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Once 'Shameful', Being a Chef Now Acceptable in Amman, Jordan -
One of the Oldest Inhabited Cities in the World
By Taylor Luck, Jordan Times, AmmanMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

December 28, 2008 --AMMAN -- For Mohammad Awad, pursuing his passion was an uphill battle.

When he told his father in 1984 that he wanted to train to be a chef, his father was ashamed, because he believed such work "is only for women."

According to Awad, it was only after several hotels and restaurants opened up -- combined with a new culture brought in by foreigners working the Kingdom -- that the image of a male chef became acceptable.

Now a sous chef for the Kempinski Hotel in Amman, Awad's vision and determination have paid off.

"After 15 years, my salary is three times more than what my father ever made. Now he says I made the right choice," he told The Jordan Times.

Awad's story is similar to many chefs who ventured into the field of culinary arts when it was deemed an unacceptable career for men.

Samah Jabbar, who is now executive chef at the Sheraton Hotel, has been in the business for 20 years.

He was attracted to the profession by watching his brother, who worked as a chef. Intrigued, he went to Ammoun College (now Jordan Applied University) and began to study the craft. Soon, Jabbar realised that cooking was his true passion.

"I liked what I saw, I tried it out, and now I love what I do," he remarked.

"I get better pay here then I could in any other sector," said Jabbar, who earns around JD1,200 per month as an executive sous chef, over 10 times the minimum wage.

Allen Palmer, who has tested 1,900 chefs from 15 countries in over 50 contests, believes that the profession has a way to go despite the growth.

Palmer noted how many Asian countries battled the public perception of the service industry being shameful. Now viewing cooking as a respectable and honourable career, countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Singapore have quickly surged to the top of the culinary world, he noted.

Another problem is the lack of women in the field, he stressed, adding that in order for Jordan to catch up to the rest of the world, the discrepancy has to be addressed.

Chef Awad had a more practical explanation for the lack of women in the professional kitchens.

"At large restaurants and five-star hotels, you have to butcher large amounts of meat, carry 50kg bags of rice and prepare huge platters. It's physically demanding," he noted.

Despite the lack of women chefs, the industry is moving along rapidly in the Kingdom according to USAID official Joseph Ruddy, who pointed out that around 20 per cent of the 690 students enrolled in vocational training centres are women.

"We have some excellent young Jordanian chefs who are creative and innovative, and in the last year alone, we have seen a great improvement," Ruddy told The Jordan Times.

The USAID official pointed out that five years ago, nearly all head chefs were from abroad, mainly from Germany, Switzerland and France. Now, most head chefs in the kingdom's hotels and restaurants are Jordanian, earning large pay cheques and paving the way for future generations.

Ruddy pointed out that the Vocational Training Corporation (VTC) centres in Salt, Aqaba, Petra, Marka, Abu Sear, Jerash, Ajloun, Sahab, Al Basha and Karak are preparing young men and women for careers in the hospitality industry.

Under these programmes, trainees are paid JD50 a month, not including tips and a percentage of the service charge in addition to meals and transportation.

The only thing that is lacking, in his opinion, is a training centre in culinary arts for aspiring chefs and professionals to fine-tune their skills and develop their techniques.

According to the USAID official, there are plans under way for a centre to be built in Khalda in the near future.

Another problem in the sector is the lack of trained chefs. With the recent boom of hotels and restaurants, even when taking into account the culinary graduates from JAU and other universities coupled with foreign chefs, there is still the need for an additional 700 skilled chefs annually in the next five years.

Even within hospitality studies, it is difficult to attract students to the culinary arts. According to a JAU official, since 1999, the university has produced only 260 students from its food production programme.

"This is definitely a low number, and it's astonishing when you think of how easy it is for graduates to get a job in this field," she said.

Unlike other career fields, the ascent to upper level positions can occur very quickly in culinary preparation.

While training at a hotel, aspiring chefs spend three months each in preparations, butchering, cold dishes, hot dishes and pastries. It is during this time that the trainees learn where their interests lie and what their speciality is. Chefs at this stage receive JD200, not including tips and a percentage of the service charge, which can be over JD100 per month.

After this, sous chefs decide where in the kitchen the young cooks belong. At this stage, depending on skills and experience, a chef can make up to JD1,000 per month.

The position of executive chef, the highest post in the profession, is more of a management position than cook, commanding around JD3,000 a month. An executive chef manages the team under him, prepares the menus and assignments for the chefs, as well as makes executive decisions in the hotel in general. Experience allows upper-level chefs to open their own restaurants, start their own businesses and go solo in the hospitality industry.

"I've thought about it," said Awwad on the possibility of opening up a restaurant. "But I like my career -- the advantage of being a chef is the best-kept secret in Amman," he added.

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To see more of the Jordan Times or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.jordantimes.com/.

Copyright (c) 2007, Jordan Times, Amman

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