Shahzad Bhathena is an integral and leading member of Ian scaramuzza’s, Two Michelin-Starred Melisse restaurant, Santa Monica. He Discusses the unusual path he took to get him where he is today.
For Shahzad Bhathena, growing up in a small town in Bahrain, cooking was always something he was interested in. A lot of his love stemming from cooking with his grandma, her meals always making his day.
It was through cooking that he found a way to destress and get his creativity out. It made sense to continue that and seek a culinary education. However, being only 16 and living in Bahrain he wasn’t able to go to a culinary school and instead went to a hospitality school.
Shahzad said: “Via [the hospitality school], because I had to do an internship, I could intern at the Ritz Carlton in Bahrain itself.”
After graduating Shahzad wasn’t finished learning and moved to Spain in order to get a bachelor’s degree in hospitality.
He said: “Just before graduation, I emailed about 30 to 40 three Michelin-starred restaurants, on I heard back from was Benu in San Francisco, and one was Geranium in Denmark.”
First time in the US
Having already visited San Francisco, and liking the city, it just made sense to head out there and start his two-month Stage at Benu.
After his Stage at Benu, Shahzad said: “[Chef Corey Lee] offered me the chance to gain further experience at In Situ, a one-star restaurant located in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and was under the same group.
“I was in the US on a J1 Visa which is a training/intern visa, and that visa is valid for usually a year. Because I’d done only two months at Benu, I was able to extend that to another ten months and work at In Situ.”
This was where he met and worked under Ian Scaramuzza.
It’s clear that Shahzad really admires Ian, describing him as “someone who is a great mentor, specifically he is someone you can look up to […] and the best part is he doesn’t shy away from passing on this knowledge to you.”
But eventually, his year visa was up, and he left the United States, moving over to Sri Lanka where his Mum lives. There he spent time as head and R&D chef at an Indian restaurant, helped opened a global street food kitchen and even did some freelance consultation work for a restaurant in Nigeria.
“I was looking to move out of the country and get a job and start working,” he explained. “I reached out to chef Ian, and he told me that he was going to be taking up this role as chef de cuisine at restaurant Melisse in Santa Monica. He asked me if I’d want to do another J1 Visa and to come gain more experience with him.”
Luckily, during his time in Sri Lanka, he had started a master’s degree in cuisine making him a student and eligible for this opportunity.
What’s it like being a chef in the US?
Shahzad discussed that it hasn’t been easy being a chef in the United States. It was very scary at first especially as he spent a couple of months as an unpaid stage in a very expensive city.
Shahzad said: “For me personally, the only thing that bothers me or is the negative aspect is the time period I’ve got here – because of obviously visa restrictions and stuff like that – but, apart from that, the work environment, at least in the kitchens I’ve worked, has been really good. “
Having worked in hospitality in Sri Lanka and Bahrain as well as the US, he said: “I feel like in comparison to say Asia or the Middle East, there is a much healthier work environment, even though the hours are probably similar. I feel, in that sense employees are also taken care of in a really nice way and Employee welfare is also something that is really big and really good over here.”
Shahzad’s experience as a chef is a testament to determination, of seeing your goal and pursuing it at all costs, despite the setbacks that might come your way. His opinions on the industry reflect that as his advice to younger chefs is: “If you have the passion and put in the hours it will eventually be worth it.”