Zooba – A Culinary Gem in the Heart of Cairo

 

 

In a metropolis made up mainly of yellow, ochre, and brown hues, the small restaurant in Cairo’s affluent Zamalek district on Gezira Island in the Nile stands out. From afar, a tree clad from top to bottom in a sort of multicolored knitted wrap catches the eye. A few brightly painted beer garden tables and chairs are arranged in front of the venue. Above the light-blue wooden entrance doors, the name of the restaurant is displayed in bold, rounded letters.

Entering through the light-blue doors, visitors are greeted by an equally eye-catching setting inside. Even the typical Egyptian delicacies displayed in the small bistro seem to shine in the most wondrous colors. Spreads preserved in jars stand in the refrigerated display cabinets next to sweetmeats packed in colorful wrapping paper and glass bottles with fresh orange, lemon, or mango juice. Take-away orders are given in a paper bag – unusual in a country like Egypt, where plastic is still considered state-of-the-art and sustainability not a topic as yet.

When Chris Khalifa makes his entrance, the long communal table in the middle of the room is filled almost to the last seat. Some diners are still finishing their breakfast of scrambled eggs with basterma, an Egyptian type of air-dried cured beef, while others are already lunching and eating lentil soup out of enamel dishes or beet salad with orange dressing. A tall, athletic-looking man with dark hair and light-colored eyes, Mr. Khalifa is immediately the center of attention, which he hardly seems to notice as he is much too busy greeting his employees with a hearty handshake. Zooba is Chris Khalifa's brainchild, which he refers to lovingly as his "baby." Before we can start our interview, the 31-year-old entrepreneur goes into the kitchen to make sure everything is going according to plan and to give some instructions on how to better position the products in the display unit. "I'm almost obsessive about details," Mr. Khalifa says with an apologetic smile. Not surprisingly, it's precisely this love for detail that makes Zooba such a special experience. Mr. Khalifa's passion for his product and the Zooba brand quickly turned the restaurants into favorite meeting points for aficionados of Egyptian cuisine and for young people in Cairo.

We are open for anything and have a very flexible approach in our creations, but essentially it's always about street food.

It is hard to imagine the Egyptian streets without the ever-present hawkers and vendors who offer everything from sandwiches to homemade French fries, falafel, and ful out of their wooden carts and food vans. Ful is probably the most typical Egyptian specialty of all and very popular. The main ingredient of this delicious dish is brown fava beans, served with a selection of garnishes and Egyptian flatbread.

In 2010, Chris Khalifa first started thinking about serving Egyptian street food made of quality ingredients in a hygienic, commercial setting with a modern twist. The trend of bringing gourmet cuisine to the street had already caught on worldwide, Mr. Khalifa tells us. "We didn't really invent anything new." In major cities around the globe, Michelin star chefs were selling gourmet cuisine on the streets out of trucks. However nobody had tried something like this in Egypt yet, and anyway, Mr. Khalifa wanted to do it the other way round: "I wanted to create a brand out of Egyptian gourmet street food and sell it in a bistro."

When Mr. Khalifa started developing his concept, he was still working for an investment bank in Egypt, where he had found employment after graduating from business school in Boston and gaining his first work experience in the banking sector in London. He had already had thoughts about opening a restaurant, he tells us. But it was the idea of gourmet street food that really got him excited. In 2011, he joined forces with Mustafa El Refaey, who today is partner and chef de cuisine of the Zooba chain. Together they created a menu and started organizing tasting parties with friends in order to test their ideas. They created exciting concoctions such as sweet potatoes with marshmallows or rice pudding with sweet potato and cinnamon. Plain, yet delicious creations that can't be found anywhere else, showcased in a modern and ecologically sustainable manner. "We are open for anything and very flexible in our creations," says Mr. Khalifa, "but essentially it's always about street food." Zooba would not be Zooba without ful, falafel, koshari, or the typical Egyptian flatbread. On average 1,500 loaves are baked daily in the bistro. Fresh bread is prepared every three hours.

Yet, nothing is sacrosanct at Zooba. Even the classics of Egyptian street food have been experimented with and sometimes tweaked. For example, koshari with freekah – a cereal made from green wheat – that is entirely a Zooba creation. The restaurant's koshari counter offers the traditional Egyptian dish with rice, pasta, lentils, and chickpeas in addition to the healthier variation with freekah, only available at Zooba. Both dishes are garnished in front of the customer with tomato sauce, vinegar, garlic, and fried onions: A mouthwatering carbohydrate and calorie bomb. "This dish is one of my absolute favorites," Mr. Khalifa tells us. His favorite breakfast dish is ful Alexandria – brown beans with onions, paprika, and tomatoes. Naturally, as with most Egyptian dishes, this is best with flatbread and eaten with your hands.

I want to retain the principles of our business model.

"The way you treat people is the way you'll be treated, too," is Mr. Khalifa’s business motto. The employees have a fixed contract, they are insured, and gratuities are shared equally among the staff – not a common practice in Egypt. "This creates a sense of community, which is important to me," Mr. Khalifa says. In addition, employees receive a share of the profits. Psychologically, not just financially, this makes a big difference to employee motivation. "We aim to provide a complete experience," the entrepreneur tells us. Starting with the façade of the building, this comprises aspects such as design, how guests are treated, overall hygiene, what music is played, and naturally what kind of food is served. "To me, that is the definition of a brand and something we put a lot of time and effort in. We want people – employees and customers alike – to feel at home here.

And the philosophy appears to be working. Initially he started with this small bistro – the "baby" – in the Zamalek district. Just two short years later, two more branches were opened in other city districts. The number of employees has risen from 25 in 2012 to currently 200. Further branches are planned, but the detail-oriented entrepreneur first wants to be sure that the recently opened branches are operating smoothly before expanding further. Mr. Khalifa, son of an Egyptian father and American mother, knows that his concept would work abroad as well – that it probably has enormous potential there. Yet the canny restaurateur does not want to rush into things. "It's important to me to retain the principles of our business model." Hasty compromises are inacceptable for his baby, his passion, his multicolored dream come true.

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