No-nonsense Master Chef Badawy Abdel Hamid introduces the first ‘green kitchen’ in Egypt and the Middle East.
By Noha Mohammed
photography by Hayssam Samir
At the Marriott in Zamalek Chef Badawy Abdel Hamid runs a tight ship. With grand plans in mind, he set off to revamp his kitchen into an environment-friendly, cost-effective facility that could help him produce 20,000 healthy, safe meals a day. With the Marriott management’s blessing, he had an LE 50,00 budget plus the manpower to build a kitchen beneath the palace — the only obstacle was that the Marriott itself was a heritage building, which meant that permits had to come from all sorts of ministries before construction could go ahead. A year later and a small mountain of red tape later, Chef Badawy’s dream kitchen is up and running. And it rules.
The idea of food is that it is not just food, particularly when it is commercial like at a hotel. At the Marriott good food is healthy food, not just tasty food. Naturally if you make it safe food that is tasty all the better. And this is what we do. If I’m preparing for 1000 people, it’s my responsibility as a chef to produce food that is healthy and safe, guaranteeing there is no bacteria, that no one is going to fall ill — even if it’s one out of the 1,000. That’s an almost impossible task if you don’t have the right equipment. There have been incredible developments in technology when it comes to food and our new kitchen can be considered the first green kitchen in the Middle East and we’re starting to apply it across out Marriott brand. The idea behind the green kitchen is that it is environment friendly, both to us and to our clients. So for example the chef in the kitchen works in a controlled temperature set at 16 or 18 that does not rise so he does not sweat and does not get exhausted. At the same time, sweat in the kitchen is unsanitary. Humidity, which rises as a result of the cooking steam, is also controlled to prevent bacteria spawning. When you have an environment rife with bacteria, then you have what we call a danger zone.
And the new technology you mentioned. How does that work?
The entire kitchen uses only soft, or sanitized, water — better than bottled water on the market. Over and above, all the machinery in our kitchen has a water filter fitted with trays that are emptied and cleaned automatically. Our refrigerators are run by a turbo system and work to create an air curtain. No matter how many times you open the door, the temperature does not rise, even if you leave the fridge door open because the fridge releases cold air as soon as the door is open, locking the cool air in and preventing hot air from rushing in. The density of hot air is not the same as cool air, which is why in regular fridges when you open the door the cool air seeps out and warm air takes its place. At the same time each machine has two motors, much the same as modern cars. The first motor works at maximum strength, to make up for the fridge door opening, so the temperature stays the same and does not rise (if temperature rises, it’s a hazard to the food inside).
Lighting in the kitchen is all LED and we have a spectacular drainage system. All the drains are built in, there’s nothing exposed. This way the drains take in the water but do not spew back liquid or smell, which means there’s no possibility of overflowing. All drains are automatically sanitized every two hours.
The exhaust system is quite fascinating too. We are the only kitchen in the city that does not have a chimney above it. We don’t just spurt out our exhaust into the city air; instead it is channeled into a system that filters the exhaust, stripping out the oils and breaking down the fats. A very strong sprinkler system brings down the air and into a drain. The clean air is channeled into a cooler that brings its temperature down to 16 or 18 degrees depending on where it is headed and pumps it back into the kitchen. So it’s a closed cycle. Compare this to any other kitchen where A/Cs suck out the air and spew exhaust into the air passersby are breathing. Not only is this a health hazard, but there is no way you can stabilize air temperature inside the kitchen because you’re sucking out air but channeling in air from the outside too with no way of bringing it to the required temperature.
How has technology helped make the Marriott a better kitchen?
With modern technology, the quality of our food has risen significantly. I’ll give you the way we bake as an example. We have ovens that come with certain settings, so if you want to make baguettes or any other kind of bread, you put the dough in the oven and press the baguette setting. The oven data system operates the machine – all you have to do is choose what you want to make from the digital display and press a button. It automatically knows how long the dough needs to be in the oven and the required temperature to steam. It is all automated and all you have to do is wait for the ping telling you your bread is ready. These cutting-edge ovens make everything — from perfectly boiled eggs to broccoli to lamb, everything. And these ovens are smart ovens. So if I wanted to make a turkey, it asks me how much the bird weighs and how it is to be cooked. Once it has the info it knows what to do and how long/what temperature it needs to cook for. The advanced technology gives you much better results – if a chef were making turkey, he’s have to turn the steam on and off manually, keep looking in the oven to see how the bird is cooking and take its temperature several times to ensure it is cooked through. With our ovens we don’t need to do any of that. And the best thing is that the ovens are really fast.
