Most professional cooks consider rising to the level of executive chef or opening their own restaurant as the ultimate career goal. However, the culinary ambitions of Sheikha Hesa Al Khalifa, member of Bahrain’s royal family and long-term UAE resident, are a bit more creative.

Rather than sticking to a single cuisine or, indeed, venue, the chef has built a career out of developing menus for a range of restaurants.

This, she says, gives her the freedom to experiment with any cuisine under the sun, ensuring no day is the same. Case in point: Al Khalifa has curated a contemporary iftar menu for The Abu Dhabi Edition hotel; desserts for The Bench on Al Raha Beach; and Khaleeji dishes for Sharing is Caring, which opened its first bricks-and-mortar restaurant in the capital last month.

Foodie at heart

Born in Bahrain – her father is a member of the country’s royal family and her mother is Emirati – Al Khalifa, 43, has lived in the UAE since she was eight. She worked in marketing for 12 years before deciding to quit her job to pursue her true passions: food and travel.

I provide a gentle introduction to the spices and other flavours of the region

Sheikha Hesa Al Khalifa, chef and menu developer

“I’ve always loved trying new food and exploring different cultures,” she tells The National. “Any restaurant I visited in the world, I somehow managed to persuade the chefs to let me come into the kitchen and learn their tips and tricks. Everyone I spoke to inspired me in their own way to the point that I gathered an encyclopedia of food facts. Then, about five years ago, I decided to translate my knowledge into action and become a chef myself.”

Since then, Al Khalifa has worked with various restaurants and brands across the UAE, crafting bespoke menus for Sla Cafe in Abu Dhabi, Ana Restaurant and The Uncommon in Dubai and Elsewhere in Khor Fakkan among dozens of others. “Many chefs start their careers because they love to cook, but for me, it was because I love to eat. Each menu I create is inspired by the outlet I’m working with, and what I’m craving at that particular time.”

Elevating Khaleeji cuisine

While Al Khalifa takes on diverse projects, an overarching theme is her desire to introduce more people to Khaleeji cuisine even if it requires giving dishes a contemporary twist. The iftar menu she’s put together for Abu Dhabi Edition, for example, has chicken machboos risotto, balsamic mushrooms with Emirati-spiced olive oil and lamb ouzi with barley harees.

“The menu was inspired by people of various nationalities, who said to me they found Emirati food to be a bit unusual,” she explains. “So I decided to take international recipes that most are familiar with and infuse them with flavours of the GCC.

“As someone who was born and raised in the Gulf, I’m very proud of our culinary culture. But you can’t force everyone to like the food. Instead, I try to provide a gentle introduction to the spices and other flavours of the region.”

For The Bench, which was founded by two Emirati friends, Al Khalifa has created a crispy custard pudding with Arabic coffee and dates, and Turkish pistachio salep pudding for the cafe’s pop-up at the Founder’s Memorial.

“The Founder’s Memorial attracts a lot of tourists, so I wanted to make sure the sweets reflected the UAE’s local heritage,” she says.

Cooking is a kind of magic that lets me create exactly what I’m craving

Sheikha Hesa Al Khalifa

At Sharing in Caring, diners can sample open-faced shawarma and traditional Umm Ali, plus sharing-style burgers and pizzas. Al Khalifa will also put together artisanal sandwiches for home-grown food kiosk Flat Burger post-Ramadan.

She says one of her favourite collaborations was with Elsewhere in Khor Fakkan. “I created a breakfast menu that was inspired by both Japanese and Emirati cuisines, which was so much fun,” she says.

“The truffle maki roll was filled with egg and cheese, and there were Emirati sandos, Emirati balaleet rolls and egg bao with mushrooms.”

Embracing variety

Al Khalifa says frequenting hole-in-the-wall restaurants and trucks to sample street food is her favourite kind of dining experience. “Some of my fondest travel memories are finding tiny hidden restaurants in the alleys of Rome, Barcelona and London. I learnt the most from the chefs in these places. One day I would love to launch a fusion food hall in the UAE.”

For now, however, she is more than happy to lend her skills to other restaurants. “Cooking is a passion, a kind of magic that lets me create exactly what I’m craving,” she says.

“Working in a kitchen is all about teamwork, like being part of a football team. It’s exhausting, but you have such a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day when you know you’ve won.”

Family support is another motivator for the chef. “My mum is my biggest fan and supporter. Her phone is filled with pictures of me and the work I’ve done. It was her who inspired my love of food from a young age and, for me, the best food in the world will always be what she cooks at home.”

Updated: March 12, 2024, 4:01 AM