From young culinary students to seasoned veterans of Egypt’s ritziest hotels, some 200 chefs competed in this year’s four-day live cooking competitions, part of the National Salon Culinaire hosted by the Egyptian Chefs Association
By Dominika Maslikowski
Wearing a black hijab under a towering white chef’s hat, Eman Mohamed, Chef de Partie at JW Marriott Hotel Mirage City, smashed a clove of fragrant garlic with the back of her knife as crowds reached over the plastic barrier surrounding the four-person kitchen to snap photos with their mobiles. Mohamed kept a serene smile as the tall Markus Iten, Egyptian Chefs Association (ECA) president, watched on and crowds chanted for their favorites from the bleachers. Competing in the Female Chef of the Year live competition on February 5, Mohamed topped off her dish of meat with cilantro, mint and hair-thin slices of red bell pepper. She ended the competition in second place, behind Marigo Maged Gharbawy, a 22 year-old student at the Culinary Training Centers Egypt.
“It was my first competition,” says Gharbawy, who won a LE 1,500 prize after impressing the judges with her innovative starter of kadayif and halloumi cheese. She thinks it is possible to beat out more experienced chefs if you are passionate and believed in yourself. “With the support of my loved ones and encouragement, I did not give up. I learned when you’re determined, don’t give up on yourself. When the clock starts counting down, you have to be on fire and when something goes wrong then take a minute and consider what you need to do.”
The 12 women vying for the Female Chef of the Year title all had one hour to prepare a starter and main course using only local Egyptian products. An eight-member jury composed of celebrity chefs and industry veterans then judged each entry for presentation, cooking skills, hygiene and taste. For many of the younger competitors, it was not only a chance to prove themselves as females in a male-dominated field but also to get feedback from some of the world’s top chefs.
The 10 timed live-cooking contests ranged from the US Beef Dish Competition to the El Nur Vegetarian Dish Competition and crowd favorites such the Watania Mystery Basket Competition, where chefs prepared a starter and main course live within an hour by using all the ingredients provided in a mystery basket.
Alongside the live-cooking events were the National Salon Culinaire competitions, where professional Egyptian chefs brought in dishes already prepared to be judged for aspects such as composition and innovation. The 13 categories in those competitions included a three-layer wedding cake, tapas/canapes and vegetarian platter.
Judges scored each dish out of 100 points, with medals awarded for top marks. Nine gold medals were awarded in the National Salon Culinaire, while three golds were awarded during the live-cooking competitions.
For Ahmed Adel Hussein, a 30-year old student at the Culinary Training Centers Egypt, the Student Competition on February 6 was a chance to prove himself in front of a large audience. When asked what inspired his love of cooking, Hussein answered that he’d grown up watching celebrity Chef Osama’s TV shows and always followed his programs. Chef Osama, who was on the jury and standing nearby, laughed and smiled at the student with pride.
The National Salon Culinaire took place at the HACE hotel supplies exhibition that ran February 4-7 at the Cairo International Convention Centre. For the ECA, these competitions are meant to raise the prestige of the chef profession and to improve standards at Egyptian restaurants and hotels — something that officials believe can give the tourism industry a much-needed boost.
“First you have to make them proud of their profession, and when they get proud they’re more eager to learn, improve and get better and better,” says Mirjam van Ijssel, ECA’S executive director. “Food is always important, no matter if you’re staying in a one-, two- or five-star hotel. And if you’re staying at a hotel, food becomes a part of the entertainment for the day. The competitions are really a learning experience. We spend a lot of time giving feedback and we want them to improve. They learn by sharing experiences and by watching each other cook, and they learn very well how to organize themselves.”
Timing and organization, van Ijssel says, remain the biggest challenges facing most competitors. Many chefs lunge straight for the meat in a competition because they think it’s the most crucial element, she says, but it takes real skill to synchronize all the dishes so everything is hot when served.
And while Egypt may not have world-famous restaurants like Dubai or Europe, many of the jury believe it has potential, raw talent and enthusiasm.
“The restaurants we’ve been to in Cairo are quite good, but you need more education and more opportunities for people,” said jury member and World Association of Chefs Societies President Gissur Gudmundsson. “I was impressed by the standard of the plates, and they’re on the same level you’d see in any competition in Central Europe. They have all the opportunity to compete at an international standard, so that’s what impressed me. You only need one or two to come home with a gold metal, and that will motivate more young people to go into it.”