We stood in the busy dining area of Maldives Marine Expo’s food fest early last month, watching the slow death of a feisty Maldivian lobster as it plunged into an aromatic hell of fragrant broth. A swift movement at the corner of our eyes made us turn towards the action, and we gave a little start as the mind registered the form of one of the renowned faces in the country, Ms. Mariyam Noordeen (Marie) - Founder and the President of the Chefs Guild of Maldives (CGM). In addition, she’s a visionary; a professional in Tourism and Hospitality consultancy and training. We had the absolute pleasure to sit with her for an exclusive interview for this year’s first issue of the Islandchief.
“Show your pride in your whites, be respectful to it and be proud of wearing your white uniform, that is only how you can portray your passion”
1. What sparked your interest in food and hospitality industry?
In 1982, I started my Higher Secondary education at boarding school in London, England. I initially wanted to study nursing with the contextual of science knowledge. However, with the sentimental emotional reaction and feeling light-headed at the sight of blood, I had to forgo my interest.
Back in the early 80’s, career guidance was not a norm. But since I was a service-minded people person, I wanted to trust my own instinct and engage myself in something which I have a passion for. Hence, I flack-backed to the days I was pursuing my secondary education in Sri Lanka. I was privileged to discover and experience some traditional dishes from the late Ms. Dhondheedhi of Athagashoshuge. Extremely inspired, I attempted at authentic Maldivian dishes like pirini, dhal curry and pumpkin curry with my own creative twists. Since then, I had constantly relished the Tourism and Hospitality Industry and followed years of training in London achieving a Diploma in Hospitality and followed on to a Degree in Hospitality Management. I strongly believed the motivational quote from Steve jobs - “the only way to do great work is to love what you do”.
2. How was your professional journey? Did a formal education help you to advance your career?
After my education, I wished to work more independently and away from home-in a resort. But back then, the hospitality industry was too male-dominated, that it was a taboo for girls to be a part of it. I distinctly understood that there were reasons for it; there were widespread rumors within the society, proper facilities and other factors were not in place for females to work at the resorts. And of course, like most parents my family was very protective.
However, the prospects enlightened for me with the opening of Maldives Hotel School in 1987, under the Department of Tourism. I was one of the two Maldivians who joined the UNDP consultant team as a Trainee Instructor - assisting to progress the curriculum, provide trainings and run the school efficiently and effectively. I was more captivated in career development and spellbound in advocating and training more people in the Hospitality industry.
The Hotel School proved to be a thrilling and productive place with mentors, lecturers, tutors acquiring advance knowledge overseas along with the students. After 3 years when the UNDP project was over, myself with the Maldivian team were competent to conquest and continue the operations without any hitches.
The initial course offered at the Hotel School was a one-year programme with professional on-the-job training in the industry. I initiated discussions to further develop and enhance training sessions, and even affiliate the programs to conduct it under a professional body - as a campus for Birmingham College of Food Tourism and Creative Studies (now University College Birmingham). Education system at the Hotel School boomed with Higher Diploma and even block mode Degree and Masters programmes.
After the transition of the UNDP project, I wanted to emphasized on the development of our staff. Therefore, I proposed to provide them the opportunity to enhance their career by completing their Bachelors or Masters Degrees in Maldives an overseas. Key emphasis was given, as the Maldives College of Higher Education was formed under ADB project.
While taking key responsibilities at the college, I completed my own studies and graduated with a Masters’ degree in 2003. I learned the task of balancing priorities for my family, work and studies. Yes, it was challenging, but surely my determination and dedication triumphed.
As there was a high demand for training and development, I got the opportunity to work with the Employment Skills Training Project (ESTP) and Technical and Vocational Education and Training (TVET) team. I was accountable to execute the different components of the project with the ESTP consultant and TVET team for development of skills and occupational standards of not just hospitality tourism industry, but also the social sector, fisheries, agriculture, and so on.
My contextual was from training to curriculum development and my heart and passion has always been in development and training. Chefs Guild of Maldives (CGM) as an NGO came to existence in 2014; as a much-needed platform to explore more opportunities and participate in international and local events to showcase their creative cuisines with the artistic fusions.
