Walking out onto the terrace at Casper & Gambini’s City Stars on Saturday afternoon was like entering a live television broadcast in full swing. Cameras, microphones, music, a stage; hosts, guests and excited contestants buzzing about; photographers, press; and a beautiful set prepared by Alia El Askalany and her team. It is hard to imagine that a small sandwich delivery shop start-up begun in Beirut in the mid-1990s could have morphed into the sleek restaurant chain that it is today, but that’s what a success story Casper & Gambini’s is. Along with Cairo’s home-grown TheGiftery.com, founded by Sarah Aclimandos, co-sponsors of this event, we were ready for the beginning of the Middle East’s only amateur cooking competition, Gifted Chef, run this year for the second time.
A field of entries had been narrowed down to five for a live cooking contest. Each home chef would have 20 minutes to prepare their dish for a panel of judges that included Mark Khalife, managing director at International Restaurants Group (Casper & Gambini’s, Zeitouna Lebanese Bistro, and Scoops), local chef and restaurant consultant Sarah Khanna, the CEO of Gourmet Egypt, Jalal Abu Ghazaleh, and yours truly. The winners (top two), in addition to getting their creations featured on the C & G menu for a month, received a Weber grill and bragging rights until the competition next year.
The five finalists that made it into the actual live show were: Sandra Michel, who prepared a lovely grilled salmon with a porcini and shrimp risotto; Alessia Ferucci, who made a pasta with black olive paste and buffalo mozzarella; Mona Gawiche, who came up with a shrimp and rice dish in a spicy coconut milk sauce; Jala El Gammal, who did a Mediterranean appetiser of deep-fried halloumi cheese bites with a yoghurt and garlic dipping sauce; and Sarah Yehia, who invented what her husband Mohammed calls “Sweet Buds,” sweet potato rolled into balls around a liquid caramel centre, fried and served with ice cream.
The experience was nerve-wracking for the contestants because they had to perform in front of a live audience, while being filmed and giving a running commentary to the guests over the PA system. Each had to describe their cooking as their performance in the outdoor kitchen was being broadcast onto screens set up for the crowd around the terrace. It really was a live cooking show; it was even covered by Wesam Massoud on his cooking show on the new Arabic food channel CBC Sofra, and should be airing next week.
And then, after all that, they had to present their dishes to the judges’ panel and listen to comments in front of everyone. Nerve-wracking indeed. And yet each pulled it off with grace, wit and charm. Which is why I am sure that next year will be even bigger and better, and why you should start preparing your entry for next year starting right now. What made the afternoon so special was how poised and gracious everybody was; each cheering for their friends and loved ones but supportive of all in what turned out to be a fierce but friendly competition.
It was a close call, but when all was said and done Alessia Ferucci and her amazing olive pasta was awarded second place while top honours went to Sarah Yehia for her truly creative and original sweet potato dessert. Beautifully plated with a winning contrast between the cold ice cream and the sweet buds straight from the frying pan, this was the dish that I wanted more of. And in another week or so you can try it yourself. In all seriousness, it’s not to be missed; make your lunch plans right now. Hopefully you will be inspired to join us next year too.