Chef Khaled suffered a lot as a kid growing up in Egypt, especially in school. Not knowing that he is dyslexic, he was frequently beaten by his teachers for not doing well and was called stupid and other names by family and friends. That dealt a huge blow to his self-esteem. Not until he was diagnosed with dyslexia a few years ago did he figure out an explanation for what happened to him as a child.
Chef Khaled was very supportive when I approached him to share his story. He said that if what he went through could serve as an encouragement to someone, he would be more than honored to do so. You can also check out his restaurant at Wheelock Place and meet the man himself!
Could you share with us a bit of your background, where did you come from and what brought you to Singapore?
I was from Egypt. For the past 17 years, I have been working as a chef overseas and have travelled to about 19 countries. My last assignment was at the Four Seasons in Mumbai and Maldives. I met my Singaporean wife in Seychelles and in 2010, relocated to Singapore to work at the Shangri-La Hotel. Three years ago, I started my own restaurant called Pistachio, specialising in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine. I am also an Ayurvedic chef.
I understand you did not know you were dyslexic until you were tested a few years ago, is that right? Could you tell us how that happened?
In 2012, I saw a doctor at Raffles Hospital for depression. Subsequently, I was transferred to another doctor who started asking me very detailed questions. After the three-hour session, I was told that I was dyslexic and that the cause for my depression could possibly stem from my dyslexia. To think that I merely went in for a depression consultation and came out with a severely dyslexia diagnosis! But it explains many of the issues I am facing.
Can you recall how studying was like for you when you were younger?
It was terrible. I got tortured in school. I disliked going to school since I was five, as I was afraid of getting beaten by the teachers, especially during exams. So I would run away. I never dared show my dad my exam result. I would hide the papers and tried to duplicate his signature. I even had to resort to paying the teachers in order to stop them from beating me.
I was getting frustrated in school because my other classmates were doing well. For me, I had to rely on memorisation and visualisation in order to be able to answer the questions. At a young age, I was not sure why I was like that. Was I really stupid? Nobody knew about dyslexia then. I struggled the most with Arabic and Mathematics but surprisingly, English was my best subject. I was also very good at drawing and painting.
How did your family and friends treat you?
I was humiliated by my family. They said I was stupid, playful, did not study and so on. As for friends, they did not care. They probably thought that I was stupid and did not mix with me. I was lonely in school. I did not have friends. I could not answer the teachers’ questions and I did not know what was going on in class. I was very scared. I just hid in one corner and kept to myself.
I have some adult dyslexic followers on my Dyslexia Support Group Facebook page, some of whom have not been diagnosed but suspected they may be dyslexic. They have their fair share of struggles at work. Could you share with us what are your struggles as a working adult?
Working in 5-star hotels means I had to take care of the paperwork, in addition to cooking. I had to conduct briefings in the morning, take notes and communicate with the different departments such as accounts and sales. As head of department, I also needed to communicate with suppliers from different countries through emails. This was the toughest part for me, reading and replying emails. It would take me a long time. What takes someone 10 minutes may take me an hour or more.
When speaking to me, I may appear to be looking at you but in my mind, I may be wondering what is going on in the kitchen. And often, people misunderstand us as being rude or impolite, as we may appear to be not listening. Given our curious mind, I am always looking around, especially when I am in the kitchen. I may suddenly hear a noise and tell a staff to go inside the chiller and check if the fan is working. Or I may smell someone overcooking the garlic. All these can distract me from whatever I am doing at that point in time.
Did you know that cooking was your passion and how did you discover your love for it?
After I completed my secondary school education, I enrolled in an agricultural school, firstly because my grades were not good and secondly, my family did not have the financial means to send me for other courses. My father had kidney failure then and was hospitalised. I was the eldest of four children and had to work to support the family.
I had a neighbour at that time who could not bear the thought of me going to an agricultural school, as it was for the gangsters and drug addicts. Instead, she enrolled me in the first culinary school in Egypt and told me she would pay for all the expenses for the three-year programme, which I am very grateful for. So I successfully passed the interviews and exams and was accepted into the school.
