Born in 1971, chef Sebastien Cassagnol has worked in some of the finest kitchens in the world. Learning the methodology behind French and Asian cuisine as a young chef, he has honed his culinary skills from Europe to Asia, and now meets a creative challenge in the Middle East as the executive chef at The Chedi Muscat in Oman. A father of two, Cassagnol is the perfect man to let us into the veiled world of Middle Eastern cuisine and the challenges, delights, and intricacies that lie within.
Is it safe to assume that Middle Eastern cuisine wasn’t part of your upbringing?
[Laughs] Definitely not. I grew up in southern France, near Toulouse, in an environment in which food was very important. I was always surrounded by very simple but very tasty dishes, and eventually I had the opportunity to study classic French cuisine, as well as French cuisine with an Asian twist. But no, Middle Eastern cooking was never part of the equation.
Have you brought that French-Asian fusion to the Middle East with you?
Well, it’s very hard to have a twist here; Omani diners are quite conservative. Everybody seems to have a favorite food that has been around forever and is very difficult to change—kebabs and shawarmas, for example. Or take the Omani seafood platter on my menu at our Beach Restaurant—I simply haven’t been able to remove or change it because it’s so popular. I have, however, served tuna tartar blended with apple wasabi sausage, and people seemed to really enjoy it, so we will see.
In what other ways have you had to adapt?
Not cooking with pork, for one. When I first came to The Chedi Muscat and found out we weren’t using any pork items, I said, “Wow, that’ll be challenging.” But it’s that sort of thing that forces you out of your shell and makes you think in a different way, more out of the box. Same with alcohol—you can’t cook with it here, so how do you flambé? But there are ways around it if you’re creative in the kitchen, and the results end up tasting very similar. Another plus is that being so close to Dubai, we have access to premium ingredients from around the world. And Oman has a supply of great seafood, vegetables, and spices that all add a wonderful taste to whatever you’re cooking.
What would you say are the most essential ingredients in Middle Eastern cooking?
Definitely saffron—it’s used everywhere in the region and in almost everything. Also lamb and seafood, particularly prawns and lobster. I’m also fond of Omani honey, which is a dark brown color and very expensive.
What is the local restaurant scene like?
How do I say this politely? We don’t have a lot of local competition in Muscat; the Ritz-Carlton has a great German chef, but apart from that the dining scene is not very interesting. That said, Oman as a destination is becoming increasingly popular, and I suspect that over the next two to three years there will be a lot of new restaurants opening. And Omanis themselves are becoming more discerning diners; I’m regularly being asked for cooking lessons and culinary tips, so interest is definitely growing.
If you had to cook us an off-the-wall, surreal, funky dish that is inspired by the Middle East, what are you cooking us?
[Laughs.] Braised goat. The way the Omanis cook goat, by braising it, is very strange to me as a Frenchman. So I think I would try to cook a goat the way Omanis do it as one of their national dishes, that is, by braising it. For me, as a Frenchman this is very unusual.