Meet food consultant Sara Abdel Salam. So what is a food consultant, anyway?
By Noha Mohammed
Photographs courtesy of Sara Abdel Salam
Sara Abdel Salam has always been into food. She’s never had any academic training, done a styling course or taken lessons in photography, yet today she’s perhaps the nation’s only food consultant, stylist and photographer all rolled into one. And did I mention she also puts out her own food e-zine? Here’s how in the space of just a few years the 31-year-old is helping shape Egypt’s food culture. Edited excerpts:
Your academic background has nothing to do with food. Tell me how you got started.
I’ve always been interested in food. Even as a child you’d always find me playing in the kitchen. I love to experiment but I never thought of it as a career. It was a hobby. What got me thinking was all the Facebook pages that I started to come across, where people shared their experiences of cooking at home and pictures of the dishes they had prepared. I began to share my own posts and found positive feedback.
The recipes were very popular on Facebook, so I wanted the pictures of the food look good. But the way my food looked was not reflective of the quality of the recipes, so I started to look for online sources to help me with food styling. Then I got a professional camera, but I didn’t have a clue how to use it because I’d never had professional training. In fact I’ve never had professional training in anything: not cooking, not styling and not photography.
You can get training, but surely some of the above require talent too?
Yes of course. But I call it a science too, I taught myself through trial and error. It’s a very sophisticated science. I experimented and learned from my failures. I read articles and watched videos on youtube, that was as far as my training went. The better my pictures looked, the more interested I became in getting top-of-the-range and updated lenses and reading up on styling. Today I can take pictures just like any other professional food photographer.
Not long after, I was commissioned to do a cooking segment on Tahrir channel, and it was something I was very passionate about. Things started to develop quickly from there, but still I did not think of taking it up as a career. It was just a hobby. My goal wasn’t to have my own cooking show, but afterward several magazines contacted me and asked that I contribute my recipes and pictures. I began to feel that if there was this much interest in me then surely I was presenting something good. So I took it as my ongoing passion, investing financially, and putting in effort and time.
From there I launched an online magazine on the website Issuu with my friend and partner Assia Osman. At first we thought of a cookbook to be released in Ramadan, but then we thought why a book and not a magazine, if the latter could be an ongoing project. We saw the magazine as a better suited platform for what we were doing. The first issue came out Ramadan 2012 and we quickly started to be competitive. Issuu carries international magazines, and we wanted to be as good as the rest. We wouldn’t accept that just because this was an Arabic magazine put together by Arabs that it would be of lesser quality. That’s why we put a lot of effort into the props and photography as well as the design.
It wasn’t long before restaurants began to contact me to ask for pictures to use on their menus. So I thought why not do the menus for them? I began creating menus for new restaurants or existing ones trying to develop or change their offerings.
It was at that point that my passion for food turned from a hobby into a career. I reached a point where I had to give up my 9-5 job. Even when I was doing the cooking show on Tahrir I was still employed — I’d be at work at 7 or 7:30am every day so I could leave at 4 or 4:30pm and rush off to the studio. I just couldn’t wait to get off work to start what I loved doing. I’d reached the stage where I thought if it was something I enjoyed so much and it’s going well then I should totally invest my time in it, so I resigned from my job.
Ever regretted it?
Never. It was the best decision of my life. Never regretted it and never looked back.
Tell us more about your consulting
My work is all about details. So for example if someone has a menu, I can take it and refine it and make it the best menu one can have. No customer wants to go to 10 different restaurants and find 10 exact same menus. When I myself go to a restaurant, I want it to serve me something special, something different. That’s exactly what I am trying to do in my work. So if a client approaches me and insists on the traditional menu carried by some three-quarters of the nation’s restaurants, I reject it. It’s not my work.
How do clients react to your game plans?
Some clients are flexible and others are not. There are many who do not want something different, who do not want something new; what they want is what the customers want. But if they only experimented, they might find themselves setting the trend for what people want. Unfortunately many do not want to take the risk or try something new. I cannot accept this. If anyone wants to work with me they have to know they’ll take the risk because I’ll want to do something new.