Currently I am conducting Training and Development workshops, in addition to the NGO; Chefs Guild of Maldives (CGM). This NGO provides chefs working in the Maldives a much-needed platform to explore more opportunities and participate in international and local events to showcase their creative cuisines.
Advocating, Training and Development has been the biggest strength over the years with passion. Currently I am conducting training and development for the millennials and youths and exploring more opportunities for the Maldivian Chefs to showcase their talents. I am proud to say that - Today we have very talented professional Maldivian Female Chefs in our community. CGM existence was steadfast and we are a proud Member of Worldchefs and work closely with Chef Guild of Sri Lanka.
3. You have been a voice of lot of Professional Chefs and Empowering Women in the Food & Hospitality industry, what are the key aspects that can be changed in order to develop the industry?
As an association, we advocate to the industry challenges in seeking solutions for culinary professionals across the vast spectrum of the Maldives’ Tourism and Hospitality industry.
We strive to break the norms and ideas which traditionally suggests that Maldivians are inactive and unaccountable. Although this concern has been frequently voiced out at industry events, I believe action is unspoken. Trainings and development programs to accelerate employee growth is a key neglected area.
With the development of new projects and resorts, the other key area industry stakeholders should focus is staff retention. A comprehensive employee retention program can play a vital role in both attracting and retaining employees. Action should speak louder than words. Nowadays you see a lot of apprenticeship programs from the resorts and I would like to highlight one of the best and successful apprenticeship programs offered by Four Seasons Maldives Resorts.
As tourism in the Maldives is booming, the need for career growth pathway in this industry is demanding. Apprentice programs needs to be structured more towards the needs of the industry and more youths should be attracted towards these programs. Personally, I can foresee that every resort could be a training platform for our future millennials. Maldives National Skills Development Authority (MNSDA) can play a pivot role by providing more assistance to these apprentice programs.
If there is a hardworking chef, I would like to shed some light on that face, while connecting them with relevant bodies in order to make profiles and interviews of these potential people. I like to bring people out of their comfort zones to showcase their talents in the international market. You don’t have to be a chef to be able to head an Association. In n fact, I am not a chef. But if you have the passion for it, that is all that matters.
Equal opportunity for women and to work with different nationalities and cultures should be given for locals and foreigners in the Tourism and Hospitality industry of Maldives. In this regard, CGM will always welcome all the Chefs in the Tourism Hospitality to be part of our chef family. We have created a gateway for networking and opportunities. I believe we need to advocate our youth and industry more.
We are the pilots of our own journey and it is our responsibility to invest time for ourselves. Recognition and appreciation should also be a key factor to consider by the private and public sector, especially at government level as well. Hardworking chefs are also professionals in the industry.
4. Considering the Maldivian Chefs in the Hospitality industry, do you think there are enough opportunities available for locals to excel in this profession?
With the inception of CGM in 2014, various opportunities and platforms have been created for the befit of the Chef community. We have played a key role in changing the public’s perception about culinary; now this is a generally acceptable career field in the eyes of many. CGM mainly focuses on to provide various platforms to recognize themselves in the international market and provide training and development for the aspiring chefs to broaden their knowledge about the field and participate in international webinars/seminars. Since CGM is a member of Worldchefs, I believe we can explore and expand more opportunities benefited for the Chefs and local community.
Below are the key main objectives of CGM; to foster friendships among culinary professionals and associated individuals and institutions in the Maldives, to promote the culinary profession throughout the country and to increase awareness in accordance with and with the advice of the relevant government authorities, to develop professional occupational standards and improve training, education, technical knowledge and work ethics, to assist relevant authorities in improving food supply and storage conditions as well as hygiene and sanitation standards, to support the Faculty of Hospitality and Tourism Studies in their endeavor to create professionally trained hoteliers and Chefs, to advocate the development of a national Culinary Team to represent the Maldives in international competitions and forums, to create and maintain close relationships with the local and international hotel, catering and tourism industry, to develop and maintain close relationships with other culinary associations worldwide, to foster communication, training and professionalism throughout the national and international hospitality industry and to participate in other activities that may be of benefit to the association, its members and society.
