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Bite Me Cairo: The Cutting Edge

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David Blanks tells the story of Sarah Khanna

Foodist at work, photo by Nada Badawi

Foodist at work, photo by Nada Badawi

I have waited a year to write a story about Left Bank in Zamalek. Like everyone else, I loved the space immediately. Light, airy, lined with bookshelves, a beautiful tile floor designed by Eklego to invoke Tahrir Square, glass walls that open onto the river: it takes you out of Cairo in a way that few cafes can. But is it a café? Or is it a restaurant? Or a cultural centre? This, from the beginning, was the problem.

This beautiful space failed to establish a clear identity. It did, however, establish a reputation—for mediocre food and sleepy service. Like so many others, I ended up going there to have coffee and tea and that was about it.

Happily, this has now changed, and I want to tell you that story next week. First I have to tell you the story of Sarah Khanna, the culinary therapist who helped Left Bank get in touch with its true nature—as a restaurant. Most decidedly as a restaurant.

“My palette is based upon food memories,” Sarah told me, as she rolled up her sleeves and settled in for a serious chat. “The problem with the Cairo restaurant scene is that people want to make money, not food.”

Although she comes from a family deeply involved in the hotel, food and beverage industry in India and Egypt, as a child she rebelled against her mother by staying out of the kitchen. Chef, food writer, and restaurant consultant are roles she meandered into during a four-year journey of self-imposed exile and self-exploration in Kuala Lumpur with her husband, television anchor and producer, Mohamed Al Bitar. In Malaysia Chef Khanna found the time and personal space to think about the food of her childhood and homeland and to exorcise her inner kitchen demons.

From Malaysia Sarah started her Buttered Up Blog, sending recipes and food memories out into the world like messages in bottles. Some of these made their way back home, and in January 2011 she was contacted by Daily News Egypt for whom she transformed her blog into a weekly column.

In Malaysia she also got serious about her cooking skills and food knowledge, first by cruising the local markets and adapting Egyptian cuisine to the tastes of her new home and new friends. It was through this process that she invented dishes like tomato aubergine pasta, rosemary bread, browned orzo pudding, and poached pears in spiced karkadeh; and then by learning the basic skills in everything from stocks and sauces to poultry and shellfish from Jean Michel Fraisse at the French Culinary School in Asia.

By the time she returned to Cairo in late 2010, Chef Khanna had a mission: to educate the public palate and to elevate Egyptian cooking to the next level. Her timing was spot on. In the midst of a political and social revolution, the local food and beverage industry was going into hyperdrive, and the talents, ideas and work ethic of Sarah Khanna soon got her noticed by companies trying to develop new recipes and to implement new systems of staff training and management.

So she has given herself the task of changing dining culture. Her standards are clear and simple: restaurant owners must put as much care into the menu as they do into the décor; local products should be used in new and more creative ways; service is key—staff must be trained to the highest standards and the whole system needs to be under regular review; and customers—yes, even customers—must learn to think differently about the dining experience.

Too many are timid in their choices and go to restaurants expecting kitchens to make them food cooked to order. But this is not the way it works in true fine dining culture. Restaurant-goers need to be trained in their own way; their palates need to be educated; they need to learn how to interact with staff; the whole dining system needs its own revolution.

It is notions such as these that are getting Sarah noticed; and her exacting standards have led to the creation of a new role in the Egyptian food and beverage industry, that of Restaurant Development Consultant. After a long-term project helping TBS develop a corporate catering line, Chef Khanna, in partnership with Chef Wesam Masoud, another new local culinary celebrity, is now working her magic in Zamalek by transforming the pretty but stumbling Left Bank into a quality operation that should serve as a model to owners and customers alike. If you have not heard of Sarah Khanna before, you have now, and I can promise you will be hearing a lot about her in the very near future.


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