In Conversation with Omar Sartawi: Jordan’s Pioneering Molecular Gastronomist

It goes without saying that creativity knows no limits or borders, and once recognised it’s almost impossible to turn a blind eye to it. Amman-born chef and food artist Omar Sartawi has built an empire of his own on the finer side of culinary delights which never seems to disappoint. Always keen on creating by relentlessly playing with textures, shapes and tastes to transform them into edible masterpieces, the trailblazing Jordanian is now taking over the world of gastronomy bite by bite with each concoction worth more than just the detour.

His initial rise to fame came through an innovative blend of flavor, titled Jameed Chocolate, which weaves chocolate truffle and fermented goat’s milk together, a fusion of both culture and culinary techniques. The sweet taste of chocolate is here met and mixed with the strong Eastern aroma of jameed and now makes Sartawi’s recipe recognised by those with a sweet tooth. Of course, not to mention it is also one of the key ingredients to one of the Sham region’s favourite and most traditional dishes – Mansaf.

The internationally acclaimed food artist is relatively new to the scene, but already boasts a rich portfolio of innovative avant-garde products and edge-cutting projects exhibited across all four corners of the globe. Ranging from molecular gastronomy; in layman’s terms that’s taking the art of cooking to a scientific level, all the way up to edible art installations, Omar Sartawi does not shy away from rewarding his warm and hospitable culture with a futuristic yet sustainable twist.

With as much vim as Lady Gaga when she paraded the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards coated in a gown made of raw beef, some of Sartawi’s latest endeavours also incorporate some surprising base-materials and that’s including an eye-catching aubergine leather face mask. COVID19 brought out some of the best and worst of mankind, for Sartawi however, it brought out inspiration as he saw the opportunity to design sustainable facemasks from otherwise discarded vegetable skins.

His creativity is far from being limited to the constraints of the pandemic as we see his newest ideas coming into fruition at last year’s iteration of the by now much-famed Dubai Design Week. For the first time ever, the Jordanian native touched down in the sun-drenched Emirate for a pioneering event that highlighted the importance of sustainability in art and luxury, using vegan leather made of… you’ve guessed it – aubergines. Through this new installation, entitled In a land of no sheep: Metamorphosis of a Nomadic Tent, Sartawi playfully utilised both modern and ancient techniques, paying homage to the Arabian mokhayam under a contemporary light, resulting in a truly unique art piece.

Finding strength in the sophistication of his own products, we naturally had to speak to thought-provoking artists to fully understand his passion, motives and drive. In an exclusive interview for The Habibi Edit, we sat down with the multihyphenate to shoot the breeze and discuss his journey in the industry up until now.

What was your initial introduction to the culinary world ? Where does this passion come from ?

I’ve always loved crafts and liked people that do things with their hands whatever their field of predilection is. One of my earliest memories is when I was sitting with my grand-father and his friends as a child, mainly people that work in the high-end industries of Amman, but for some reason the person I looked up and was glued to was the butcher that was serving us our food. Quite frustrating for my grand-father although this lust is not something I can language or explain with words – it’s just been in and with me for as far as I can remember.

Tell us what your background is ? Where did you train ? Who do you draw inspiration from ?

I worked in many fields including construction, marketing and design for a long time before shifting to what I do now. Sadly growing up, gastronomy wasn’t looked at highly nor as something you could study, like engineering, which is what I ended up doing, but the lust for food and design has followed me for a very long time. It’s also worth noting that I took Science & Food Physics courses at the University of Harvard in the past. 

I still had a French-educated chef who I trained with for over four months and would work together basically everyday without taking any rest. Although I may not have been trained in the most traditional of ways, I do hold my previous experiences, in life and at work, very close to my heart. I constantly draw inspiration from my background in engineering. For example, when I read cookbooks, I can see the mathematical aspect reek out of it as it provides me with a better understanding of why people use such ingredients, such ratios and so on. Everything makes sense and clicks from that perspective and whatever I have done before or keep on doing has led me to the path I stand on now and I have no regrets about it.

Why decide to use food in order to create edible items ? Why weave food and art together ? Where did this thought process come from?

I didn’t want to become an artist, I’m a cook and cooking is usually about following techniques and recipes made by other people to eventually learn from them and improve. I believe that that is where I am different. I want to express myself freely and differently but paradoxically this is not how a kitchen works.

I just wanted to be a good chef but through practice, I felt myself more and more drawn towards art and conceptual art. I cross the line every so often but it’s hard for me to define myself as either one or the other and I don’t think it necessarily matters as long as people understand me and my ethos.

I express myself through the medium of food and believe to be creating a new genre in the field; I don’t follow anyone other than my own cravings and ambition.

You blend a lot of the region’s heritage into your work. Why so ? Is your identity something you’re proud of and want to put forward in your work?

We can only tell our own intricate stories. Chefs are now looking at their gastronomy and aim at blending it with their own history and culture. And that’s what I’m doing with mine. Things need to evolve, either improve, deteriorate but they can’t be complacent and it’s my job to make that happen – and it’s my strength. That’s where it all comes from, everything is about storytelling and I have to tell mine while using the language and tools of food, now and modernity.

What are the challenges that you meet on the daily ? Are there any specifics regarding the fact that you are from Jordan ?

The better you become at something the more challenges you will meet. Jameed chocolate was for example met with some blasphemy for how sacred it is back home and how I used it. People can be a struggle, how do you delegate, how do you convince someone to stitch an aubergine all while managing them. It can be a bit of a headache but once you focus on the human connection and manage to surround yourself with a good team, all these things tend to dissipate (although they won’t necessarily disappear).

Being from Jordan can also be a difficulty in itself as we are not necessarily a country that is known nor recognised for being innovators and consequently people don’t always take my craft as seriously as if I were to be from somewhere else. You sometimes have to put in three times the work anyone else would have to but it’s part of the journey and, to some extent, there’s beauty in it. It can also have some advantages because it’s a small country and the sense and solidarity can be found easier and in a purer form than anywhere else in the world.

Why is there a focus to make your work in a sustainable manner ?

I never thought I would but it was a bit of a personal challenge. I wanted to get myself out of my comfort zone but the pandemic was also a bit of a wake-up call to me. It was a reminder of how we are not untouchable in any way and how vulnerable we actually are. We need to listen and be aware of the planet we live on – something we take for granted but this is definitely part of my journey of growth. I’m aware of it more now and want to participate in it from my own field.

What is coming next for you ?

I just want to keep on evolving. I might have something planned for today but tomorrow might be different as it’s going to be a whole other day. I can tease the fact that I am working on an immersive dinner show, an exhibition next month on top of the one that took place last week which were all set in Dubai. I have a busy calendar until next March, which i can’t complain of and actually quite happy about.

As the world is opening up post-COVID and everything is coming back to life, the idea of opening my own restaurant is anchoring itself more and more as I want to bring people from different horizons to work with me and experience this adventure alongside me.

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