I walked into Bait Maryam on a particularly warm winter’s day in Dubai. It was lunch hour; the parking area was packed, and the outside sitting area buzzing with people. As soon as I stepped inside the restaurant, I immediately recognised Chef Salam. She was conversing with almost every table inside the quaint indoor section of Bait Maryam. Without knowing who I was or what I was there for, she greeted me with the biggest smile and told me to take a seat next to her before her daughter, who handles the interviews came in and made formal introductions.
We found a quiet table outside just a meter from the restaurant front and then began talking. What was interesting about our conversation was the way she made me feel. She has the ability to connect with people in a way that makes them feel at home, no matter the difference in nationality or background. We are from two very different parts of the world, but in the thirty-nine minutes and twenty-two seconds I spent with her, I felt like I was having tea with everyone’s favourite aunt in the neighbourhood.
I asked Salam to tell me who she was, and the first thing she said was, “I am a mum.” As we went further into this story, you will realise that being a mum is her most important role in life, not just to her children but to everyone she comes in contact with.
Salam is Palestinian but spent most of her life in Saudi Arabia and America before moving to Dubai. Food has always been her love language, and Bait Maryam has always been her dream. The inspiration behind her dream is the restaurant’s namesake, Maryam, Salam’s mother, who passed away in 1996. Being the youngest in the family, Salam spent the most time with her mother before she married and moved abroad. She recalls the stories her mum would tell her about their village in Palestine, stories about her mum’s childhood, and the food that brought people together in the good old days. It’s been over twenty five years since her passing, but Salam feels the loss of her mum every day. When she moved to Dubai, her children remained in U.S. to complete their studies, and it was then that she understood what her mum felt when she moved away.
“When I moved away from my mum, and we spoke on the phone, I would ask her what she was cooking that day, and she used to reply with my least favourite dishes. I would later learn that she lied to me because she didn’t want me to miss home and miss her more than I already did. When my children and I spoke, I learned to do the same, but it used to bring tears to my eyes when they told me they were missing even their least favourite foods”.
In Dubai, Salam relished all the different cultures that existed in Dubai. She would visit as many restaurants as possible, eating at various places for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, tasting the food, observing the service, and paying attention to how she felt at each venue. The food was good, but something was always missing; none of them touched her heart. And as an expat far from home and family, she, like many others, were lonely and needed to feel that sense of belonging.
One night she woke her husband up from his sleep and told him she needed to open her own restaurant; her husband responded like anyone would in the middle of the night and looked at her like she was crazy. He told her she didn’t need to work, but Salam is a passionate and determined woman who has always found ways to feed people through her mum’s spirit. In Saudi Arabia, she started a cooking school that ran successfully for four years. Her husband would come home from work almost every night and announce that guests would come home for dinner. Salam, who absolutely loves to cook, would immediately start preparing, and by the end of each spread, guests left empty plates behind and went home belly and hearts full. It was these dinner guests that initiated the idea of a cooking school. The school closed when she and her husband moved to America.
One thing that her family has learned about her is that nothing can keep her away from the kitchen; even in America, Salam found ways to inject herself into the F&B scene. She met a woman who owned a restaurant in Houston and became like a student, constantly studying the ins and outs of the operation. She watched as the owner would sit satisfied every day after a long day’s work and enjoy a cup of coffee, and she longed for the day that would be her.
When her insatiable desire to open her own restaurant sparked again in Dubai, Salam told her husband that she needs this for her, for her mum, and even if just one patron came to the restaurant, she would be satisfied. Her husband agreed, and Salam’s plan was simple: she would cook like she always did for those she loved.
At the age of fifty-four years old, Salam opened Bait Maryam. She worked long hours perfecting her cherished recipes and wore her chef’s apron proudly everywhere she went. Initially, she welcomed people in and cook for them, off-menu and sometimes for free, anything to bring Maryam to life and make someone feel at home. Six years later, Bib Gourmand restaurant, Bait Maryam, has become the city’s beloved eatery with additional outside seating space, an extensive menu, and a full house almost daily. Fast forward to today, Salam has become the Middle East & North Africa’s Best Female Chef 2023 and JLT’s favourite mama.
All she set out to do was create a home for those living away from their families through authentic recipes passed on from mother to daughter, and while doing so with her whole heart, Salam has become a true inspiration to all. The feeling of coming to a home-cooked meal is felt at Bait Maryam. While she struggles to accept all the success and recognition sometimes, Salam remains content finally being able to do what she’s always wanted: cook with love.