Nusr-et de Salt Bae restaurant promises and keeps promises in Riyadh
Recipes for success: Chef Alejandro Castro offers tips and a hearty pilau recipe
DUBAI: A Mexican chef might not be the obvious choice to run a kitchen serving dishes inspired by the cuisine of the former Soviet republics in Asia, but this is Dubai, after all. And if you’d expect to find that kind of weird cultural mix anywhere, it’s here.
Chef Alejandro Castro – who runs OSH restaurant in La Mer’s development in Dubai – says he was somewhat surprised when approached by then-OSH chef to work as a sous-chef at the restaurant, which advertises itself as serving “a modern twist of contemporary Central Asian and Uzbek cuisine”.
“Before OSH, I worked in a French restaurant in Dubai,” says Castro. “(The OSH chef) saw that I had the basics of French gastronomy, and he told me not to worry because I didn’t know Russian or Uzbek cuisine. He just wanted someone who understood the high standards in cooking.
About a year later, Castro was promoted to chef, and it’s fair to say that he now has a much better understanding of Uzbek cuisine. Although he admits that he hasn’t quite perfected the “plov” which is a staple of Uzbek cuisine yet.
“It takes a lot of practice,” he says of the rice dish (which he has provided a recipe for here). “The exact thing you need to get is the rice, but it goes through so many different cooking procedures in the same pot that you have to get the timing just right. We have some successful plov masters in the restaurant, and they’re training me now.
It was clear from our conversation how passionate Castro is about his work.
“The world of cooking is so beautiful, so stimulating and so full of opportunities every day,” he says. “I hardly know anyone who has regretted this career, and even those who have learned so much that has helped them in any other career they have taken.”
What’s your go-to meal if you need to cook something fast for yourself?
It’s a very easy chicken sandwich, made with grilled pineapple, jalapenos, pickled onions, and spicy mayonnaise. Just mix, throw the chicken in the pan and you’re done. Twenty minutes.
What is your favorite dish to cook?
Several things. (Laughs.) Probably the one that needs the least amount of preparation and makes me very happy, and everyone around me very happy – at least I haven’t heard any complaints about it – is a shrimp ceviche. It contains a lot of vitamin C, so it’s very good after a busy night. No fat, just some of the natural cholesterol in shrimp, but lots of orange and lemon juice. Lots of vitamins from tomatoes, onions and cilantro too. And this is done in a very short time.
What ingredient can instantly improve any dish?
It’s unpopular these days because of bad press in the 90s, but it’s MSG. When you think something is lacking in flavor, it often means that it is lacking in umami flavor and that MSG is basically umami in powder form.
What customer behavior bothers you the most?
These are usually the modifiers. Not just for me, but for most cooks. I understand that people have their own tastes and want something done a certain way, but the dishes are designed and tested. They work. When I receive a complaint about a modified dish, it is normal. A modified dish will not be as good or as well thought out as an original. Ultimately, however, the guests are our bosses.
What’s the worst mistake you’ve made in a kitchen?
Nothing. I am perfect. (Laughs.) No… One of the biggest was when I was a chef and had a breakfast crew. My chef has always insisted that we shouldn’t be using the oven timer; we had to remember what is what and how long it has been there. I remember putting 80 croissants in the oven and forgetting them. Once I remembered, I opened the oven, a lot of smoke came out, and I had 80 perfect charcoal pieces. It was horrible. I was mortified. I thought I would be fired that day. But after you messed up like that, then never again.
How are you in the kitchen? Are you a town crier? Or are you more relaxed?
I am both. On a normal day I’m pretty laid back, I like having music in the kitchen – my team can pick the music too; something that puts them in the rhythm of the work. It’s such a stressful and physically demanding environment, so you need something that pulls you in all day. And I discovered that, for me, it’s music. And my team knows she can approach me for any problem she might have. We really get to know each other and even hang around outside of work. We try to keep the environment peaceful – we joke a lot – I can probably say I’m the main prankster in the kitchen. I could hide things from them or tell jokes. In terms of discipline, however, they know that when it’s cooking time, it’s cooking time. We are here for a purpose, and if that purpose is not achieved, then we are not doing our job. So there are happy times most of the time, but sometimes when it gets too relaxed, then there are not so happy times. I love my team, but they know when it’s show time it’s show time.
Chef Alejandro’s Osh Pradznichny with Achichuk Salad
For the main course
650 g of lazar or basmati rice
50 g chickpeas
250 ml of sunflower oil
750 g leg of lamb, boneless
250 g white onion, sliced
850 g yellow carrots or baby carrots, cut into long pieces
1500 ml of water
3 g of cumin seeds
12 g of salt
50 g of yellow raisins
5 quail eggs
For the salad:
500 g tomato
350 g red onion
25 ml olive oil
5 g of salt
1 g of pepper
1 g basil
1. Wash the rice in cold water and soak the chickpeas the night before.
2. Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot or kazan (traditional Uzbek cast-iron pot), until it starts to smoke, then cook the leg of lamb in it until it starts to smoke. ‘it is brown. Remove the lamb and add the onion. Repeat the process for the carrot. Finally, add the lamb and onions. After five minutes, add the water, cumin and salt. Check the seasoning, then add the rice. Add the raisins and chickpeas. Cover and place over medium heat.
3. Boil the quail eggs, then peel them and cut them in half.
4. Once the rice has absorbed all of the liquid, quickly mix it in the same pot, making sure everything is cooked al dente.
5. Serve on a large plate to share with the quail eggs cut in half around the rice.
6. For the salad, slice the tomato and onion. Mix with olive oil, salt, pepper and chopped basil. Serve next to the rice.