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This Is A (Wo) Man's World: Chef Julia El Bardai

Ahead of her culinary adventures at Cairo Capital Club, we talk with Chef Julia El Bardai, the first female to take the helm at one of the city's finest addresses and talk law school, breakfast foods, and making it in a male-dominated industry...

Sharp knives, hot plates and a room full of men: that is the day-to-day business of a chef running a kitchen in Egypt and the world. The male-dominated world of the culinary arts is a harsh reality that is seldom home to a female chef. Lost in male banter and straining night shifts, many women in Egypt hesitate to take their passion to cook to a professional level. Julia El Bardai is not one of these people. Inspired by her desire to make her biggest hobby her life, El Bardai abandoned her law career one day and set out on a road less travelled by women to become a chef. On April 21, she will prove that she can compete with the executive chefs of Egypt (who are exclusively male) when she takes the cooking stage at the Cairo Capital Club for a simple yet excellent dinner.

As a woman, the dream to become a chef is seldom part of a long-standing career plan. In fact, El Bardai, who is a successful chef with her own catering service in New York today, never made it a part of her plan either. After high school, the young Egyptian-American woman pursued a law degree in the United States where she grew up. “One day I asked myself if I would want to practice law every day for the rest of my life,” El Bardai tells us when we sit down with her at the Cairo Capital Club ahead of her big event next Tuesday. Unable to confirm she could, El Bardai purchased a one-way ticket to New York City to enroll in culinary school and make her hobby her profession. With that move, El Bardai had started her journey to become a female chef in a business overwhelmingly dominated by men.

“The first day at culinary school, everybody was excited and hoping to become a chef,” El Bardai said of the eight-month course. By the end of it, El Bardai succeeded as one of the four out of 40 people to become a professional chef. Her first engagement in Egypt sent her to the renowned Four Seasons Hotel at Nile Plaza. As the only woman in the fancy kitchen, El Bardai soon realised that “culinary school had been a bit of a joke.” The fast pace of the actual kitchen environment had never been part of her preparation, and soon El Bardai felt like her lack of experience of the real kitchen was a huge slap in her pretty face. In culinary school, she explains, the making of a soup was a straight forward affair, with the result being important. In reality, however, the additional time restraint and pressure was doubly challenging. A challenge that El Bardai saw to be too much for many women along the way.

“Many women want to have children and stop working 60 hours a week at nights and weekends,” El Bardai explains as to why she believes the culinary arsenal is almost exclusively populated with male chefs. In Egypt, she thinks, women are also often lacking the confidence and ambition to believe that their passion or talent for cooking would be enough to pay the bills. On top of that, a setting like a kitchen, populated with guys talking “bro talk” and superiors constantly yelling at her, wasn’t always the easiest place to work, El Bardai admits. Today she is convinced, however, that the experience of working at the Four Seasons or Michelin-starred restaurants State-side has made her a better person…and chef!

It certainly wasn’t culinary school that taught her how to be one. It was many years inside a kitchen, putting up with the various challenges that come with a physically straining and emotionally demanding job surrounded by men, that made her create her own style. Therefore, the culinary fairy takes offense in food bloggers claiming they are chefs. But despite her many years of experience, El Bardai is still exploring the culinary possibilities of Egypt. Today, she likes to focus on local, organic foods and create something simple, without much fuss that tastes good and IS good. That is also what she is going for on Tuesday, when local, organic ingredients will help her create a four course dinner that is imaginative and unconventional. Her biggest challenge, she feels, is convincing people of the unconventional ideas she has for this taste explosion. “Many people I present with a poached egg as a starter are skeptical because it is a breakfast food,” she tells us of Tuesday’s starter she is convinced is going to “blow everybody’s mind.”

For the first time ever, a woman will also lead the kitchen at the Cairo Capital Club when Julia El Bardai takes over next week. Organic and local produce, simplicity and filling portions that please palate and belly are the philosophy of the gorgeous chef who takes on this Egyptian challenge that no other woman has before her. It is with confidence that she is approaching the expectations that come with cooking at one of Cairo’s finest addresses. “I am trying to find my niche in Egypt,” El Bardai says, “and the event will show if the menu I love and used in the US will convince people in Egypt as well.” We personally can’t wait to taste El Bardai’s veal and homemade rosemary ice cream. Get more information on how to make your reservation here and have an exclusive look at the menu Chef Julia is serving right now. 

 

1st Course 

Farm Egg 

Polenta, Southwest Style Corn, Roasted Cherry Tomato 

 

2nd Course 

Duck Risotto 

Fresh Herbs, Cracklings 

 

Main Course 

Veal Ricotta Meatballs 

Sautéed Greens, Potato Gratin 

 

Dessert 

Peach Cobbler 

Rosemary Ice Cream 

Selection of Citrus Mignardises 

All inclusive LE250

 
Photography by Mahmoud Asfour. 

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