Flavors of Leadership with Ishaq Solih, Executive Chef at Royal Island Resort

PUBLISHED December 07, 2023 | updated December 14, 2023 04:37

In this issue of Islandchief, we had the opportunity to engage with a culinary master whose path from modest origins to the esteemed position of Executive Chef at Royal Island Resort mirrors resilience, leadership, and a dedication to sustainability. Having earned distinctions such as Chef of the Year and emphasizing a wide array of culinary experiences, Chef Ishaq Solih offers perspectives on the evolving Maldivian culinary landscape, his most esteemed creations, and his aspirations for sustainability.

1. What inspired you to pursue a career in culinary arts and what are your earliest memories of the kitchen you worked in?

"Culinary" was a term unfamiliar to me just a year ago when I began my journey in 1998. Back then, my culinary exposure was limited to the simple concept of cooking. My uncles, Chef Mohamed Wafir and Chef Ahmed Wafir, who worked in early Maldives resorts, introduced me to diverse dishes. Locals were rare in the culinary field, but my grandmother and the community prepared vibrant dishes for events like Bodu’mauloodhu. My initial kitchen memories were daunting; surrounded by expatriate chefs, starting with no experience as a young kid posed a significant challenge. My education wasn't sufficient for the pressure I faced.

2. Your tenure at Bandos Island Resort led you to the prestigious role of Executive Chef. What challenges did you face in this leadership position, and how did you overcome them?

Taking charge of the culinary realm at Bandos Island Resort presented unique difficulties, offering valuable lessons for honing my leadership abilities. Before this, I spent over three years as an executive chef at the Royal Island Resort.

Bandos, the second resort in the Maldives since 1972, boasts a 46-year history of serving the hospitality industry. During its early years, the resort frequently hosted conferences and banquets, filling a void in conference facilities in the Maldives. The culinary team, some with over 32 years of service, was adept at managing constant event preparations. Introducing changes proved manageable through close collaboration with the management team, particularly with Ms. Sheznee Deen, the general manager and owner's daughter.

Transforming the staff's mindset posed a significant challenge, but with robust support from the food and beverage manager, Mr. Ismail, and the management team, we successfully navigated this hurdle. Coping with an older facility, limited equipment, and resources for consistent services presented another obstacle. Despite these challenges, both the culinary and management teams performed admirably, showcasing resilience and dedication.

3. You've received numerous accolades throughout your impressive career. Could you share one achievement that you are particularly proud of and the story behind it?

Over the years, I've been fortunate to receive several accolades, such as the National Award for Best Culinary and being recognized as Chef of the Year and Best F&B Host at Soneva Gili Resort & Six-Senses Spa. However, one award holds a special place in my heart—the Most Enterprising Employee of the Year 2001 at Royal Island Resort. This recognition meant a lot because it highlighted the often-overlooked efforts of behind-the-scenes employees. It acknowledged my commitment to extra duties and training sessions for junior staff. None of this would've been possible without the support of Mr. Faisal Naseem, the General Manager (Former Vice President) and Executive Chef Tilaka Sinaratune.

4. With specialised training in diverse cuisines and management workshops in Germany, Thailand, and Vietnam, how have these experiences influenced your cooking style?

My culinary and managerial abilities have been profoundly shaped by training experiences abroad, spanning Germany, Thailand, Vietnam, Singapore, India, and Sri Lanka. These sessions allowed me to explore diverse culinary arts, learning from other chefs and refining my skills, both in group management and various cooking techniques. Notably, my overseas training covered Japanese cuisine, while the management workshops in Vietnam and South Africa enriched my understanding of effective leadership.

5. As the Executive Chef of Royal Island Resort, what is your vision for the culinary experience you aim to provide to guests, and how do you ensure the team aligns with this vision?

In my role overseeing all culinary aspects at Royal Island, from menu creation to kitchen staff supervision, my primary focus is on sustainability. Through initiatives like the Zero Waste program, we transform fruit and vegetable waste into sustainable dishes. About 25 percent of our main buffet and 75 percent of the afternoon tea for all-inclusive guests feature sustainable options, leaving a lasting impression on our guests, particularly with homemade pickles and preserves.

