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Interview: Why self-taught chef Solemann Haddad loves being his own boss

The 26-year-old founder of Dubai’s eight-seat Moonrise restaurant is set on making his mark

Solemann Haddad attended culinary school in Tokyo and London, but he didn’t have any on-the-job training before – at the ripe old age of 26 – founding his own restaurant in Dubai. Moonrise is an intimate eight-seat fine-dining concept in an obscure unlicensed location, and Haddad says his lack of experience has been both a blessing and a challenge. Born and raised in Dubai, the young chef is part of a new wave of talent creating niche, chef-driven culinary experiences in the emirate, but at what cost? In a candid interview with Connecting Travel, Haddad reveals the sacrifices and challenges he’s faced to chase his ambitions. 

You’re largely self-taught. What have you gained – and lost – by not having formal restaurant training?
As hard as it has been going through this journey with minimal mentorship, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m extremely grateful to have friends who believed in me and their faith has given me the fuel to go the extra mile when I’ve been down. A huge advantage of having no prior restaurant experience is that my imagination has not been limited by culinary dogma. This has helped me do things my way and follow my own instinct.

No one has ever told me what to do and what not to do. The sky’s always been the limit

One of the biggest difficulties is that I had to learn almost everything I know on my own. From waste management, to building relationships, accounting, and, of course, the cooking itself. I used to spend every single waking moment teaching myself everything. It has been time-consuming. Between studying and working, over the last five years I’ve barely spent any time with my family and friends.

Not only have I never had a mentor, but I’ve also not been able to fall back on my family for emotional support. This has definitely taken a toll on me. What keeps me going is how much I believe in myself, my team and our goals. 

The counter accommodates eight people per seatingThe restaurant seats just eight people

Do you feel there’s an appetite for smaller restaurants off the beaten path in Dubai?
Being born and raised in this city, which I’m extremely proud to call my home, I’ve seen Dubai shift from being an up-and-coming place to becoming one of the most beautiful, expectation-surpassing cities in the world. As the industry grows, we’ll inevitably see more small-scale, chef-driven restaurants opening, and that’s a beautiful thing to watch.

Has the location in a relatively unknown residential tower caused any issues?
I love Moonrise’s location. It’s situated on the rooftop of Eden House, a luxury residential tower on Sheikh Zayed Road, which gives us an amazing backdrop of the Dubai skyline and stunning views of Jumeirah’s beaches. When the location was offered to us, I knew instantly that this is where I wanted to open Moonrise.

Why did you decide to launch Moonrise as an omakase concept in which the chef chooses the dishes?
One reason is to control the service and quality of the experience. Moonrise serves no more than eight people at a time with seven staff. By running an operation with a guest to staff ratio of almost 1:1, we can ensure that we deliver the highest and most consistent quality of food, service and hospitality to our guests. Doing that is quite expensive, but we believe it’s well worth it. The goal for me has always been to make an impact – and to change the way the world views this region. I knew that I wanted to do that through food, and more specifically, through fine dining. I wasn’t sure if Dubai would be willing to accept a tasting menu concept like we have at Moonrise, so we wanted to start small to be able to learn everything incrementally before scaling up the operation. 

Hummus FurikakeHummus furikake

How do you develop new dishes?
I don’t have a fixed method for creating dishes. Sometimes a dish concept can click in my head within a microsecond, while at other times it can take weeks or months to finalise. From experience, I’ve learned that what’s most important is consistently investing time and resources into pushing the envelope and making new dishes. 

What has been your proudest career moment so far?
I honestly can’t think of a single moment that defines what I do. The team and I work so hard, it makes me proud to see what we’ve been able to accomplish day-by-day, one step at a time, since we opened our doors in September 2021. The process has been difficult, but the outcome of our work has been just as rewarding. Nothing makes us happier than seeing a smile on our guests’ faces at the end of their meal. I’m grateful to be able to do what we do in my hometown and see the market likes and supports what we do – that’s not something to be taken for granted.

Is it becoming more common to see young homegrown chefs here?
It’s more common to see homegrown concepts run by older chefs in their thirties and forties, but it makes me very happy to see an increasing number of younger chefs running restaurant operations. There’s also so much attention and emphasis on women in the industry now, which is amazing because the more people join the industry, the better it is for all of us. The tide raises all boats.

Having more women as well as younger chefs coming into our industry significantly reduces the existence of the stereotypical, toxic, masculine macho-man chef that was previously the norm

It makes me so happy because it means that our industry is moving towards a more progressive and healthy work environment. The toxic masculine chef stands against everything I believe in. 

Fattoush CevicheFattoush ceviche

Which Dubai-based chef would you like to collaborate with?
I love what Mohamad Orfali and his brothers Wassim and Omar are doing for this region. They proudly push and promote Middle Eastern cuisine, creating and serving dishes that are influenced by their Levantine roots. I admire them because they’ve shown the world that chefs don’t have to be European to be world-class industry leaders. Pushing that message has been one of the most important goals of my career and seeing that ideological parallel between us has made me want to collaborate with them. Also, they’re friends and their food is exceptional.

What trends are you seeing on Dubai’s dining scene?
I’ve been noticing the growing demand for homegrown restaurants, concepts and success stories, local chefs and local talent – and not just Emirati chefs, but anyone born and raised here. Also, locally sourced ingredients, mainly fruits and vegetables are more prevalent as is what I call a ‘no nonsense palette’. A few years ago, when the region’s industry was smaller, anything with expensive ingredients was considered good. That is no longer the case. If something is good the market appreciates it, and if something is bad, the market will reject it – no matter the amount of truffle it’s dressed in. Japanese cuisine is obviously popular, but there’s more appreciation for Middle Eastern food and the market is becoming extremely openminded to eating just about anything.

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What are you working on next?
I’m constantly pushing myself and the team to be better. I’m always switched on, and dreaming. How can we provide more value for our guests? How can we make our experience even better? How can we blow their minds? I always tell my staff: getting 90% of the job done takes 50% of the time and getting the last 10% done takes the other 50% of the time – if not a lifetime. We’re always fine-tuning and working on getting better. 

My next goal is to expand Moonrise. As much as I love our current location, I’m beginning to realise that we can’t fully spread our wings here

We’re facing many limitations on what we can cook at Moonrise and how we can better the experience and service. I think we’re doing a great job now but there is so much more for us to give. That’s not to say that I want to move towards a large-scale operation. I want us to remain very service- and experience focused – that is the core of the Moonrise ethos. But we want to do this in a location where we can do a lot more for our guests. The goal is to be the best of the best on an international level, and for us to be able to achieve that, we’re going to need to move to a larger location.

For more information, visit www.moon-rise.xyz

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