In that three years, my self-esteem went up. I love doing hands-on things and cooking works for me. In my first year of culinary school, when I saw the teachers cooking tasty meals and plating the food nicely, I told myself I wanted to be like them. I started picking up skills in choosing ingredients, using the different equipment, preparing and plating the food. My passion started developing from there and I found myself good at cooking. I considered myself successful as a chef.
As you know, dyslexics have many strengths, most notably, they are known for their creativity and imagination. What goes through your mind when you are creating a dish? Did your creativity and imagination have a big part to play in the cooking process?
Definitely. My imagination and creativity helped me a lot. I did very well in culinary school. As a trainee chef, I was given the chance to cook for the government.
When I create a dish, I put myself in the shoes of a customer. I think about whether the food tastes and looks good, is it healthy, will it benefit the customers and will they give positive feedback. These are all my considerations when I am creating a dish.
I understand you are an Ayurvedic chef and that you help people through food. I believe not many know what Ayurveda is. Could you tell us more?
Ayurveda means Science of Life. It is an Indian medical system that dates back more than 3000 years. Since young, I have always like healthy cooking. When I became a chef, I was given an opportunity to study Ayurveda in India which led me to create Ayurvedic cuisine subsequently. Ayurveda is very scientific. It looks at the root cause of an illness or disease and I help to rebuild a person’s health through the food they eat.
Being the owner of a restaurant, would you consider hiring someone who is dyslexic? Do you think there is discrimination in the society in general towards someone who has special needs?
I have no problem hiring dyslexics because I know how to work with them. There will inevitably be discrimination in society, especially if people do not know about the challenges that come with certain condition.
For example, when I was working in the hotels, nobody knew I was dyslexic. Whenever we had meetings, I sometimes did not understand their questions and might give an incoherent reply. That made people wonder if that was just the way I was or was it because of my dyslexia.
Hence I would make it a point to tell people that if I make a mistake, please excuse me because I am dyslexic. I prefer to let people know rather than let it be the cause of any misunderstanding. I also do not wish people to misjudge me.
Lastly, do you have any advice for our parents on how they can better communicate with or relate to their dyslexic children?
Parents need to always encourage and support their children if they want them to do well. Also, do not call them stupid. Even if the parents do not mean it, we take it very seriously. We are very sensitive.
Chef Heman aka Ironman Chef, is multi-talented. He is first of all an accomplished restauranteur and author of three books, with another on its way. To add to the list, he is also a ceramic artist, with an upcoming solo exhibition, and a triathlete. One lesser known fact is that he is also dyslexic.
How did you first find out that you are dyslexic?
I was not as fortunate to have discovered that I am dyslexic during the early days. I found out only after my youngest son was diagnosed. After his diagnosis, I started tracing back some of the problems I faced when I was younger and found similarities with what my son is experiencing. Thereafter, I went for an assessment that confirmed my dyslexia.
What was going to school like for you?
It was very tough for me back then. As you know, dyslexics tend to learn more slowly and require more time to digest information. We are definitely not as fast as the normal kids. Especially in a classroom, most of the time teachers expect their students to be able to understand and grasp what was being taught quickly. But unfortunately, it does not work that way for us. We need a lot more enlightenment and guidance. Even today, although schools know more about dyslexia, how many teachers really have the patience to teach and guide our children?
What kind of psychological or emotional struggles did you have to deal with?
As I start to recall, I actually felt scared. I could not even complete and submit my homework properly. I would copy, cheat and do all sorts of funny things. Today, it would be even more scary. Why do I say that? We have google now and everything can be found online. If the students don’t know how to do their homework, they can google. But does that mean they understand what they’re learning?
During my time, the teachers were not as good or patient. They only knew that I’m stupid and that I don’t get it. I have had one Chinese teacher who took a blue tac, threw it at me and said, “你去死吧! 你这辈子会成功, 我的头砍下来给你.” (Translation: To hell with you! If you will ever be successful in life, I’ll give you my head). But today I’ve made it. One of the lessons I learnt is this, that even if you’re ahead of others, you do not need to be so proud of it. I was lagging behind then, but today, I’ve achieved something. I want to encourage all dyslexics that you can do better than the normal people, once you understand the ingredients properly. That’s the power of dyslexia.
