CAIRO — Egyptian chef Karim Abdelrahman, 24, had only a few hours left until 10 guests were expected for an intimate outdoor dinner party, and his menu still wasn’t set.
“I like the last minute adrenaline,” Abdelrahman said with a laugh.
The Paris-trained chef has spent years preparing for moments like these — traveling across Egypt to meet farmers, fishermen and tradesmen who have helped him secure the freshest ingredients and discover the obscure delights of the country’s traditional cuisine. His journeys to remote areas have introduced him to caper berries pickled by Bedouins and eaten with fish (“so genius”), tiny juicy figs (“like marmalade on the inside”) and flatbread cooked under coals (“so flamey, so delicious”).
Egypt’s fertile farmlands, bountiful seas and storied food culture should make the country a culinary gold mine. But for Abdelrahman and other chefs and restaurateurs of his generation, a web of obstacles — from bureaucracy to limited cooking schools and growing urban sprawl — have forced them to write their own recipes for success.
In this cosmopolitan and international city, home to more than 20 million people, many Egyptians complain the restaurant scene is stagnant and uninspired. The most successful high-end restaurants have opened in newer, exclusive suburbs on the outskirts of Cairo, catering to the wealthy clientele who have moved there in recent years. In older neighborhoods, restaurants are often limited to a handful of traditional options, or feature overpriced eateries where menus are based on western ideas.
Now a new generation of chefs are trying to reinvent the local food culture and expand the Egyptian palate, in part by bringing high-end cooking straight into customers’ homes.
Many of Abdelrahman’s creations are served at private dinner parties in Cairo — a chance for middle and upper class Egyptians to sample more experimental fare and an opportunity for young Egyptian chefs who want to cook luxury meals without the hassle or financial burden of opening a restaurant.
“Everyone is sick of spending their money on overpriced food in restaurants that are just not satisfying,” said Noha Serageldin, 35, who works in communications but also cooks for private events and keeps a food blog.
Hosting is “a smarter, more intimate way to start making people appreciate this food,” Abdelrahman said.
On a warm Saturday this winter, dozens of people sat down to lunch at long wooden tables decorated with fresh flowers at Makar Farms in Giza — a family-run farm that is a quiet oasis just outside the capital.
The menu, conceived by Serageldin, included beetroot hummus, olive tapenade, slow-cooked balsamic beef roast, an endive and green apple salad with blue cheese and walnuts, and a French apple tart for dessert.
For the last seven years, the farm has hosted these semiregular lunches — a seat at the table goes for around $20 — to show off their fresh produce and give local chefs a chance to shine.
“We have a problem,” said Malak Makar, 31, whose family has owned the farm since the 1880s. “It’s very difficult to find a place where the food quality is up to standard, not expensive and not far away.”
Private dining is “a welcome change,” from the city’s subpar restaurant scene said Amir Matar, 38, a lawyer who has enjoyed several private events.
“They cook with quality ingredients to a captive audience, in a more relaxed setting,” he said. “Both chefs and guests win.”
Some restaurateurs are also rising to the challenge.
Omar Fathy, 49, who owns several high-end restaurants around Egypt, invited scores of guests this month to his upscale Italian restaurant, Otto, in a commercial strip in New Cairo, where he presented traditional Egyptian meals in new forms.
It was Cairo Food Week — a new initiative that invited chefs from around the world to do workshops and share meals with their Egyptian counterparts.
Fathy used a mud oven in Otto’s garden to make local bread and reimagined a traditional Egyptian stew with taro root and silverbeet, serving it as chips and dip. No one recognized it.
“We reconstructed an old recipe, reversed it and visually deceived people,” he said. “Everyone was raving about it. For me this is a message.”
These initiatives give hope to foodies like Youssef El Azzouni, 63, a hobby baker who provided bread for the farm lunch and was delighted by Fathy’s event. Until recently in Egypt, he said, “the mainstream has not had the chance to develop their food.”
That’s in part because, for generations, many Egyptians discouraged their children from pursuing work as chefs, viewing kitchen jobs as a step toward a dead-end career.
Prominent Cairo chef and restaurateur Tarek Ibrahim, 55, went to the United States in the 1980s to study aviation and engineering, then lied to his father and said he couldn’t find work in the field to justify going to culinary school.
When Cairo-based baker Farah El Charkawy left a successful job in law to pursue her passion for pastry in France, her father didn’t speak to her for a month. “He was saying that I am ruining my career and my future,” she said.
Serageldin, whose sister previously ran a restaurant, acknowledged “it’s hard to make your parents proud by working as a chef.”
Young chefs here are trying to buck those norms by appealing to the tastes of wealthy Egyptians who have the budget for high-end cuisine and are hungry for unique food experiences.
In recent years, El Azzouni said, his “mind was blown” by the number of young Egyptians seeking work in the food industry.
Affluent Egyptians stranded at home during the covid pandemic helped give Abdelrahman a boost. Customers told him they were using their travel budgets to pay for his dinners, he recalled.
Since then, his business has expanded to serve events hosted by Egypt Fashion Week and Dior. His food has been made better, he said, by his explorations of local traditions, which included embedding with Egyptian fishermen at sea.
“You need that personal relationship to get that phone call at 4 a.m. that’s like ‘I just caught this beautiful fish,’” he said.
Unlike a restaurant menu, private dinners allow the chef full control and keep overhead costs low. Last year, when Dina Hosny, 33, briefly opened a shawarma truck in Cairo that served fancier versions of traditional street food, she found that customers wouldn’t pay what the meals cost her to make. “We eat our food as it is and no one ever does anything to change it,” she said.
Recently, she has more turned her focus to bespoke dinners and pop-ups around Cairo.
Finding certain ingredients — like butternut squash, fennel or chives — can be a challenge, so she keeps her menus secret in case anything goes awry. “One of the reasons it’s a surprise is because of all the issues that I deal with,” she said.
But if there are challenges to cooking for small groups — the difficulties of opening a restaurant are tenfold. “If you’re not supported well or can’t afford to hire the right people, the chances for survival are very limited,” Fathy said.
He is inspired by the young people returning to the country from culinary school abroad, even if they don’t have the means yet to open a business: “They are elevating the scene of food and beverage restaurant scene in Egypt, it’s something to be proud of.”
“We have a duty to take it up a notch,” Abdelrahman said. “We’ll all do it together.”