This commitment extends beyond Royal Island, reaching neighboring island schools and contributing over 3000 trees of pineapple, avocado, mango, and jackfruit to various islands. Throughout my three terms at Royal Island, success hinged on the remarkable support from management, notably from former General Managers like Mr. Faisal Naseem, Mr. Qaisar Naseem, Mr. Muaviyath Umar, Mr. Zameel, and the current General Manager, Mr. Ismail Rasheed.

6. Out of all the dishes, what has been your most proud creation?

Amid our diverse array of local dishes catering to various preferences, I take particular pride in crafting meals for vegans as part of our zero-waste initiative. One standout creation is the grilled Mas’bayi, which garnered enthusiastic feedback from customers, prompting numerous requests for the recipe. In response, I organized cooking lessons to share the culinary artistry behind this dish.

7. What is your opinion of the Maldives culinary industry, how has it evolved since you started?

I believe the Maldives culinary industry is progressing positively. In the earlier days, offerings were limited, and there was no competitive market or significant guest demands. However, today, we see a transformed landscape with a competitive market and heightened guest expectations. The service industry now boasts numerous high-end brands, and a revolutionary change has been witnessed in the culinary sector, where food and beverage have become major selling points in many Maldivian properties.

8. Considering the number of Maldivian chefs across the tourism and hospitality industry, do you think there’s enough opportunities available for locals to excel in this profession?

Reflecting on the earlier challenges mentioned, during those times, the local population was smaller, and there was hesitation within the community about locals pursuing culinary careers. The landscape has evolved significantly since then, with more locals recognizing the importance of skilled workers in the industry. Despite a growing number of highly qualified graduates entering the culinary field, challenges persist in securing senior positions. To address this, substantial support from both the government and the industry is needed to ensure equal opportunities. Currently, approximately 95 percent of senior chefs are expatriates, but the emergence of a local culinary association is actively supporting local chefs in seeking opportunities.

9. How has the Chefs Guild of Maldives (CGM) evolved over the past nine years, and what initiatives are you planning to enhance connections among chefs in the upcoming term?

Initially serving as the vice president and later continuing as an Executive Committee member, I consider being elected as VP a privilege to serve Maldivian chefs. In CGM's early days, financial challenges were significant, with reluctance from resorts and companies to offer support. Despite these struggles, CGM, established in 2014 as the first non-profit association for chefs in the Maldives, secured its charter from the World Association of Chefs Societies (WACS) within a year, affirming its status as the authorized national culinary association.

Supported by Chef Guild Lanka in its early stages, CGM gained membership from the World Association of Chefs Society. Over nine years, CGM has forged strong community ties, playing a vital role in promoting chefs locally and internationally. Actively participating in WACS congresses, including the first world chefs congress in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 2017, CGM has expanded its presence and engaged an increasing number of chefs.

With over 300 registered members and numerous active participants, CGM has become a significant force, sponsoring two annual cooking events in the Maldives and providing an international platform for chefs with financial and technical support. The association's inaugural award ceremony last year marked the beginning of a biennial tradition, featuring professional chef judges who have excelled at both national and international levels.

Looking ahead, I plan to collaborate closely with the president to enhance connections among our chefs and the Chef Guild of Maldives. This initiative aims to encourage participation in internal competitions through CGM, fostering skill development and providing valuable publicity.

10. In your opinion, what trends or changes do you foresee in the culinary industry, and how are you preparing yourself and your team to stay ahead of the curve at Royal Island Resort?

I foresee substantial shifts in the culinary industry to align with evolving customer preferences and behaviors, incorporating mega trends to meet changing market demands. The pivotal role of monitoring food quality, safety, and waste management will be crucial. To stay ahead of these changes at Royal Island Resort, my focus is on training the team to be versatile and efficient, ensuring their excellence in a fast-paced environment and timely service delivery.

11. Given your rich background and experience, what advice would you give to aspiring chefs who are looking to build a successful and diverse career in the culinary industry?

To aspiring chefs, my primary advice is to have faith in your abilities and set concrete goals. Establish clear resolutions, persevere through challenges, and demonstrate respect for your colleagues and superiors. Recognize that success in the culinary world is a gradual process. Constantly broaden your knowledge through experiences, hone your skills by experimenting with various recipes and ingredients, and embrace mistakes as valuable learning opportunities—they play a crucial role in your culinary journey.



Please login to Comment