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CHEF SHAHENA ALI ASK THE CHEF

Stunning chef Shahena Ali brings her own refreshing new approach to the world of traditional Indian and Bengali Cookery completely taking the myth out of what is generally perceived to be a complex cuisine. Shahena transforms basic ingredients into fabulous dishes and takes us on a fascinating journey into the heart of different cultures . . . . more info

Shahena AliQ: Whom do you most admire for their achievements?

A: I admire quite a few people, mainly people from history, but if I were to choose one person in the present day, I would say Richard Branson, for his innovative and creative mind in his work, and his dedication to bringing enjoyment and fun to services which are normally staid and conservative.

Q: Who is your favourite chef?

A: I actually have a few favourite chefs, namely Gary Rhodes, whom I think is brilliant at explaining complex recipes to an audience, in a clear and simplistic way, and James Martin who has a natural flair for making marvellous desserts.

Q: With whom would you most like to have dinner?

A: Very difficult to choose, but I would like to cook a three course meal for David and Victoria Beckham, because as has been quoted in the media, they, (particularly David Beckham), enjoy cooking at home and, because they both enjoy travelling to different destinations around the world, they would appreciate the vast range of original dishes that are available from diverse cultures around the globe. I would combine dishes from three different continents (the Mediterranean, the Indian Sub-continent and the Middle East). Also, because they both possesses the flair to combine and experiment with new and old styles in the realm of sport, fashion and music, I'm sure they would also enjoy experimenting with the fusion of cuisines from around the world, which brings a quirky, contemporary twist - where East meets West - to traditional recipes.

Understandably with one half of the couple being a sportsperson, and the other a celebrity in the world of music and fashion, David and Victoria Beckham each have their image to consider; being conscious of how healthy and nutritious their diet is, whilst also indulging their craving for an occasional hedonistic reward in the form of richer, more flamboyant delicacies. The meal would be tailored around their lifestyle of sophisticated and extravagant tastes combined with their figure conscious attitude; it would consist of a combination of light, Mediterranean dishes mixed with a selection of traditional, rich Middle Eastern and Indian fare bursting with flavour. Firstly, the meal would start with a mixture of unusual and tantalizing Mediterranean and Indian appetizers, which awaken the taste buds, leading onto a main course and a finale of more elaborate dishes and desserts from India and the Middle East.

The meal would begin with a starter of Dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) and Chicken Kofta with Paneer garnished with mint, coupled with Tamarind and Date Chutney, and a cooling drink of sweet Mango Lassi.

Then, a main course of Chatni Gosht (Lamb cooked with sautéed onions, tomatoes, yoghurt and a fresh herb chutney) with Tamatar ka Salat (Tomato rounds with roasted cumin, fresh coriander leaves, onion, chili and lemon juice), Duck in Pomegranate Sauce accompanied by Jewelled Pullao Rice and Khoubiz (seasoned flat bread).

Finally, a selection of desserts: Seviyan (a rich sweet vermicelli pudding) and Baklava, with a cup of spiced Elaichi (cardamom) and Cinnamon Chai or Cardamom Coffee.

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Q: What would be your desert island disk?

A : Madonna's 'Immaculate Collection' - a great compilation of highly listenable songs to indulge my craving for 80's music; I also chose this album primarily because there is a tune to suit practically any mood.

Q: What is your favourite British food?

A : I do think that a traditional British Roast is incredibly satisfying, especially on a cold winters day. I would have to say that apart from the steamed puddings, (yes I am a pudding lover) in terms of British food, nothing beats a Roast chicken meal.

Q: What is your favourite Italian food?

A : Italian food, renowned for it's use of fresh ingredients bursting with flavour, has to be one of my other favourite cuisines in the world. I prefer the more simple fare that this country has to offer, such as Spaghetti Puttanesca, their wonderful variety of delicious breads such as Focaccia and their delicate desserts such as Tiramisu.

Q: What is your favourite French food?

A: I'm very keen on fresh salads and one of my favourites is Salad Nicoise. Now that is definitely an example of how a few basic ingredients can create a beautifully simple yet satisfying dish.

Q: What is your favourite World food?

