Clara Bubenzer is slowly changing the way people shop, cook and eat in Egypt with her work at the country’s first gourmet grocery service.
The 25-year-old South African-German chef recently graduated from Granger Bay Hotel School in Cape Town and moved to Cairo in February 2008.
Her work at Gourmet Egypt started when she came across a flyer advertising a cooking competition. Looking mainly to extend her social network and have some fun, she joined the competition and rose to the challenge of creating an interesting minced meat based dish, adding some flair with what she described as “delicate plating, the practice of presenting food as art.
Utilizing the experience she gained while working under the guidance of a Michelin star chef in her native Cape Town, Bubenzer’s creative approach to food stood out. That same evening, Jalal Abu-Ghazalah, founder of Gourmet Egypt, asked her to join his team and company.
While the US has Dean and Deluca haute grocery store and order service, Cairo now has Gourmet Egypt: a grocery store that imports choice meats and cheeses from Australia, France and Italy, and is now expanding to everything from sushi fish cuts to Italian pastas.
Gourmet Egypt has filled a niche in Cairo, catering to one’s gastronomic cravings like no other. The concept is simple; “The Gourmet Egypt experience is a lifestyle, said Bubenzer. Emphasizing quality and hygiene, Bubenzer and Abu-Ghazalah work together in sourcing delicacies from all over the world.
Besides suggesting food items to import, Bubenzer also incorporates them into recipes using locally produced fruits and vegetables. Bubenzer says she loves the challenge of finding cheap ingredients and working with a budget. “It forces one to use seasonal produce, she said, adding that cheaper ingredients do not make food less tasty.
“It’s a small company, but we’re expanding very nicely I think. We double check everything ten thousand times before it goes out, but we’ve all agreed that [quality] is our top priority, said Bubenzer.
She recently partnered up with kitchen design king Amr Helmy, offering cooking classes in a beautiful model kitchen at their Maadi showroom. Gourmet Egypt and Amr Helmy complement each other in that they both offer a creative and high quality lifestyle at home.
Sitting around a large countertop, participants watch intently as Bubenzer directs the class with enthusiasm and humor, using recipes she has created with ingredients from Gourmet Egypt’s product line.
Attending an Asian flavors night class, I watched Bubenzer effortlessly whip up an Asian beef salad, a coconut Tom Yum Goong (soup), and coconut rice pudding with passion fruit.
The concept of the classes – which also include pasta sauces, seafood lovers, BBQ side dishes and healthy cooking – are meant to highlight the use of fresh ingredients, she said. The classes were started for Gourmet Egypt’s staff to educate them on why customers were so curious about choice cuts of meat, salmon and the other imported goods.
The classes are also “meant to bring together people’s curiosities and interest in food, said Bubenzer, creating a platform where both chef and students engage in the learning process.
For Asian flavors night, Bubenzer’s three-course meal fused Mediterranean and Asian ingredients, proving that healthy need not compromise taste.
She danced, chopped and cooked with passion throughout the evening, and explained how to modify her recipes according to individual tastes.
“You often get stuck with food ideas, so I want to give people in my classes new ideas, to make you realize that [cooking] is actually really easy and fresh and fun, she said.
The benefits of a cooking class are many: “You get to see, smell, touch the ingredients which is important. When you make a risotto, it’s important to see all the steps. On TV they make it look so easy and people are terrified of making it, said Bubenzer.
Attendees also got a folder with the recipes and a snazzy black apron. I donned mine and chopped alongside Bubenzer as she browned coconut flakes for the rice pudding, talked about the benefits of Maldon salt and taught us how to roast almonds to snack on at home.
She used locally grown mushrooms and porticini mushrooms for the Tom Yum Goong, all of which went into a big pot that was simmering on the stove.
It was interesting to see how Bubenzer incorporated ingredients into both savory and sweet dishes. Coconut milk was key in both the Tom Yum Goong soup as well as the rice pudding. The salad added Asian flavors to a strong Mediterranean base by using fresh seasame seeds and basil.
“It’s amazing to go grocery shopping in Egypt. The herbs here are so fresh and the prices are excellent, she said. While the basil leaves were sourced locally, but the other ingredients conjured images of the Far East as scents of cilantro and coconut wafted through the kitchen.
Bubenzer was prone to personifying the ingredients, describing cilantro as having a feminine delicacy and talking about the inherent beauty of bell peppers. She waxed lyrical about Egyptian artichokes, which were “beautiful, dark and stunning.
“The way ingredients come together, when you taste something that’s really good, like fresh groceries.it’s instant gratification, she said.
Post-It notes scribbled with food ideas and ingredients are placed in the tens around her desk. When writing recipes for Gourmet Egypt, she sits down to piece the ideas together like a jigsaw puzzle. Some recipes are written to incorporate new food items in the store, but more often than not, they are requested by clients.
There’s a sense that Gourmet Egypt is trying to become one’s trusted local grocer, intimate and concerned about customers’ cooking habits and food selections.
The three-course meal took around an hour and a half to prepare, and the result was a medley of textures, colors and tastes. The Asian beef salad had a sweetness to it that was complimented by a garnish of fresh red chilli slices while the coconut Tom Yum Goong proved to be a hearty soup. The coconut rice pudding, quite different from the traditional Egyptian version, featured a passion fruit dressing that added a tart sweetness to the creamy coconut.
We all went home with our aprons – whether or not I’ll wear it again in a kitchen is questionable. But having made an order with Gourmet Egypt the next day (with a 10 percent discount for students on items used in the classes’ recipe), I’m looking forward to making the Asian beef salad at home, and perhaps dabbling in some sea food recipes here and there.
Gourmet Egypt3 Badr BuildingsKattameya Ring RoadMaadi, CairoTel: 19339www.GourmetEgypt.com