It was back in 1971 in a small Swiss village on the border with Germany that Markus Iten decided he had to find himself a job to generate the money he needed buy a tape recorder. He had wanted to listen to the music of the Rolling Stones and just did not have the cash.
“I had to earn money, so I went to the kitchen and this was how it all started,” Iten said.
By a little stairway next to the spacious kitchen of the Dusit Thani Hotel in New Cairo, Iten was playing with his grand chef’s hat, starring in the early winter sky and recalling that after having bought the recorder and a few tapes, he realised that it was alright for him to keep pealing potatoes and onions and to dice tomatoes and parsley so he can make more money, as he decided "it was not a bad job.”
One thing led to another and Iten found his way up the ladder from the kitchens of small Swiss village restaurants to the top restaurants the world over.
From Switzerland he went to South Africa and then South Korea, and way beyond and around.
This week, in Cairo he will be participating in the 2015 Cuisine Festival which is hosted by Al-Ahram’s women’s magazine Nisf El-Doniya.
The event will kick off Saturday evening and will be sponsored by Al-Ahram’s chairman Ahmed Sayyed El-Naggar.
Iten is one of over 10 chefs from all over the world who come together for this fifth annual edition of the Cuisine Festival, bringing graceful menus that offer guests everything from the Parmentier de canard confit that is being prepared by the French chef Julian Moulieres to the shrimp spring roll that is prepared by Thai chef Thongbai Tathong, along with much more from chefs across the five continents.
For Iten, this is a cultural fusion. “Food is culture, you know," he said.
Why? He answers, because “what people eat is inevitably related to where they are and what they do too. In South Africa and South Korea people eat from the land and from the sea … there is a lot of wheat, vegetables and fish. In Switzerland as in the rest of Europe there is a lot of meat, but also because of the welfare a lot of everything.”
Distinct cultures have distinct cuisines and diverse cultures offer diverse cuisines, Swiss cuisine being of the second group, as its most classical recipes have something German, something Italian and something French.
But even in the heart of such a melting pot, Iten said, there is always something special about a particular village that makes a particular cheese or a particular wine unique.
Globalisation, Iten said, has had a taxing toll on the cultures of the world and consequently their cuisines.
“In a sense, it is making so many culture specific dishes easily available all over the world. But it is also, in another sense, washing out food specificities, to an extent, because you could prepare a dish with a sauce that was prepared in a few hours or you could do it the classic way with a sauce that took three days to prepare,” Iten argued.
According to Ashrul Hussein, the chef representing Mexico, there are always specific herb or spices that define the character of a particular dish and a particular cuisine, “and it is not just the spice or the herb, but how it is prepared in the cooking process and how it is used."
Hussein argues that is always possible to mix and match, but not to overdo the fusion, because otherwise the outcome is "neither here nor there."
Himself having been born and brought up in Bangladesh, Hussein learned to cook at a hotelier school in his country of origin.
“When you learn in cooking school, it is not about — or not only about — the authentic food of your country, but also the top dishes of the world,” he said.
Hussein added that as one learns to cook in a methodological way, one can't escape acquiring expertise at home cuisine dishes. “It becomes a part of the learning process,” he said.
Hussein then took a few jobs in his native country before starting to travel abroad. Some 20 years ago he arrived to Egypt and found an opening with the embassy of Mexico.
He joined to cook international cuisine dishes, but because food is cultural, he inevitably acquired know-how in Mexican cuisine.
“To be honest, I essentially learned the early basics from the spouses of consecutive ambassadors who were for the most part very good cooks and who happened to enjoy being around the kitchen,” Hussein said. He then learned “a bit more” from visiting Mexican chefs.
In the course of his two decades in the embassy of Mexico in Cairo, Hussein managed to "master Mexican cuisine" enough for the ambassador and his spouse to nominate him to represent Mexico in this year’s Cuisine Festival.
Also in the course of 20 years, Hussein managed to put a few Bangladeshi dishes on the table of his employees, though “not for official dinners or receptions.”
For him, the ultimate bridge between the kitchen of Bangladesh and that of Mexico is chili. “We both use it a lot, but of course in different themes.”
Vikash Anand, an Indian chef who is in Cairo for the Cuisine Festival, is convinced that using common ingredients is the best way to start introducing the apprehensive to the joys of a foreign kitchen. Alternatively, the extreme and the unexpected can break old habits.
This second possibility, Anand said, is perhaps what makes the super spicy and super flavoured Indian kitchen so appealing to a British audience whose classic recipes are not spice and herb based.
Inevitably, said Wessam Massoud, an Egyptian neurologist turned chef, it is all about technique. “Technique is what determines cuisine, or at least it is a key factor,” Massoud said.
This is why Massoud focuses on teaching people cooking techniques in his cooking programme Kitchen 101.
“This is not international cuisine because it is about specific recipes, but because it is about the techniques that can allow someone to play around with ingredients in the kitchen,” he said.
What Massoud offers in terms of style seems to have a lot to do with where he learned to cook: in his mum’s kitchen during his parents years of work in Saudi Arabia where he attended an American school before he came to Egypt to join the School of Medicine.
Nonetheless, Massoud is convinced that Egyptian cuisine is both underestimated and under-marketed. He disagrees when he hears people say "there is no real Egyptian cuisine."
He insists that Egyptian cuisine is not typical Mediterranean/Levant cuisine, even though it has been reduced to a limited selection of what is already there.
“This is why I have an enormous appreciation for the people of Alexandria, because they do take pride in their kitchen, and they are not willing to compromise anything about it. In a way, it might be called defensive,” he said.
Massoud believes this might well be a function of the fact that throughout the years of "cosmopolitanism," Alexandrians had to make sure their kitchen was not lost in midst of diverse cuisines from Greece, Italy, France, Armenia, Slovenia and beyond.
But even with the accepted "limited selection," Massoud finds diversity, especially in how the dishes are prepared.
“When I happen to go to Sharqiya, I eat food that is not so gorgeously delicious but that has a strong sense of the constant and the real — in the sense that everything is prepared then and there,” he said.
Massaoud depicts a "go back to the roots" taste in the Egyptian eat-out market.
He argued: “I think it is a function of the January Revolution, which was definitely a moment of celebrating Egyptian nationalism in so many ways, cuisine included."
“We have been seeing several Egyptian cuisine restaurants opening, and I think with good management this business could expand in Egypt and beyond,” he suggested.