x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

The great - disgruntled - chefs of Egypt

At the old Egyptian Chefs' Club veterans lament the lost art of cooking and remember a time when prestigious families wouldn't eat outside.

Wahaban al Sayyid Mohammed, left, at the Egyptian Chef's Club with Ahmed Suleiman, centre.
Wahaban al Sayyid Mohammed, left, at the Egyptian Chef's Club with Ahmed Suleiman, centre.

CAIRO // From the street, Wahaban al Sayyid Mohammed looks much like any other Egyptian cafe-goer in the throes of a heated conversation about politics or sport. But get up close and you hear what Mr Mohammed is speaking passionately about: the best method for grilling lamb. Here in the old Egyptian Chefs' Club, an ordinary-looking ahwa, or coffee shop, that sits amid the faded elegance of Cairo's bustling downtown, the lost art of cooking is discussed in unusually grave tones.

To speak with the cafe's elderly patrons is to hear of an older Cairo - when cuisine was a matter of prestige, the vegetables were fresh, the silver was polished and dinner was served promptly at three o'clock, or not at all. Back then, it was not easy to become a chef. "The expert chefs could be counted on one hand," said Mr Mohammed, 58, who still works as a freelance chef but is quick to note that he once served "princes and pashas" and rubbed shoulders with the late, great chefs at the old Swiss-owned Semiramis Hotel, that has since been demolished. "The customers back then were first class. Not everyone could get into the Semiramis."

One major change to Egypt's culinary landscape is that illustrious families no longer hire their own personal chefs. In the years that preceded and followed the Egyptian Revolution in 1952, Cairo's great and good preferred to dine at home, as eating out meant venturing among the unwashed masses. In those days, a man did not just make molokhiya, Egypt's signature mallow soup. Molokhiyya made a man - and the Egyptian Chefs' Club was his calling card. After the ahwa was founded in 1934, chefs who frequented it pooled their money to install a telephone line - a rare feature for a street-side cafe at the time.

"The prestigious families wouldn't eat outside. They would only eat at home and brag about their chefs. Or they would eat at the homes of other prestigious families," said Ahmed Suleiman, who has owned the cafe for 12 years. "Back then, there were no business cards, so when a family decided they liked a chef, the chef gave them the number to this place and the family would call." Those families, said Mr Moussa, also owned the majority of Egypt's farms and ranches, from where fresh meat and vegetables were readily available. Egyptians ate small, brown baladi (local) chickens and tiny brown eggs that looked nothing like their modern, bloated cousins. Now, Egypt's wheat is imported from Russia, its meat comes from Brazil and ghee is mass-produced in Asian factories, said Sabr Moussa, a chef and club regular.

The prestige that once came with having the finest kitchen help has been eclipsed, said Mr Moussa, 50, by the value of brand names. International fast food chains like McDonald's or Pizza Hut are popular in Egypt, but their high cost, compared to an average monthly salary of about US$40 (Dh147), lends them a see-and-be-seen cachet. It is easy to dismiss such talk as back-in-my-day romanticism. But in the decades since Egypt opened up to overseas tourists, and subsequently fast food chains and foreign cuisine from as far afield as India and Thailand, the chefs who were once the arbiters of culinary excellence say they now must compete with young pretenders with no real education or work experience.

Those upstarts come from new tourism academies, whose army of graduates staff the kitchens in the enormous hotel chains that fringe the Red Sea coast. "After the rise of tourism and these institutes, they buried all these skilled professions," said Mr Moussa, who said he once worked as a chef in Cairo's Abdeen Palace when it was the official residence of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president from 1956-70. "If you cut a piece of meat that isn't a fillet and give it to a graduate of a tourism institute, he will cook it like a fillet. They learn on maps, with arrows pointing to the different cuts. Is this a road map or what?"

The tourism institutes offer general, two-year degrees in tourism. So by the time they enter the employment field, today's Egyptian chefs may know nearly as much about leading a scuba expedition as they know about filleting fish, said Mirjam van IJssel, the executive director of the Egyptian Chefs Association. "Egypt didn't keep up with the times. You know, they didn't produce their culinary schools before they started mass tourism. So now they're facing a big problem," said Ms van IJssel, who added that her organisation is working with the ministry of tourism to establish Egypt's first real culinary institute.

"Now you get people who go into the industry, and because of a lack of chefs and the huge growth in the number of hotels, someone goes into the industry, goes into the kitchen, and in two years he goes from a trainee to a sous chef." Egypt, said Ms van IJssel, is filled with "left handed chefs" - industry jargon for the sort of faux professionals about whom Mr Moussa and Mr Mohammed complain at the Egyptian Chefs' Club.

"The profession has lost more than it gained," said Mr Mohammed. "It used to be that when a young chef did something wrong, he got a kick in the butt. The assistant respected the chef and the assistant was never even in the picture. It was always about the chef and it was all based on respect." mbradley@thenational.ae