What kind of help did you receive with your learning?
No help at all.
We know that dyslexics are very creative. How did you discover your passion for cooking, ceramic and sports?
All these were discovered over time. We are not born to be like that. Somebody asked me. They know that I’m a triathlete and wanted to know whether I was bothered if I was not amongst the top 10. I told them no. Not that I don’t have the fighting spirit. End of the day, I believe that somebody is born to be the top, 2nd, 3rd. We are all specially designed by God. If we know that, then we hold the design properly and do what is the best for ourselves.
You said you discovered your passion over time. Which one did you get into first?
Definitely cooking. It was what I got into first in my career. My dad and uncle are vegetable dealers. We supply vegetables to restaurants. That was when I was exposed to restaurant and cooking. I was very young then, about 12, 13 years old. Ceramic was when I was at the halfway house. I met Dr Ng who got me started.
Amazingly, all three categories help me along in my difficult journey. For example, when I take part in ironman races, it helps to make sure that I polish my skills properly because there is no short cut. Imagine having to swim 3.9km, cycle for 180km and finish off with a 42km run. When you’re preparing and training for the race, you need to figure out where you need to fine tune and do better at.
What advice would you give our parents to help them discover what their children are good at?
I would encourage parents to look at their children’s interests. I think at the end of the day, parents need to have patience and spend more time with their children. If you don’t, how do you know their talents? Busy parents like us work very long hours. I always ask parents why they want to have children. If it’s just to fulfill your obligations, then it is a little bit miserable. I think our children are our property. Not only our property, they are also Mother Nature’s property. We grow as a whole, we teach, we do it together, we learn. That is human kind. So spend time with them and find out what their interests are and from there, groom them.
Did you discover what your son is good at creatively?
Some gifts don’t come so fast. That’s why I say you need to take time to observe and let them develop. Because we change. Maybe at this point of time, we find that they’re very good in reading. But maybe in another five more years, they may be good in Science. While you know that they are good in reading, good in Science, I think you hold the 2 subjects back and along the way, you can continue to fine tune and see what is good.
I am a good example myself. Today, if my son is my kind of character, I would have a problem as a parent. Because I love cooking, ceramic art and sports, so what is my love? What is my specialization? I always tell people my specialization is all those. But unfortunately most of the time, the world wants a specialist. I think for dyslexics, you can’t just limit them to one area of creativity. So the answer is, we just need to have a little patience. Stay with them but along the way, they have to talk to people to fine tune and self-discover.
Is there someone in your life that plays a big part in influencing your outlook in life and belief that you can achieve whatever you put your mind to?
If you read my book, Dr Ng is one person who influences me a lot. He influenced me in ceramic art. If you know the whole entire art, first ceramic is 3D, not 2D. It involves a lot of techniques. Not just an art, art. You need to understand clay properly so that it will not dry up or crack along the way. You also need to learn how to fire properly, learn how to glaze and how to join. So the whole entire art teaches me, like what I said earlier on, that understanding the ingredients is very important.
Being a parent as well as someone with dyslexia, could you give our parents some advice on how to handle their children who are facing low self-esteem issues and are struggling academically?
I think the important thing is first, work with DAS. Let them help with certain techniques but along the way, while the help is in place, understanding your child and spending time with them is the other key thing. Don’t throw them aside. 不要让他们自生自灭 (Translation: don’t leave them to their own devices).
I don’t have a chance to really talk to the schools. The community is also important. They have to be more lenient to children with dyslexia.
I know that you were bullied as a kid. What would you say to these school bullies?
My classmates and the people around me thought that I was slow and stupid and that was why I was being bullied. But I changed my character and I became a bully myself. When I bullied back, it was because I was fed up, I wanted to defend myself. But that makes the entire world worse. That’s something I don’t encourage. But what I want to share is put in more love. The whole entire community needs to be more understanding of dyslexia.
Lastly, what words of encouragement would you give our dyslexic children?
The most important of all is understand yourself, polish your strength and build up your weakness. Do your best and be your best, regardless of how little you can contribute.