Three guys sat relaxed around the sole window table of the cozy café on the street of the uppity Zamalek neighbourhood in Cairo. A brick wall conjures up a hip New York college café and simple décor set a chill backdrop to the brainstorming session at hand. The three sat around an egalitarianly-square table, at perfect elbow height for their cigarettes in hand.
They threw out foods they've been dreaming about cooking for the next Chef's Table on Saturday, November 10. Camel's milk. Fish. Gourmet tacos. Gourmet mac'n'cheese. Truffles. Arancini. Cherry amaretto. I was baffled at how they co[uld possibly talk about such mouthwatering food and yet conform themselves with ordering coffees.
Wessam, dressed in a grey T-shirt with "What's your name again?" across the chest only gets off the subject of the intricacies of cooking for a moment before he gets right back on again – a sign of his obsession.
Ayman, sporting a woven beige beanie that slouches low on the nape of his neck, gestures with his hands, each clamped with a wide leather band closed with aluminum snap buttons.
Moustafa, meanwhile, sat quieter, hiding a smile, in a classic bright white tee.
This is the third Chef's Table that Moustafa El Refaey of Zooba, Ayman Samir of the Cellar Door and Wesam Masoud of Eatcorp (Top Dawgs, Ali Baba, Mr Wok and Andrew's Deli) put together. Of course, people seem to really enjoy the experience of letting three chefs go at it on creativity.
Just like everyone, these men – chefs - each have their own story.
Ayman grew up in the restaurant he now runs. He inherited it from his parents; his mother, a Tunisian who was an "amazing" cook and his Egyptian father. At the ripe age of 19 he began to take on the responsibility. It was his idea, though, to transform the Petit Swiss Chalet into something with "no restrictions" and rename it Cellar Door.
"I don't want to limit the menu to a cuisine. With my North African background I did things like slow-cooked French-style lamb on Tunisian couscous," Ayman explains. In fact, he makes it a point to change the menu occasionally.
His favourite topics were Asian food and contributed to stories of strange superstitions in the kitchen.
Not only does Ayman have cooking in his genes, but he also went to school in San Francisco in 1997 to really understand his kitchen. "If you can't understand what's going on in the kitchen, then your chef can leave you one day and you won't know what to do," he shrugged his shoulders.
So how did he meet the other two chefs?
Wesam is a doctor by education. He worked as a researcher.
His words: "I became a doctor by accident. My mother applied for me. She said we needed to have a doctor in the family." So it's true. All mothers want their sons to become a doctor. He didn't fail. He went on to get his post-doc from Yale.
But even early on, he would come back from grocery shopping with all kinds of what his mother considered weird stuff just to see what he could come up with. One day he was watching Iron chef and saw pan-seared beef tenderloin shocked in an ice bath to be sliced thinly for carpaccio. "I didn't even know you could do that!" revealing the same look on his face today that he probably had when he first saw it. Quizzical. Interested.
"The next day I was taking blood and stopped…. [he pauses] and started talking about lamb chops!"
Hungry for information, he started gathering an arsenal of knowledge, travelling and looked up to other self-taught chefs, such as the Michelin-star chef of the Fat Duck.
Wesam called on Ayman through connections to get advice about going to school to get into the field of gastronomy. Once they got talking about intricate details of cooking, impressed, Ayman suddenly hugged Wesam and asked him to work with him. With no real experience, this was just what Wesam needed to start off right at a rather prestigious restaurant. He became sous chef and worked very well with Ayman for four months. Then he was then asked to be Executive Chef at the Cairo Jazz Club, fixing up their menu. This also led him to head up his own consultancy business.
Enter Moustafa. Wesam was called to be part of a Arabian Master Chef television series where he would design the competitions and write the scripts. Moustafa was also working on the project as a chef consultant.
Moustafa admits that he started off in the hard city of Detroit, Michigan under hard financial circumstances as a master's student and taking on a hard task: going from the tiring job of dishwasher at a restaurant to trying to convince the owner that he would be good enough to cook – in one week.
"I was terrified!" he admitted unabashedly. "It was a really good Italian restaurant and they made everything from scratch."
"I would draw the pasta and write the name of it next to it," he recalled. His diligence paid off. As a matter of fact, the owner entrusted him to get the sanitation certification on behalf of the restaurant. This involved classes, studying and a hard series of tests. Moustafa was the salutatorian of his class.
"Then I felt like I really had talent for this," he said, visibly relieved, contented and hopeful. And the rest is a great history.
In fact, he has been verified time and time again. The latest achievement? His restaurant, Zooba, won a slew of awards at the large, tough yearly HACE hotel and restaurant competition.
On 10 November, Cairenes have another chance to experience the tasty concoctions of these three chefs through their monthly Chef's Table.
Guests can choose to eat either at 6:00pm or 8:30pm
Guests are seated at a communal table in the Cellar Door restaurant, Maadi
First showing: guests must arrive at 5:45
Second showing: guests must arrive at 8:15
At every 15 minute interval they serve the next course
Must put down LE100 deposit, which is refundable 24 hours before the event
Contact Chef's Table through their Facebook page to make your reservation
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