A: I adore Indian and Middle Eastern Food (Lebanese and Moroccan). The sheer diversity of dishes available and the unusual combinations of ingredients used (e.g. pomegranate in lamb dishes) in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking means I can constantly experiment with new combinations of flavours and love to create a whole array of healthy, as well as indulgent, and deliciously different meals.

Because of the explosion of tastes and flavours the dishes from these regions possess, I find it incredibly interesting to combine the different recipes and create delicious new variations, unusual flavours can be brought to old classics by adding ingredients, which have previously never been used before in those recipes. I enjoy making creative and exotic desserts and adapting them to give them a quirky twist, e.g. Gulab Firni, a contemporary take on the traditional Indian sweet delicacy of spiced rice pudding with cardamom and rosewater, which I like to combine with melted white chocolate and fresh strawberries, garnished with slices of Gulab Jamun (an Indian sweetmeat dipped in a scented rosewater syrup).

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: The variety and creativeness involved in this job means that there is never a dull moment!

Q: How would you describe eating in the UK to someone who's never visited it?

A: I would advise them to sample as many of the different types of cuisine on offer in the UK, including the traditional British favourite of Fish and Chips! You can't beat the UK for providing excellent quality food from a huge array of regions around the world.

Q: Do you think food in the UK has changed for the better since the days of Duck with Orange and huge helpings of Black Forest Gateau?

A: I certainly do think that the variety and quality of food available has vastly improved and progressed dramatically in the UK over a short space of time. The main factors driving this progress can be put down to the fact that people in general are more aware and curious about cuisine and have high standards and expectations in terms of the food they eat. In my opinion, it is an excellent sign that the majority of people crave variety and are more knowledgeable about the food they eat, from it's nutritional content to the origins of a dish, as well as an increase in the appreciation of different types of cuisine - this undoubtedly bodes well for the future.

Shahena AliQ: What's the best thing about eating in the UK?

A: I love the sheer variety of cuisines from different countries that are available in any given city in the UK; it's amazing, and wonderful, to see how experimental and adventurous the people are, when it comes to dining out and experiencing food from the different regions around the world. I would say that the best thing about eating in the UK would have to be the immense diversity of the food on offer and the fact that more exotic fare is readily accessible, as easily as traditional British dishes, to the general public.

Q: And the worst?

A: It would have to be rise in the amount of convenience and junk foods that are eaten and which a lot of younger kids seem to be raised on. This does appear to destroy any natural curiosity they may have had in being creative with ingredients and, in learning any basics about food made from scratch in the kitchen, whereas in other countries helping in the kitchen with food preparation and awareness about fresh food in general is more prolific.

Q: At what sort of place do you regularly go to eat?

A: I enjoy eating out at Levante for Middle Eastern food, and also enjoy dining out for Japanese food.

Q: Would you like to live and work somewhere other than the UK and if so where and why?

A: I would choose to live and work in Italy if I were to select somewhere other than the UK, mainly because of the fact that the people in Italy know how to enjoy life and they believe that food plays a major role in their lives. With a healthy appreciation for cooking and fresh ingredients from a young age, and an enjoyment for living, you can't fail to warm to Italy and its people.

Q: What's your favourite food?

A: My favourite dish is Fragrant Layered Mughlai Lamb Biryani: an absolute essential of any Indian or Bengali wedding feast, this is a wonderfully fragrant and hugely satisfying meal. I love this dish because it is so versatile, going well with almost any accompaniment whilst also being a complete meal in itself if served on its own. It's a deliciously satisfying and delectably tantalizing dish, enticing the palate with the aroma of delicately spiced meat enveloped in warm fluffy basmati rice. It also never fails to impress everyone when brought to the table.

Q: When did you first get involved in cooking?

A: I started my fascination (or should I say obsession) with food during my early years in my parents' kitchen, taught initially by my mother and later, experimenting by myself and learning tips and techniques from friends who lived abroad (Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Indian). I learned to cook food at home at the age of nine, starting with the basics and helping my mum in the kitchen, and have never looked back. From that moment on, I was hooked, trying out both classic recipes and my own adaptations of recipes at home. Having been a recipe addict from an early age, I like to mix and match recipes to create unique dishes with a personal touch.

