Intercontinental CityStar’s Al-Saraya ballroom buzzed with activity this week as chefs from across Egypt presented their finest culinary creations. The 2009 National Salon Culinaire was in high-gear as exotic and inventive dishes were on display.
Many of the participating chefs work in Egypt’s finest five-star hotels.
It is immediately apparent that this event has little to do with traditional Egyptian cuisine. Though Egyptian cuisine isn’t world-renowned, it would seem reasonable to expect dishes from the country which the chefs represent.
But those looking for tammiya, fuul and koshari were sorely disappointed.
Instead, the cuisine was of the latest in Asian-French fusion, which seemed to dominate the competition.
Unfortunately, guests were not able to taste the many dazzling dishes on display. It was difficult to judge the merits of these foods without savoring them. But the visual presentation served to stimulate the imagination instead.
According to Egyptian Chefs Association Executive Director Mirjam van IJssel, the Salon serves to “enhance the image of the chef. The exhibition sought to draw attention to that important but “forgotten corner of the hotel – the kitchen.
The showcase aimed to encourage the exchange of ideas between Egypt’s most well-known and experienced chefs. It also looks to motivate chefs to aspire towards greatness, said van IJssel.
Chef Sayed Karam Taha of Intercontinental CityStars said the competition plays an important role in developing “my skills in my profession.
He also said that this competition, now in its 12th year, has served as a means of comparing his work with other top chefs in Egypt.
While he attended as a spectator before, this is his first time competing in the Salon. He explained that the quality of the food presented has not been on par with past years. Chef Sayed’s assistant, Marawan Maurad, believed that this was because previous exhibitions were “lacking in variety.
Competitions like these give aspiring Egyptian culinary whizzes hope that they can one day make a living out of their passion. Their work can transcend borders and elevate the status of Egyptian culinary prowess.
A local flavor
It would be wonderful if Egyptian chefs could embrace and cultivate classic Egyptian dishes. Basic staple items of the Egyptian diet, like fava beans, chickpeas, lentils and pita, offer boundless possibilities for enhancement. They are also rather healthy and inexpensive.
Egyptian cuisine could one day be exported abroad in the same way Lebanese cuisine has become popular across the US and Europe in more recent decades.
In addition to elevating the status of the chef in Egypt, van IJssel says that the Salon aims to further incorporate Egyptian cuisine. She believes that “if you go traditional, you can make it up to date in the hotels.
Cooking can be a vehicle for nationalist pride and discourse. Egypt could benefit from a unifying cuisine.
Many of the dishes took days to prepare. The Salon guidelines allow chefs to prepare their pieces in their own kitchens, but stipulate specific guidelines for their presentation in the final exhibition.
Chef Hamy Hamed Badr spent the past two days working on his piece. A prestigious Culinary Ambassador, Egypt’s equivalent of a National Team, Chef Hamy works at both the Intercontinental CityStars and the Holiday Inn.
Another of Egypt’s Culinary Ambassadors and Chief Kitchen Artist at the Inercontinental CityStars, Chef Mina Sobhy, stood proudly by his exquisite chocolate sculpture. His sweet creation, a representation of Greek mythology, took a total of 18 days to create. He began with one large block of chocolate and carving tools. Chef Mina does not plan his sculptures in advance. He described the execution as spontaneous, sitting with the chocolate and then, he said, “I start to think of the idea I want to create.
According to Judge Garth Snier, of the World Association of Chefs’ Societies, the strength of the Egyptian attendees lays in their artistic ability. In regards to the judging process, Snier, who hails from South Africa, says that the Egyptian “natural talent for artistic pieces is difficult to judge.
This strength in the realm of art prompted the Egyptian Chefs Association to create the Culinary Ambassadors, a group of six kitchen artists competing in international culinary exhibitions.
Most of the dishes looked similar. Whether it is merely a matter of a popular style or the expectations of five-star hotels which is responsible is unclear. But few dishes really jumped out as innovative and original pieces.
Perhaps as the competition develops and gains more support and coverage, chefs will be more experimental and start to push the boundaries of their work.
Egypt does not currently have any culinary schools. Chefs must go abroad to train or in some instances can receive training from internal hotel programs.
Yet, this is exactly what the Egyptian Chefs Association wants to change. According to van IJssel, the association aims to “put Egypt on the culinary map of the world.
As the Salon Culinaire grows steadily in numbers and in influence each year, this change does not seem too far off.