As part of the Transform Today campaign, we’re teaming up with Absolut to put a spotlight on the people who are not only changing their own lives, but the face of Egypt through their work. First up, neurologist-turned-culinary artist, Wesam Masoud.
The interview has long finished and in the glaring afternoon sun at The Garden, yet Wesam Masoud is still fervently chatting away a mile a minute.
“…Some beans and some carrots, and cucumbers, all that good stuff, and put it on the menu. Right now I have that on the menu with the herring and shrimp salad, which is one of our top selling meals,” he buzzes on. “People come specifically for it and I was like what else could I do with renga? Hey, I could turn it into hummus; take the renga boil it, and forget the meat, because you already have the flavour. People look at it like, ‘what the hell is this! This is really smokey, it’s got a bit of sweetness to it… What’s in it?’ ‘It’s renga!’ ‘Wow, that’s fantastic!’ Some things work some things don’t, you have to play around, one time I had feesekh…”
We take out our voice recorder once again, as he name-drops a million more chefs and recipes like a verbal mood board. His current project, the rustic Chef’s Market restaurant in City Stars, is re-defining dining in Cairo. An unlikely dream come true for the former practicing neurologist and Yale graduate, he has crafted an acutely unique menu brimming with culinary creativity.
Transformation usually commences with passion, and it is precisely this passion that he indisputably exudes when talking about cooking. CairoScene sits down with Masoud to talk about his journey and what it took to make the change from medicine to master chef, as well as TV presenter for ‘Kitchen 101’ on CBC Soufra, and successful restaurateur…
Was there a specific moment when you decided to leave medicine and become a chef?
I came back to Egypt after graduating to do critical research. I worked with a huge multinational company and it just got to a point where it was a 9-5 job. The exact moment was when I turned 30. I said I can't see myself doing this for another year, let alone 5 or 10 years. So I said screw it, I had already taught myself how to cook from my early twenties, and I gave myself four years to have my own restaurant. I started taking jobs in kitchens, first as sous chef to Ayman Samir at the Cellar Door, and that's how it started, before I became an executive chef at Cairo Jazz Club.
Was there a point during this process where you realised you can make a living out of cooking?
I didn't really mind whether or not I can make a living or not, I knew the money would be less. It wasn't about money. There's a quote by Confucius; "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." So I'd be sitting there in the middle of the kitchen, cutting my fingers off, but it was the best job in the world. I was super happy.
Do you feel like your time practicing medicine was a waste?
I think what I learned from practicing medicine was the thought process; how to break something down into its components and recreate. It helped me in terms of creativity, in terms of analysing recipes and problems, and just certain work flows in order for the kitchen to run more efficiently.
What were the biggest challenges you faced during the transformation?
Family. Definitely. My older brother put it together really nicely. He was like, “Listen everybody in your life follows the recipe, they follow the alphabet. There at A and they want to get to B, you're sitting there, you're at A, you got to Z and then you suddenly decided, ‘You know what, I'm going to go to the Chinese alphabet!’ You know nothing about the Chinese alphabet, or how it works, and you don't know how to make that transition, but you've got to do it anyways.” So I had support from my brother. I think it was toughest on my mum and my extended family. They couldn't really grasp it. “You're a doctor! Why would you want to tekhabat fe helal [knock around with pots and pans]?!’ But ever since I've been on TV, my mum has been happy about it.
What inspires you most to cook?
My dad asked me when I was a kid, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” I said, I want to open up a doughnut store. I was super skinny, but I just liked food. I’ve always liked food. I wouldn't eat huge quantities but I enjoyed eating; flavours and textures and all of that. So I guess that's what inspires me, eating something new, going into a new restaurant, or travelling and eating in a new country, those clichés I suppose. It could be a song, it could be a book. I've been reading up on the Biblical Noah versus the historical Noah and I started thinking, "What the hell did the Sumerians eat back then, 8,000 years ago?" And then you look at the history of rice and wheat, and how that has turbocharged the building of cities. So wild wheat; we learned how to farm it, here's my farm, I'm no longer a nomad, I can build a house here, I can have kids, and then they'll build a house here, and then the city grows. So I'm really interested in that kind of thing as well.
Do you think you have a disposition to better taste?
There's been a lot of really bad experiments involved. I liked to put random stuff together. I remember really vividly when I was seven, I dunked cheese sandwiches in orange Tang, and then threw up. I remember reading a children's book about a fox who couldn't find his parents so he had to fend for himself, he stole a few slices of breads and he would dip them in a running stream, so I thought, what does that taste like? So I took a piece of bread and I turned on the faucet and tried it out; a bunch of stuff like that. There's this combination of chili and dark chocolate, which is a combination I used at Cairo Jazz Club with a very South American feel. I thought chili: heat. What else has heat in it? Well you have wasabi. So I started taking different types of chocolate and trying them with wasabi. Some of them worked a lot more than others. It's always that sort of thing, trying whatever I can.
Do you believe in destiny, that we're meant to do something specific on this planet?
I think so. To a certain extent. You have your presented opportunities and then whether or not you have the courage to take those opportunities can determine your fate and can change your destiny. There is a measure of greatness to be had.
How does one go about finding exactly what it is they were meant to do?
You have got to try out a lot of stuff. You could be very lucky and just know what you want, or [you could] stumble upon it, and other times you have to work at it. You might find that you're not completely happy about something, but if you can find the positives in it, or something that inspires you, or at least find a way to make it your own, then that could work.
Do you see the culinary creation as an artistic construction?
Cooking is a craft, just like painting. At its highest level it becomes an art and requires more than just knowing how to boil an egg. The personality of the cook plays a big role, as well as his/her knowledge of ingredients to create something meaningful. How do you get over mental creative blocks?Creativity is 99% perspiration, 1% inspiration. You're working harder than you are being inspired. My dream was to open up a restaurant and serve a certain type of food, but at the end of the day carrots need to be peeled and chopped, and you need to make this and that, and the stove will break down on you and you need to figure out another way to do it. Aside from that, it depends on the type of [creative] block. Sometimes it can be due to personal issues; maybe you've been working too hard so you burn yourself out. And you've got to rest as much as possible. One of the other things I do if I hit a block is to get out a cook book by someone I really respect and read through it and eventually I will hit upon a thread and then just keep pulling at that thread until I come up with something.
Who do you admire most in the world of cooking?
If I had to say one [name], it would be Heston Blumenthal. Mainly because this is a guy who used to be a tax officer; he really didn't have much of a vocation going on, and then he took all his life savings and opened up [a restaurant] in a horrible location in the middle of nowhere, and taught himself how to cook. And look at him now. Up until he won his first Michelin stars, he was always in danger of closing the restaurant, and then the bookings started to flood in. I watch his shows religiously, the way you might watch a football match, rewinding your favourite goal.
Do you feel like your creativity is stifled based on Egyptians' taste?
Context is everything. The Fat Duck for instance, couldn't serve what it serves unless it was at The Fat Duck. There is a loophole to it, you have to create the atmosphere for people to come in and open their minds a little bit.
What does the idea of transformation mean to you?
Transformation is keeping the soul of the core identity of something but changing its outward physical appearance. That's what it means to me.
What's your biggest dream now?
Ultimately, within 20 years, I want to have the first Michelin star restaurant in Egypt.
Find out more about Wesam Masoud's Chef's Market on the restaurant's official Facebook page here. Stay tuned to CairoScene for more inspiring Transform Today stories by Absolut.