Sometimes I get customers who tell me, I want a menu just like restaurant x. Why? Why not have one better than restaurant X? This is what irritates me the most. Surely since restaurant x went into business before you, he’ll always be better than you. Why would customers go to your place and not to restaurant x that makes the same food but has been around longer and is more established?
Then there are those that bring me hope, the risk-takers who are ready to do something different and willing to listen to what you have to offer. With these clients we always reach a gray area where what they want and what I see come together. I never go for anything extreme that will be difficult to market, because a restaurant is also about making money. No one opens a restaurant to make a loss. Everyone opens to make a profit and one of my roles is to make a client turn a profit. So first we sit down and collect input: the theme of the restaurant, the type of restaurant and targeted clientele. The menu has to reflect the theme and match the expectations of the customer. Once we’ve agreed on the entries, I set up photo shoots of the dishes and work on the design of the menus. It’s an A-Z solution. Then I train the chef and his staff, showing them how to prepare and present the dishes.
Do you ever go back and see if restaurants you’ve worked with are still following your recommendations?
I do follow up of course, but unfortunately I find that many do not. We have two major problems: standards and consistency. Because of the lack of these two, we are doomed to failure. It’s not easy to find people who are willing to invest the effort to produce things to standard and then maintain consistency. It is expected that if I go to a restaurant 20 times and order the same thing 20 times, then my food will arrive exactly the same. It is not acceptable that every time it arrives looking different, whether it’s in presentation, portion size or quality. And my order should arrive looking exactly like it looks on the menu, and be made of the ingredients listed. There should be no surprises.
Before I hand over the project I will have worked with the chefs on how to produce the dishes according to the recipe and presentation. When I go back, I would say that only about 10% stick to my recommendations. The party that shows the most resistance is usually the chef who often does not appreciate being given training, especially if those recipes were designed by an ordinary person and not a chef like himself.
So most restaurant chefs are trained?
Rarely. They may have been cooking as a profession for years and years but it’s rare that they are properly trained. It’s a big budget many business owners cannot afford. It limits the chef to only what he knows. So if in his previous job he mastered 10 or 20 dishes, he’ll only know how to make those 10 or 20 dishes. He may of course have other talents like knife skills, but he probably won’t know anything else. More importantly, he won’t want to know anything else and does not accept anyone’s input. Only a few are willing to listen and those are all ears because they want to learn, but overall this is not the case.
But isn’t that disappointing?
Of course, but I am optimistic by nature and I don’t look back. I do my best, give it my all and then move on — what happens after I leave is out of my control.
Can you share who is on your client list?
I don’t really want to list them, partly because some have not stuck to the agreed-upon proposal and also because of client confidentiality. There is one client that would not mind and which I am very happy to have worked with. It’s the Gedety group, a startup who wanted to launch an online ordering service catering to company staffers. While there are many lunch options for those working 9-5, the majority are not healthy. But most people order not because they like it but because it’s all that’s out there.
And by healthy I don’t mean that it all has to be salad. Healthy food is a very big thing. You can make healthy meals from fresh ingredients that are tasty and nutritious at the same time. That said, the segment who is concerned about healthy food is very small. Even people who eat healthy every day, the day they go out for a meal it’s likely they’ll want to take a break and order food that is not necessarily healthy.
From what people ask you for, would you say our taste in food is changing?
I’m asked for everything from vegetarian to kosher, but I do see a rise in interest in traditional Egyptian food. The problem is that they are all copying each other. As always, one person has a great and innovative idea and it is successful. And then everyone rushes to copy him. It’s a big problem, because the customer will always want to go to the original owner of the idea and not those who follow. I’m not saying that, for example, three restaurants offering the same thing on the same street will not be successful. They might all be doing a brisk business but is this good for our food culture and for the customer? Food options have to be more than the ubiquitous Caesar salad, brownie and cheesecake. It’s just not acceptable. et
For more on Sara Abdel Salam, check out our website at www.egypttoday.com. You’ll find this month’s recipes from Sara starting on p. 72.