Coming from a food loving, not to mention travel-orientated family, (my father is a restaurateur and my mother is an oracle of knowledge when it comes to food from the Indian sub-continent), I have grown up tasting and learning about cuisines from all continents and therefore have a keen interest in finding out about the background history of dishes. I love organising lots of dinner parties, exhibiting my creations to my family and friends, which I have done from a young age. I am also the creative director for an Indian restaurant group, researching and developing and (prototyping) contemporary and fusion dishes as well demonstrating and cooking, centuries old Indian recipes; in the recent past, the group has been selected to cater for the launch of the Bangladesh Food Festival at the Houses of Parliament.

For some years now, I have been involved in introducing and demonstrating new and original dishes on the menu for an Indian restaurant group, as well as researching into, demonstrating and cooking, centuries old Indian recipes. I love to experiment with contemporary and traditional recipes, often combining East and West flavours to produce fusion food at home. As well as this, I have a keen interest in health, and am interested in how certain more indulgent 'comfort food' dishes from Indian and Middle Eastern cuisines can be adapted or modified to fit into the healthier categories of food, by substituting ingredients.

Although I have focused on Indian cookery due to my background, I tend to experiment with cuisine from across the globe and also love to bake. I love cooking food from all countries, especially the more unique, exotic and unusual dishes, regularly cooking and entertaining friends and family at home, with all types of cuisine focusing on Mediterranean, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian food. My forte would have to be Indian and Middle Eastern food; I enjoy cooking these cuisines because of the subtlety of spices which are used in a huge variety of ways, in both savoury as well as sweet dessert recipes, completely changing a dish depending on the type of spice and cooking technique used.

Q: What sort of people have you cooked for during your career. Most memorable or most forgettable?

A: I recall the time I was involved in cooking for a Parliamentary member, Conservative MP Bob Spinks, during the time the restaurant group I was Creative Director for was also selected to cater for the launch of the Bangladesh Food Festival at the Houses of Parliament.
It was great fun to be involved in that and I would definitely say that it was an experience from which I learned a lot about food and its way of transforming and bringing people from different backgrounds together.

One aspect of cooking that I love is the way in which fine food brings together people of all backgrounds and the fact that there is always an ingredient or dish available from around the world, which will appeal to even the fussiest of individuals.

Q: Do you ever have regrets that you chose to become a chef?

A: I don't have any regrets about being a chef, I think it's a fantastically interesting and hugely entertaining role, and provides me with the opportunity to combine my interest in food with my creativity to the best effect.

Q: What do you think you would have been if you had not become a chef?

A: As cooking has always been a major part of my life, and a major interest, I consider myself very lucky to be able to pursue one of my main passions. Whilst working in asset management, I still yearned to pursue my main interest of cooking and finally resolved to veer towards that field, as that is where my main interest and skills lay. If I hadn't done so, I would still be working in Bond Asset Management.

Q: What would be your advice to someone who is thinking of training to be a chef?

A: I would say stick to it, you need to stay committed, focus on the positives and maintain your fascination and curiosity for it, to survive the bad times. It is definitely a rewarding field of work and will undoubtedly provide you with a creative outlet too.

Q: The career of one famous chef only came about because his professional football career came to an early close through injury, and one chef's plans to open a restaurant never happened when he became football manager of Aberdeen and later Manchester United. Has fate ever played a part in your career?

A: I think the way fate has played a part has been to open my eyes to the many different cuisines around the world, whilst travelling, in my previous career in asset management; it pushed me to pursue my main interest, which was to be involved in cooking these cuisines, and gave me the motivation to pursue a culinary career.

Q: What are your hobbies, spare time interests, what do you do to relax?

A: Apart from my passion for food and cooking, my other passion is travelling abroad. I love to travel and learn new languages (at the moment I am learning Spanish). I have been abroad to many different places around the world and really enjoy discovering new aspects about other cultures and their cuisines. I also love to watch and play sport (watching football, playing tennis, swimming, running, roller-blading). I enjoy socializing, nightlife and also I enjoy regularly cooking and entertaining friends and family at home, with all types of cuisine including Mediterranean, Chinese, Middle Eastern and Indian food.

To find out more about Shahena Ali visit www.celebritychefsuk.com

Email Hub-UK : info@hub-uk.com