Chef Tarek on meat, music and being a master chef
By Dominika Maslikowski
Growing up in Alexandria, a young Tarek Ibrahim used to sit on the beach and look out over the water thinking he could catch a glimpse of the Turkish coast or the Greek Islands with his pair of binoculars. At home, in a household of five women who spent many hours in the kitchen, he fell in love with cooking as he canned, butchered and pickled along with the family to develop the skills that later earned him the nickname “chef from scratch.” But it would be years before Ibrahim crossed the waters of the Atlantic Ocean to pursue his culinary dreams and become Fatafeat TV celebrity Chef Tarek. He had aspired to become a pilot, a singer or a cook, but his family hoped he’d go on to be a doctor or engineer instead. So Ibrahim followed his father’s wishes and received a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Alexandria in 1982 to become a surveyor. After university, he went back to his father and said, “Let me go.”
“I traveled after I got married and decided to go to America to pursue a career because now I was free. I wanted to go to the Culinary Institute of America. At that time the institute cost $29,000 and that was a huge amount of money,” Chef Tarek says. “So my chef advised me to work with chefs and pick up exactly what I would pick up in school. I did, and that really gave me the power to get to where I am right now. I am a goal-getter and at the same time I’m religious, so it’s all in the will of God. But because I’m very determined I pursued chefing. And I like going against the current.”
In 1984, Chef Tarek opened his first coffee shop and bakery called Upper Crust in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and went on to open five more restaurants, each with a different cuisine, while sometimes working part-time in other kitchens to fine-tune his skills. He was Upper Crust’s executive chef from 1990 to 1993, and later specialized in Mediterranean and American cuisine as chef and owner of the Dry Dock Cafe in Minneapolis from 2002 to 2004. Following the success of his restaurants, Chef Tarek taught the younger generation of culinary hopefuls at The Art Institutes International Minnesota.
He has won an array of prestigious culinary competitions, including the Premier Chef of America award from the American Dairy Association in 1995 and 1996, and the Taste of Elegance’s (Central Region, USA) Chef Par Excellence award in 2001 and 2003. Achieving what’s perhaps his greatest honor, Chef Tarek was the first Arab to receive the coveted status of Master Chef in 2013 from the World Association of Chef Societies.
He is best known as the star of Fatafeat TV shows like Min Misr (From Egypt), 100 Makarona (100 Pasta) and 100 Lahma (100 Meat,) during which he cooks up rich, meaty dishes inspired by both the East and West and exclaims, “Allah!” in appreciation of fine cuts of lamb or beef. The Master Chef likes to sing classic Arabic love songs while cooking, which partly fulfils his childhood dream of becoming a singer but also shows his romantic side. Trusting his intuition, Chef Tarek married his wife Sharon less than 24 hours after the couple first met on the Greek Islands. They now have two daughters.
In person Chef Tarek is just as enthusiastic about cooking as he comes across on his TV shows. With 21 countries in the region watching his programs week after week on Fatafeat, there’s no way to fake the personality or technical skills that are crucial for a celebrity chef.
“You need to be very honest from the inside, which will show on camera, and then you have to balance that with a huge amount of knowledge because there are millions of people watching. And out of these people, there are a lot of professionals that are watching,” Chef Tarek says. “You need to back yourself with a huge amount of knowledge, because people will discover right away if you’re a fake. And then there’s the stage presence — you should never be boring. I’m sure there are so many cooks who cook better than me, but can they really give and deliver the knowledge to people so they comprehend what they’re saying?”
With Chef Tarek, it isn’t long before the conversation turns to meat, one of his great culinary loves. As the Corporate Executive Chef for Meat and Livestock Australia, where he trains executive chefs on meat handling and cooking methods, he’s an advocate of buying top-quality organic meat and preparing it so the flavor comes through. “Please, please write this,” he says during an interview before explaining that meat should be seasoned with salt and pepper instead of being left to marinate. When you marinate meat, its taste gets drowned out by spices, he says.
“I say meat is the biggest thing people are afraid of cooking, because it’s expensive and people don’t want to ruin it. In the Middle East, they only know two cooking methods: they grill or they boil. There are so many other cooking techniques where you can achieve fantastic results,” he says. “What I always tell people and show is first of all let’s take the fear out of cooking and think about the piece of meat as something that we want to give flavor and shape to. Then we can learn how to cook. If we take it step by step, the end will be fantastic. If you go to the butcher and he tells you this is for grilling, it’s very important to allow yourself to trust the cook that’s showing you the materials you’re buying.”
Chef Tarek knows that many who watch his show don’t actually enjoy cooking in their own kitchens, or they find the entire process intimidating. He advises this segment of his audience to get hungry, and to get into the kitchen and put together a few ingredients. Fry an egg and season it with salt and pepper, for example, and then build on that. Then make an omelet, or try your hand at a more complex frittata, an egg-based Italian dish.
Although he’s spent nearly three decades in the US and is currently based in Dubai, Chef Tarek has made his mark on the Egyptian culinary scene, working to raise the country’s standards and teaching young generations of chefs. He is a trainer of the Culinary Ambassadors of Egypt, who represent the country at prestigious competitions overseas. In 2006, he came to Egypt to become a senior chef instructor at the Egyptian Chefs Association (ECA), a position he still holds today. The Alexandria native is also a class A judge with the World Association of Chefs Societies and was recently in Cairo as part of a panel during an array of competitions hosted by ECA.
The chef profession has come a long way since Chef Tarek’s youth in Alexandria, when he hand-wrote recipes and got together with friends to buy cookbooks and make copies. There’s a Michelin star in Egypt somewhere, he says, if the dust is brushed off, and being a chef is no longer a blue-collar job like it was a decade ago.
“Young chefs in Egypt today have fantastic resources. As far as competing with the West, we are very well organized but the numbers are still small, so all we need to do is spread the knowledge, and the chefs have to start reading and educating themselves,” Chef Tarek says. “That’s what I always tell young students: Don’t be a recipe chef. Don’t go behind the recipe. Go behind the knowledge and then develop the recipe later. We now have culinary schools in Egypt and we have the internet. All this was not available when I was growing up.”
Chef Tarek hoped as a boy in Alexandria to become a pilot, singer or a cook. Decades later he has crossed all three dreams off his list. He may be most renowned as the Master Chef who loves to sing over his sizzling dishes, but he also holds a commercial pilot license from a flight school in Minnesota. et