Hospitality and entertainment tycoon Ayman Baky pours his heart out to Cairo Scene in a candid conversation at his decadent new restaurant Kazoku, where he talks transitioning from nightlife to fine dining, his retreat from the partying scene, and how his family changed his perspective.
When I first found out I was assigned to interview Ayman Baky, the man who once co-owned Tamarai, I felt understandably uneasy. Not because I am a self-righteous sanctimonious prude, but because haut monde is a relic of a bygone time as far as I am concerned, so, quite naturally, I thought to myself, “Great, another high society zombie, can’t wait!” Nevertheless, being the high-minded ‘journalist’ I am, I decided to do it right, so I put on my nicest outfit - a vomit green jumper and a pale blue pair of jeans - spit-shined my shoes, and arrived at Kazoku, Baky’s new sumptuous restaurant where the interview took place, fashionably late.
Baky greeted me at the entrance with a courteous smile and a good firm handshake before he politely invited me into the picturesque setting. The first thing I noticed about the place is how much I couldn’t afford it; the floor is literally so squeaky clean I thought they were going to ask me to take off my shoes, the bathroom is cleaner than my pores and I had just showered the night before and the overall atmosphere makes you feel like a lesser person. That’s how gorgeous the place is.
Once the niceties were out of the way, it was time to project my prejudices and preconceived ideas onto him, so we sat in a sunlit spot, on a corner table overlooking an art-deco fountain and got down to business.
Ayman Baky graduated from the American University in Cairo (AUC) in 1996 where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications, after which he enjoyed a very successful corporate career. His college years, however, were anything but collegiate; in fact, it was during that time that he took up event planning, “I did my first party in Mohamed Ali Club and I loved the thrill behind organising and taking a risk and selling tickets and stuff like that,” he said reminiscently. “And then I started to take it to another level because events had become boring at the time.” So he set out to conquer Egypt’s hospitality and entertainment industry in 2003 with White, his first ever bar, while holding down a job at British American Tobacco and that’s when it all started. But White is probably not the first thing that comes to mind when the hospitality tycoon’s name is spoken; Tamarai is.
His recent ventures however are a far cry from his earlier work. Tamarai was closed in 2013 and Baky moved on to greener, quieter, and classier pastures; he opened swanky Heliopolis restaurant Sachi, and now the brand new Kazoku in Swan Lake Compound. The story behind his transition from nightlife to fine dining has certainly been the subject of much speculation and is one of profound humility, passion and integrity. “When I partnered up with Ahmad Beltagy to do Tamarai, the concept was never supposed to be a night club - when we kicked off in 2009 it was a restaurant and an indoor lounge and then we had the terrace outdoors. We were successful enough during the winter season when we launched in January 2009 to keep this concept, but because Egypt lacked so many nightlife outlets, people always wanted a beat to dance to. We started getting pressure from a lot of guests coming in: ‘Can you please turn up the music a little bit?’, ‘Can you please turn the lights down a little bit?’" Baky explained.
"Eventually we began to listen to them unfortunately which was wrong; people who were dining over there began to think that it was too loud so they stopped coming and the bar began to work very well - and then when we opened the outdoors, this gave a completely different push,” he said confidently. And it was all uphill from there as people flocked to the high end venue to party hard in the outdoor area overlooking the Nile. Only problem was, Baky didn’t want to go down that road. “This is an argument I have always had with my partners; I’d be like ‘tone it down, tone it down, tone it down’ and they’d be like ‘no, let’s pump it up, pump it up, pump it up’, but at the end of the day it was very lucrative, so it’s fine. Until the revolution came and things changed completely,” he said acquiescently.
The political turmoil of 2011 and the subsequent economic recession played into the place’s closure, but it wasn’t the sole factor. Another reason was Ayman’s own discontent which stemmed from the innermost layer of his heart; his faith and his family. Baky has been heading a small bible study group of teenagers called Alpha which integrates the teachings of the bible into sports since 2011. One day, while he was at a camp, a young boy went up to him and asked, “How are you supposed to be leading a group of boys like this and talking about Jesus and the bible and everything and you own Tamarai?” This got him thinking so he talked to his wife and his priest and after a great deal of soul searching, he summoned his resolve and decided to step down. “I began – not that it’s wrong or like a sin or anything – to see that my social status doesn’t fit in the nightlife business anymore. One, I have kids who are going to grow up and I don’t want them to know – I started off like that, but I don’t want to continue like that. Two, my image around the teenagers who look up to me,” he explained.
Business is very much a family affair to Baky - when he founded Baky Hospitality, the company that owns both Sachi and Kazoku, he made sure his wife Tina was involved in every single detail of his projects and he credits her as a huge source of support in all his business endeavours. In fact, he named his new restaurant Kazoku (Japanese for family) in honour of not only his own family, but of his staff and customers as well. “These guys working with us need to feel a sense of ownership as well, and the more they feel a sense of ownership to the brand, the more loyal they will be and the more effort they will put in hospitality. […] I don’t want to take any credit for this success, there’s a full team behind it, a very loyal team, very young and what makes a successful place is not the owner, it’s the people who come on a regular basis,” he elaborated.
What I have come to understand about Baky is that, unlike many ‘socialites’, he is not an empty hollow shell of a human being, talking to him is not like talking to an ice sculpture, there is actually someone home. He is just a salt-of-the-earth, solid family guy whose favorite Saturday meal is Spaghetti Bolognese and breaded fried chicken!
You can check out Kazoku on Instagram @kazokuegypt.
Photo shoot by MO4 Network's MO4 Productions. Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.