It’s not uncommon for a 25 year old to come up with an ambitious, more than slightly risky, idea. It is, however, a bit less common for that 25 year old to execute the idea in a brilliant and appetizing way to compliment what feels like an often lacking food scene in Cairo. Mirette Aly, whose heart and soul is behind the original The Lemon Tree & Co., Telal’s The Beach Bar by The Lemon Tree & Co., Marassi’s The Lemon Tree & Co. and Zamalek’s Beetroot by The Lemon Tree & Co., was the young woman to do just that.
Mirette, now 28, admits she’s always been “a self-motivated person” who took her dedicated work ethic and decided to pair it with her “great passion and drive for food”. Whether it was entertaining friends at her own place, or taking over kitchens at her friends’, she then found herself embarking with her now husband, Ahmed Hanafi, on the journey of creating the space that became the original The Lemon Tree & Co. location in Zamalek. Though she had the ambition to put her concept to the test, she concedes that Hanafi “was the greatest believer in me. He could see something in me I hadn’t even seen.”
While we could all use a partner-business or otherwise-that sees so much potential in us, it’s Mirette who has truly embraced this sentiment and created a remarkable restaurant backed by a tightly run kitchen. But it’s not her kitchen skills alone that hold The Lemon Tree & Co. together, it’s passion and love, mixed with a good dose of respect.
We see it all too often, a place opens fantastically and then becomes more and more average or even below average in quality, until it reaches its demise and closes with hardly anyone noticing. Mirette has combatted this by taking the time to train her staff and chefs in the creation of each menu item with a classroom in the office and spending long hours in the kitchen with them, which is no easy task. The Lemon Tree & Co. has had about 21 different menus since opening three years ago. Because the concept of the restaurant is based on the seasonal freshness of goods, Mirette is also able to source most of her produce here in Egypt. “I like to know what I have first,” she comments, “I go to [Egyptian] Hydrofarms, Makar Farms, to source greens and vegetables locally”. Sure a couple of imported items are mandatory, “But the way the menu is developed is based on what they have to offer first,” because, “at the end of the day this is going to be on my menu and I need to make sure it’s at its best.”
Aside from conscious quality control, Mirette’s involvement and persistence with her Egyptian kitchen staff has not only kept The Lemon Tree & Co. open, but gained her unparalleled ground in the industry to gracefully expand. She explained her method for maintaining standards by saying, “You can give an order and they will apply the order, but if they don’t understand it and they’re not convinced with it, they’ll apply it now and tomorrow the recipe will be ruined. There is a whole respect to rapidly educating people as to why they’re doing [this] and not just that the executive chef is telling them to. I tell them, ‘You’re not a machine, you’re not a cook, you’re a respectable chef and you need to understand why everything is done and how it’s done’.” Mirette’s ability to relay her passion and knowledge to her staff is undoubtedly met with the utmost respect to deliver consistent results.
Strangely enough, Mirette’s humility doesn’t cause her to see her hands-on approach as being what allows The Lemon Tree & Co. to break barriers into a unique culinary experience. She believes, “It’s not me helping them, it’s them helping me and it’s them making me believe that there is so much more than the stereotypical views around Egypt of good service and good quality food.”
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Regardless, her faith and trust in her Egyptian staff and their abilities is directly reflected in her 29 year old sous chef whom she asserts “knows more about molecular gastronomy than [a foreign] chef…He’s unstoppable, unbeatable and he’s Egyptian. So it’s not about the foreign chef that you worked with or are hiring, it’s about passion. If an Egyptian is passionate, they’re going to go all the way.” Considering she is Egyptian herself, we can see how her own passion and motivation gets carried down the line in her kitchen, and we don’t doubt our trust in that for a minute. This higher standard of understanding and learning she expresses with her own staff means “[they] know I’m doing this for the benefit of everyone, they keep it consistent and they keep it clean and we have a great deal of communication.” It becomes a fully delicious creative cycle from A to Z.
Though The Lemon Tree & Co. has successfully been around and grown for three years now, you won’t catch Mirette slacking off. “I get into the kitchen at least twice a day,” she admits. “I’m usually at Marassi or Talal. I’m very involved in the day-to-day and the purchasing, manufacturing, butchering, everything.” She takes so much pride in her work that it’s something she enjoys sharing with those working right alongside her. Naturally, she does this by taking extra pleased guests “inside the kitchen [to] let them say it themselves,” stating that this type of praise is “incomparable”.
Mirette has admittedly been “re-shaped” by the years invested in her restaurants, by learning “to respect and honor my job or whatever I decide to take on with my life.” But what seems to have truly pushed Mirette and her partner/husband the extra distance in becoming a high quality culinary staple across Egypt is what any good relationship is built on; “the main drive is passion and love and fulfilling, satisfying and making people around you smile…it’s just love. It gives me a lot of satisfaction.”
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Feature Image: CairoZoom