambient music is a peripheral luxury to the overall experience. A visitor will return if they enjoyed the food.
Q: I love how you use food to prompt people to rethink what they take for granted, which brings us to your talk “Gastronomy: Shaping Tomorrow’s Culture.” In which capacity do you think gastronomy can influence cultures and economies?
A: Cultures are always changing. And in Kuwait for example, when families go out to dine, the majority of restaurants that they eat at are neither Kuwaiti nor even Middle Eastern.
This creates a new cultural paradigm because 20-30 years ago, the F&B market was very limited. Today, not only do we have a lot of restaurants, but they serve a variety of cuisines as well. Introducing new cuisines to the dining culture enriches the experience itself while educating people about the global diversity of food cultures.
As for gastronomy’s impact on the economy, three years ago, Rakan Al-Fadalah from Chocolateness raised a critical question: How can we uplift the Kuwaiti economy without relying solely on the oil and gas industry? He pointed out that today around 60% of business owners who start new businesses invest in F&B.
Around 15 years back, it wasn’t something that people would invest in because restaurants were limited to franchises and rarely any local concepts. But things have changed and many people are now investing in local concepts, cafes, restaurants. This economic boom doesn’t stop here. Following the growth of the F&B industry, other supporting markets started to flourish like suppliers, delivery companies, packaging companies, and so on.
Many nationalities already travel to Kuwait to enjoy its diverse dining experience. Imagine if the government invests in turning Kuwait into a destination for food tourism; more factories and companies that serve the F&B industry will open and every new concept eatery will be an investment in the country’s economic development.
If you, too, have aspirations for investing in your own local restaurant or cafe, stay tuned for the second part of the interview where chef Faisal shares his expertise on starting, maintaining, and growing a business in the F&B industry.