One hour is probably the time you would need in an Egyptian Kitchen to prepare homemade falafel, the same time for an average commute on the ring road from East to West of Cairo. Population growth and the expansion of the city is impacting people’s lifestyles and their culture. Hundreds of years spent in kitchens throughout history to reach today’s homemade food are sacrificed for hectic urban lives. While policymakers are masterminding how cities will feed their growing populations in the future to secure healthy diets, who will do the cooking part? Could home-cooked food selling to the public be the solution?
The pandemic made millions of people stay at home and cook. It has changed how jobs, home-cooked food being one of them, are perceived all over the world. People are juggling with their time available. This was also the answer of Alaa Jalaby, cofounder with Hala Mansour of Super Chefs, a project based in Cairo, which took over cooking from parents of the children in her nursery aiming at supporting her employees. She has used their passion for home cooking to save jobs while helping working mothers to optimize time, as cooking is mostly relegated to women in Egypt.
‘We had two options at that time, either to pay salaries or to pay rent. We quit the space,” explains Jalaby. ‘The parents of our children were financially supporting us to pay the salaries without anything in return. But we knew that this won’t last long and that we have to think of a sustainable solution.’
From unemployed to Super Chefs
Jalaby co-founded a nursery in Cairo five years ago, which had to close its doors due to the pandemic. Cooking was not something new, the assistants who worked at the kitchen of the nursery were known for their tasty homemade meals. And the hired teachers’ assistants are all mothers who already had a solid experience with cooking.
The first idea was to create the meals that the children were always enjoying and sell it to the parents as frozen (because of the pandemic) and ready to be cooked in their kitchens. Jalaby came up with the name Super Chefs after her kindergarten Super Kidz.
The packages sent to the parents were not only meals, but also flashcards with instructions on how to cook those meals, and they created a whatsapp group to communicate with the parents and share videos and materials.
We wanted to make life easier for the parents, we know that working from home probably doesn’t allow enough time to prepare food from scratch and learn how to properly cook it, explains Jalaby.
Super Chefs in Cairo were born out of the pandemic but the idea is here to stay. Suddenly it was not only the parents who were ordering food for the kindergarten, Super Chefs received lots of orders within the parents’ networks, even if their children were not enrolled in the nursery.
Where parents can find affordable homemade food in Cairo
It was a matter of time for Super Chefs to become popular and start evolving as increasingly busy working mothers carry the burden of less time to dedicate to their kitchens every day. In Arabic culture, mothers are responsible for creating and maintaining a home environment that fosters healthy eating behaviors among family members including the children, reveals a paper on Nutritional beliefs and practices of Arabic Speaking Middle-Eastern mothers by Maissa Al-Bkerat.
If any mother finds an opportunity to have food that she trusts, and with similar quality to what she cooks at her home, she won’t hesitate buying for her household that homemade food cooked for selling to the public to save time and effort. Super Chefs was born to ensure a sustainable income for women but ended up redefining women’s relationship with cooking.
Jalaby’s team has spent seven months operating only as Super Chefs with the nursery closed, able to keep their staff members on the payroll during that time until its operations resumed in November 2020. Currently the school is not running at full capacity due to new safety measures but Super Chefs hasn’t stopped selling food and continues to operate as an independent arm of the school.
Empowering food entrepreneurship and building a community
“We can maintain the jobs of all our staff; most of them are financially dependent on this project. We empower our Super Chefs to feel the importance of the job they are doing. We make sure that children and their families consume food which is beneficial and healthy,” says Jalaby.
Similar projects are gaining more popularity in Cairo, with no specific interest or support from the government. The Zahrawan Foundation was already helping unemployed women from underserved communities to sell homemade food at different locations in Cairo. More awareness campaigns on a bigger scale are needed to support and facilitate this new idea of home-cooked food selling to the public to fill a real and urgent need felt by many Caroians.
For such projects to be sustainable, the supervision of specialized governmental entities is much needed. This would make projects like Super Chefs focus on cooking their food rather than spend time, money and effort in creating self-made quality control and safety criteria and standards.
We have a full time team member assigned for quality control as we always did for the food cooked in our nursery, reveals Jalaby.
This employee is responsible for everything starting from the hygiene of the kitchen and staff, the quality of the prepared meals, tasting everything and making sure they are up to standards.
A home cooking movement
For instance, in the UK unemployed restaurant workers have been cooking and selling food from home during the pandemic. However, local authority resources to check on regulatory compliance are overwhelmed by the amount of petitions to the frustration of people waiting for permissions.
In the US California already passed a law in 2018 to legalize home cooking. Matt Jorgensen, founder of C.O.O.K. Alliance and a start-up for home-cooked food selling to the public, which had to close after two years of operation in 2016, became a fervent advocate towards the legalization of home-cooked food sales — a social and political movement that had outgrown his social enterprise.
In the Arabic world mothers’ homemade food plays an essential role in preventing childhood obesity. However, lifestyles in cities are becoming avid time consumers against their kitchens. Projects like Super Chefs support healthy eating habits while making the best of people’s cooking skills to reconnect women helping each other.
The future plans are to integrate what they are doing at Super Chefs in their nursery and continue with home-cooked food selling to the public, explains Jalaby, and include lots of food tips in their educational curriculum and integrate cooking education for children with special needs (autism, ADHD, hyper activeness).
With the pandemic we are living in a world of uncertainties. However, food projects in Cairo like Super Chefs are optimistic, planning to expand and increase their influence on the families of Cairo.
“Our experience with Super Chefs is full of positive stories. We felt that things are changing, we will not definitely get back to how we were operating before,” foresees Jalaby.