Being a Chef may be the toughest job you will ever love. If you have the passion and love the work you do, you have to allocate some time for your development. Make it a habit to utilize training sessions and allocate some budget. We as an association, will also facilitate sponsorships for those interested in being trained and developed. Our platform is to provide that link for people to go international as well as to assist the chefs.
Currently, we have limited professional courses in Maldives for Culinary industry. But the perks of being with CGM and WorldChefs; the chefs and interested candidates can have access to the many free webinars and other countless opportunities. I strongly believe that Chefs are expert consumers, transformers and vendors. They touch every layer of society as influencers, trendsetters and innovators. Becoming an accomplished chef is a journey of constant learning and improvement, it takes time, dedication and hours of hard work. But the reward is worth the sacrifice. We need to educate, network, compete and engage chefs in sustainable initiatives.
Though hospitality and tourism is still a male-dominated industry, I am proud to say that more women are breaking the stigma and joining the workforce every year. Alongside men, women are also working in the service industry, and even in the professional kitchens.
5. Destination dining is becoming increasingly popular in tourist destinations? What are your thoughts on this unique segment for Maldives?
The Maldives has a reputation for being the most romantic destination in the world. But there’s relatively a small percentage of tourists visiting the Maldives for destination dining. A variety of cuisines are available in most high-end resorts, but I feel that we lack incorporating “Authentic Maldivian Cuisines” into the menus. Most of the resorts have bandwagon of Maldivian nights with local cuisines. But these dining events are not authentic Maldivian gastronomies, it is mostly a fusion of Asian cuisines. I have experienced this in lot of resorts.
Our cuisine is so rich, we have so many varieties that are associated to the different atolls and islands in the Maldives. I believe Maldivian Authentic Cuisine Restaurants should be introduced in the Resorts; which will in turn give more opportunities for the talented local Chefs to showcase their talents. In fact, we are planning to have a Food Festival as part of the Tourism Golden Jubilee Celebrations this year. Competitions and training sessions will also be held during the festival. I believe many resorts will be interested to take part in an event like this.
6. Talking about creativity, how challenging is it to offer chefs solutions without compromising on their freedom to be creative?
The opportunity to be creative is widely given in the industry and there are well known chefs who are dedicated to explore and deliver new ideas to the table. More opportunities need to be openly given to the public to welcome individuals to the industry.
When you see adverts it is mostly opened to a certain level, some recruiters advertise chefs positions only to a certain level. Senior positions such as Executive Chefs are not advertised for application, and these positions are given usually to foreigners. However, I believe that the opportunities should be given to showcase their skills. Equal opportunities should be given for the potential candidates to show their creativity and passion.
7. What were the key takeaways from last year's events and exhibitions?
Last year’s virtual event was a huge milestone for us. Previously, virtual culinary competitions were never endorsed by Worldchefs. CGM took the initiative and compiled a rulebook that Worldchefs slightly amended and endorsed. Worldchefs was grateful for our inputs and efforts given for the rulebook and they were interested in publishing it on their official website for other Chefs’ Associations’ reference. It was quite a difficult task to have a virtual cooking competition, as we will be lacking the aspect of tasting. However, we managed to successfully pull it off and it was a huge honor to get it accepted by the Worldchefs.
8. What are the sustainable initiatives which can be implemented by the Chefs and key stakeholders in the Food and Hospitality industry?
For sustainable initiatives, Waste Management is a vital area of focus. There are webinars and seminars that address this issue. We need to educate, advocate and engage more people aware of the Waste Management procedures, and the food materials that can be recycled and reused.
9. Do you have any plans to expand your current portfolio or anything special that you are looking forward to in the coming years?
My primary focus is growth and development of youth and existing chefs in the Maldives’ Hospitality and Culinary industry. I would like to see my own “Culinary and Hospitality School” for the future millennials to build a strong foundation as a stepping stone for their career.
10. Any words of wisdom for aspiring chefs and millennials looking forward to change the taste buds in the culinary industry?
Those aspiring chefs seeking a career in the culinary industry should be proud of what they are doing and they should always have the passion to cook and to be in this hospitality industry. Show your pride in your whites, be respectful to it and be proud of wearing your white uniform, that is only how you can portray your passion. As a Woman; stand tall in the community - Be enthusiastic, passionate, honest and positive.
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