SINGAPORE: She is bold, pragmatic and passionate. Samia Ahad, a Pakistani, is the proud owner of two restaurants in the heart of Singapore.
Ahad, a university drop-out, ran a travel agency for several years in London until she moved to the US and got married to a law graduate. It was here she discovered a passion for cooking and enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York and then worked as a line cook for about four years before moving to Singapore in 1997.
With a toddler in tow, she was unable to work full-time but started conducting cooking classes from home. What started as a casual teaching class for close friends, transformed into well-organised cooking sessions. Ahad acknowledges that her main flagship restaurant, Coriander Leaf, was set up only because of her loyal friends who regularly attended the classes she conducted and encouraged her to experiment with new cuisines, tastes and flavors.
The professional kitchen being a man’s forte in all respects saw Ahad successfully emerging as a passionate chef. She braced herself for the physical and emotional drain that is required to work in a kitchen, carrying heavy stockpots during her pregnancy, working long grueling hours in a steaming kitchen, rarely getting time to rest between cutting and chopping and even more so rare, spending time with her near and dear ones. “Physically it is not only tiring, it is also very abusive… there is no room for error,” says Ahad.
Her passion for food, love and encouragement from her family and friends and her ability to multitask makes her what she is today. “You can’t balance a family life or restaurant, it has to be either or, you are always working evenings, you are always working weekends and you are always working major holidays.” Ahad juggles between her domestic and professional life. “My son is 17 but he has never taken the bus; I drop him to school every morning … if I don’t do that, I will never see him”
It is interesting to note that had she not been a professional chef, Ahad wanted to be a lawyer; fighting for justice, honesty and integrity. And she fights now too – for a complete balance of colour, flavor and texture on a palate or while preparing her menus. She is particularly not too fond of eating herself yet her signature dishes have evolved due to fascination and interest in the chemistry of flavours.
Ahad successfully blend together cultures and history of food for the ever-evolving consumer tastes. She proudly states that she is one of the rare chefs who has knowledge of multiple cuisines and then laughs, adding: “I am a jack of all trades and a master of none”.
Ahad, with her professional training in classical French cooking, essentially wants to explore and expose the cuisines of Asia to the world. Starting from Turkey to Japan, she presents the tastes and flavours through her dishes. The menu is very carefully crafted, with sharing platters, a balance of hot and cold appetizers and scrumptiously delicious entrees. She is a purist, and certainly does not believe in fusion – however, she does tend to fuse together techniques rather than tastes. Her signature dish “Za’atar-crusted spiced lamb” is purely Middle Eastern in flavour but the cooking method is French. Her wide varieties of menus are most delectable and tantalizing – catering to office workers during lunch hours and connoisseurs of fine cuisine in the evening. Her feasts range from the likes of ‘tandoori chicken’ and ‘palak paneer’ to ‘Scottish salmon’, ‘pan-fried John Dory’ and ‘Thai-inspired barramundi’. Last but not the least one can’t leave without tasting the 'warm Valrhona choclate cake' or the 'Trablit coffee fondant'. All this and much more by a chef who was not even interested in cooking a couple of decades ago. “I never cooked before I joined the Culinary Institute, nor was I even interested in cooking.”
She has travelled far and wide in search of rustic flavors and cultures; she has worked with renowned chefs – yet her enthusiasm to teach cooking takes priority. She actually wanted to open up a cooking school about a decade ago, however, the financial returns of such a school at that time, in Singapore were not viable. Hence, Coriander Leaf came into being 10 years ago – and the rest as they say is history. However she still conducts cooking classes at the restaurant, following the same format that was used earlier when such sessions were carried out from her home.
Ahad’s second restaurant, “The Screening Room” was set up about four years ago. It was born out of her obsession of marrying food to movies. The restaurant is sprawled across five floors – and one of the floors has a theatre with extremely comfortable setting showing long-forgotten classics and food-related movies. She has managed to combine two of the most favoured forms of entertainment and presented them together at the restaurant.
Sunday – her day off, she spends time in her home kitchen experimenting with food and entertaining her friends. If she were to eat something every day Ahad would gladly opt for ‘daal chawal’, her comfort food. And if given the chance, she would gladly open up a restaurant in Pakistan.
Through corporate entertainment and by dedicating a certain percentage of a particular menu, Ahad has managed to raise funds for NGOs back home in Pakistan. In collaboration with some other members of the Pakistani community, she managed to raise a hefty sum and sent it across to the flood victims in August 2010. She has managed to combine her talent with social responsibility of helping the needy and continues to look for opportunities to generate funds and send them back home.
Ahad is purely a self-made woman who had nerves of steel and a dream to follow. A dream that now stands in the heart of the orient world – a dream that continues to provide exceptional food to locals and tourists alike. A dream that transcends all cultures, colours, textures and tastes.
Saadia Tariq is an avid photographer based in Singapore.