The Dreams & Aspirations of Young Chefs


Where have the graduates of the Culinary Training Centres of Egypt ended up? Are they working for restaurants or hotels? Is the work of chef up to their expectations and to what do they aspire? We interviewed CTCE graduate Mona El Sabbahy to find answers to these questions.

1) What made you choose the profession of chef?

It had always been my dream. Even though I was pressured into studying something completely different I eventually joined the profession as soon I was free to do so and pursued it from then on.

2) Does the work meet your expectations?

I think the question should be the other way around – we should ask ourselves everyday as young chefs if we are living up to the expectations of our profession. We should ask if we are really working as hard as we can and if we are really using every opportunity to learn from the job. Of course I don’t always realize such high standards but I do try to turn my errors into lessons and benefit from each situation as much as possible.

We might not be working with the most knowledgeable chefs but they might be the best in using a knife. We might not be working with chefs who are the most skilled but they might just know the best way to lead a team. Maybe the ingredients we are forced to work with are not always the ideal choice but we do our best to produce the best possible product from them.
This explains why I try to work as hard as I can and to the ultimate limit of my stamina, restraint my ego and “stretch” my nervous tolerance. I try to learn as much as possible from the situation and use the hardship I face as a learning experience.

3) What is the most important lesson you have learned so far that has made you a better chef?

I have learned that there is never just one way to do anything. There are endless possibilities and methods for doing things. One way will always be cleaner; one will always be faster; one will be more cost-efficient but it doesn’t make any one of them “the right way” or the perfect way. I see my job as finding the perfect balance between each of them, knowing how and when to use each of them. For me the golden rule is never to compromise on hygiene or quality.

4) What do you think are the main differences between a hotel chef and a restaurant chef? What is your own personal preference and why?

Well each has its own pros and cons. During my first year in the operation as a chef I worked in both a restaurant and a hotel. I personally benefited more from working in the hotel than I did in the restaurant. A hotel is more institutionalized. There’s a hierarchy and a certain orthodoxy of practice that has been built up over the years. This gives the place a lot of character and style – regardless of it being good or bad. It is seasoned. And as a young chef I needed this kind of stability and discipline so as to reinforce my confidence in the basics. But before you know it, this rigid system moulds and shapes you. Of course you need this system as it shapes and refines your skills and organization but then it begins to monopolize and shape your way of thinking. You start to lose your individuality.

By comparison work in a restaurant is different and allows you to be much more flexible. It is a much smaller operation and this scale allows for more creativity and dialogue. It also affords greater opportunity to show off and shine. I now work at a restaurant that changes its entire menu every 2 or 3 months. There is no hotel that does that. If I had to do it all over again, I would start my career at a hotel to learn discipline and develop skills but then go on to a restaurant where I would have more freedom to develop my own personality and would encourage me to create my own style.

5) What has been the greatest highlight in your career so far?

That is a very hard question to answer since there are so many of those!
For a period of time I worked at a consultancy firm where part of my job was to design kitchen plans. I clearly remember the first kitchen I designed and the moment when I walked into it when it was built and saw people working in it. It was like seeing a living creature that I had created. I will never forget that feeling.
Another highlight was when Chef Markus gave me two of his personal knives and a sharpener when I left Food Tracks to work at the InterContinental. I cried so hard! And he had wrapped them up in a torchon and everything!

Another absolutely honorable moment was when I was chosen to be Chef Omar Hamada’s commis at the Global Chefs Challenge representing Egypt and the MENA region. It was in an international competition and I felt so privileged because at that time my experience was still very limited.

A memorable occasion was when I was accepted to occupy a certain position in a job but was promoted within a month because my employer was impressed with my performance. But the best moments are those when people start depending on you and ask for YOU to perform specific tasks because they know you will do them in a particular way. Such moments are precious because when you can create something every day you will regard all of them as highlights.

6) What are some of the main challenges you have faced in your career or at work?

The major challenge is presented by the people who work with you. You constantly have to find a balance between working as a team and keeping your own standards of perfection. Not everyone shares your attitude to the profession or feels passionate about it. Most of them actually do not. This means that not everyone will pay as much attention to detail as you do. Not everyone is willing to invest as much time and energy in everything as you do. And it’s even worse when your superiors do not care as much as you do. So I always try to remind myself that there are boundaries; some are safe to cross and others are not. There may be orders that are better carried out exactly as they are given even if they do not make sense to me.

7) What are your hopes regarding your future career? What is your dream?

For the near future I dream of working under a chef who has realized his/her own philosophy and has managed to translate this into actual food and serves it to people who in turn accept this philosophy and interact with it and come back for more. I want to work under him/her to learn how to develop my own character and style so that in the not too distant future I can run my own operation that incorporates my own philosophy.

8) Where do you get your inspiration from?

I would have to resort to the model answer for this question. I am inspired by nature and seasonality, the techniques of the French, the skills of the Japanese, and the heritage of Egypt.

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