June 10, 2014

Nayla Al Khaja wraps up online cookery series Maggi Diaries

Nayla Al Khaja’s latest directorial project, the online series Maggi Diaries, sponsored by the popular brand of sauces, is seeking to put a new spin on the cookery show format as its four co-hosts traverse the Middle East looking for the best stories, sites and recipes in the region.

“The premise is we have these four women who don’t know each other, but they have two common denominators – they all love cooking and they all have to balance their work with caring for their families,” Al Khaja explains.

“We travel to different countries around the region, try different cuisines and there’s a strong focus on fusion. We’re looking to preserve the history of traditional dishes but add a modern twist, and we hope people will try the same at home.”

The show isn’t just another cookery show, however. Al Khaja says that if she’d been asked to simply direct a studio-based recipe series, she’d have turned down the offer. “For me, the food is secondary. The show is more about how food brings people together,” she says.

“It’s more about friendships and a meeting of minds. There are really three parts to the programme. Firstly, it’s about the journey of four women and the development of their relationships from strangers to becoming friends. Secondly, there is the discovery of new foods by experimentation and learning what works and what doesn’t, and thirdly, it’s about the locations and the stories we find there.

Geographical context

“We go to caves in Morocco where local widows grind traditional oil for cooking, we see the colourful costumes in Oman where people still eat by hand from a huge shared dish, and lots more,” continues Al Khaja. “There are amazing stories about people and the unorthodox locations we visit. The recipes are really a bonus and there’s always an emotional tie-up with the story each time. I feel that we’re humanising the cookery show format and giving it a geographical context, too.”

Internet shows are becoming big business, and the days of shaky camcorder footage of cats on YouTube are rapidly becoming history. This production may only be an internet series, but a total of 25 people – 15 crew members and the rest made up of hosts and staff from Maggi – travelled to Jordan, Oman, Morocco and the UAE for 28 days of shooting under the watchful gaze of the producer Hermann Meingast.

Al Khaja had a co-director, Sebastien Funke, who was tasked with tackling the technical aspects of the show, while she concentrated on the creative side and getting the best from the hosts. While the main crew were focusing on filming four or five different stories in each location, a second unit was dedicated to gathering background footage of the locations and side stories that complemented the main stories, while Meingast and the Maggi team also put months into preproduction, finding the locations and stories to film.

“It was challenging, too, as we had less control than if we were shooting in Dubai,” says Al Khaja. “We were in foreign cities we didn’t know and at the mercy of what happened around us. We always had to be thinking of creative solutions when problems arose and luckily, as a producer, Herman is very fast on his feet. You had to be flexible as a director, too, and often act as a diplomat and calm things down when people are stressed so you can get the best from hosts.”

Dramatic gains

As for a favourite memory, Al Khaja seems to have been particularly taken with the mountains of Morocco. “Eating couscous in the mountains was amazing,” she says. “It was the biggest plate of food I’ve ever seen, the meat was so tender and the fruits were plucked fresh out of the trees. The local women were singing traditional songs while cows wandered around as we ate.”

There was a learning process for the director, too. She admits that she’d never before been to a market to buy fresh food every morning, and she has even been turned on to cooking by her experience. “I’ve made a couple of proper meals since I came back, and I haven’t poisoned anyone yet,” she says, laughing.

Although Al Khaja grew a lot from her experience on Maggi Diaries, not everything has been welcome. “I actually gained 7 kilograms on the show and am now going to the gym every day. Every day we had four different women cooking food, as well as the locals, and who gets given all the leftovers? The directors on set, because everyone knows you,” she says. “I think I need to find a marathon reality show now.”

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