The kitchen is all hooked up to a mainframe and the internet. This is how we can ensure consistency. Any chef who wants to make, say, soup, logs on and pulls up the Marriott recipe for that soup and follows it to a tee. We have universal recipes for our dishes, so that if you order tomato soup here or anywhere else in the world it should taste exactly the same. The Marriott recipes are very detailed in instruction – from how to wash rice to how to make English cake, cheesecake, or lamb. Every detail is covered, even how to wash and clean spinach. We work using forms that we make sure are filled in every four hours. That way we know exactly who is doing what. Put differently, if you eat at the Marriott and come back one month, two months later, I can tell you exactly who prepared your dish and the exact time it was made. Everything has a form. If we take something out of the fridge to reheat, we fill in the form. The food is put in an oven and when it reaches the required temperature, the chef signs that it is ready. So again if you ordered a hamburger a month ago, I can go back and tell you who minced the meat, who cooked it and who prepared your dish.
What new measures is the Marriott kitchen taking to ensure freshness and safety?
We have a pasteurization system and pasteurize all our food before putting it away. The probability of this kitchen producing spoilage or poisoning is zero. Impossible.
We also do our own smoking using special ovens. We make our own pasta; you won’t find any commercial pasta on our tables — no store-bought varieties made out of powdered flour or powdered egg whey. We make ours every day and store it for no more than 48 hours. And we make our own fresh ice cream without addition of powders, syrups, liquids or any other pre-prepared ingredients. What you get is natural sugar, regular yogurt, semi-skimmed milk. So everything is fresh and natural.
Each department uses kitchen and carving knives that are color-coded and covered in UV and are sanitized in the exact same way a dentist sanitizes his tools. All the cooking equipment is placed away from preparation stations so that it does not release unwanted heat into the kitchen and so any gas that escapes does not harm the surrounding environment. Our air conditioning system is equipped with two types of filter, one for dust and the other for bacteria.
All vegetables are sanitized before they are stored in the kitchen. They are all chopped mechanically – there is no manual chopping involved. All our produce is handpicked. We only buy sanitized eggs. We don’t just go to the market or buy from sellers on the street. We only work with reputable farms and suppliers and to ensure quality never dips we actually go and make surprise inspections ourselves. All our produce is greenhouse, it’s very important that there be no chemicals. In fact this applies to everything we purchase — dairy products to cold cuts. We work with only the best suppliers to guarantee that our produce is not only fit for Marriott recipes, but complies with Marriott standards. No matter how clean or green our kitchen is, there’s nothing to stop potential hazards if the lettuce or tomatoes I’m serving have been sprayed with chemicals. I can’t look the other way and say it’s not my fault or that’s how I bought it. We purchase our fish not from the market but from a supplier whose standards are similar to our own, who even uses the same color-coded utensils. The fish arrives in a cooler and before we start to unpack it we take its temperature. The fish has to arrive filleted, vacuumed and packed in ice.
Our kitchen can produce up to 15,000 meals a day. That’s 15,000 safe meals, not just any meals. Even 20,000, easy. For example last year in Ramadan, a local factory wanted to prepare iftar for its employees – all 5,000 of them, in Ain Sukhna. It being iftar they all had to eat at the same time and everything had to be piping hot. I remember that day well because it was sweltering hot – 42 degrees. The clients approached other hotels but they all declined. They just don’t have the capacity. Maybe they can produce 500, 1,000 meals, but not more. We accepted this request. Back then we had not yet completed work on the main kitchen and were operating out of a smaller, but still green, facility. It had a smaller capacity, but we were still able to produce 5,400 meals (the 400 for our own hotel guests and staff) and take the 5,000 requested meals to Sukhna. There wasn’t a single complaint. Today, with the main kitchen we can prepare 20,000 meals easily.
You must be very proud of your kitchen. What are you doing to ensure it runs smoothly?
All this high-tech machinery is useless if I don’t have staff who know how to operate it. I choose my staff carefully, and they all have to have an academic background, even if they have worked for years at other establishments. At some other hotels they bring in someone who is a steward and put him in the kitchen. I never do that. Everyone in my kitchen has a degree. I train chefs who have graduated from Akhbar El-Yom’s cooking academy in 6th October. These are university students who want to gain practical culinary experience. We train them well and they have such a good experience that they tell their friends, ‘if you want to learn, go to the Marriott.’ I accept as many applicants as I can because I want to help them. But it’s a huge responsibility. I’m always worried someone will hurt himself on the job. When the training is over I then hire the best ones. That way I can ensure that they know everything about my kitchen, especially that I have them work at every station before they specialize.
What’s different about the Marriott work environment?
In this kitchen you can hear a pin drop. You’ll never hear anyone raising their voice or using foul language. Impossible. And that’s why the girls here feel so safe because we treat them with respect. We take care of them well and that’s why they feel safe and tell their friends to come and work or train here too. At other hotels they may be thrown in with male chefs who use bad language, plus all they are generally asked to do is chop onions and do the dirty work, so they get sick of it and leave because it’s not a comfortable environment to be working in and they’re not even getting any experience. That’s not how it should be. Keep in mind that the applicants here are here to learn. et