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.