Saturday, March 4, 2017
By: Habiba Elhady
The Egyptian music playing in the background will welcome as you step into Maha’s restaurant. Named after its owner, the small neighborhood diner serving authentic homemade Egyptian food was ranked by Toronto Now among the 20 top brunch destinations in Torono, Canada. The authentic interior, furniture imported from Egypt, the coffee shops’ chairs, the colors and fabric of the pillows, Egyptian art and photographs perched on the walls will set the mood for the culinary experience your taste buds are about to enjoy, and which will guarantee your return.
After moving to Canada in 2000, Maha worked as an interpreter and a translator. For a work event, she cooked a vegetarian macaroni bel béchamel, substituting the ground meat with mixed vegetables and feta cheese, in between two layers of penne pasta and topped with béchamel sauce. The casserole was raved by her colleagues who urged her to start a catering business, which she did, with the help of her two kids, Monika, 16, and Mark, 13, then.
As her catering business flourished, Maha considered opening a restaurant. Starting a business in a foreign country was challenging every step of the way, from finding a good location, acquiring permits, dealing with construction workers and inspectors, and finding the right people to help with the operation. What Maha finds most challenging as a restaurant owner, manager and chef is that she hardly finds time to sleep. “I guess if you love and enjoy what you do, you will overcome all challenges.” Maha said.
The restaurant is co-owned and operated by Maha and her kids, who are instrumental in running the business. Monica works with her mother in the kitchen. She cooks, plates and manages the prep team. With his “amazing skills with people,” Mark’s responsibility is the front house service, dealing with suppliers and customers. He also prepares the lattes and teas.
Monica and Mark were 10 and 7 when they moved to Canada. They adapted to their new life “right way,” but missed the Christmas and new years’ celebrations with their family in Egypt. “My family is big and we always celebrated every occasion together, and that’s what we still miss until now.” Maha explained.
After all these years Maha still can’t get used to the cold weather, the snow and the long winters without sun. She loves those rare moments in the winter when the sun shines through the glass windows of the restaurant and makes it feel like home.
Maha’s favorite part about being the owner is that she can decide when to take time off, but also as an owner, she has no time to do or think of anything, but the restaurant.
“Hard work and a cooperative team are the basic ingredients for a successful business restaurant,” Maha says. She praises her children for being “the most hardworking people” she has ever known. “They are my endless support and what keep me going.” Equally important is “a good relation with the customers and having loyal employees who love to come to work.” She said.
Owning a restaurant comes with different responsibilities and expectations than managing one. “It literally becomes your newborn child who you want to see grow every day. If you are running a restaurant, you have to be prepared to do everything. On days when the dishwasher calls sick, we wash the dishes ourselves.”
Maha grew up in a family with “a lot of amazing cooks” and she always “wanted to be in the kitchen.” Her mother made the best hors d’oeuvre and “nothing compared to her grandmother’s kahk and agamia.” At 14, she started going to the school library looking for cooking books. Her favorite was Abla Nazira’s. She wrote down the recipes and tried them at home. She became known for her passion for food and was selected by the principle of Ramses College in Cairo to create a school kitchen to serve breakfasts and lunches for the student and staff. She cooked these meals everyday with the help of a team of students she picked herself.
Monica and Mark also gained some experience working as baristas in a family run coffee shop during their college years. Monika created the menu for Maha’s, choosing the favorite food her mother cooked for them when they were growing up. She also added a couple more dishes that she created herself to introduce the Egyptian flavors to Canadians. The Egyptian falafel, served for breakfast is the number 2 selling item on the menu, made from deep fried falafel paste stuffed with two eggs and served with cumin fried potatoes.
Maha’s favorite dish is the Cairo Classic, which is also the most popular item on the menu. It consists of foul (beans) with freshly cut onions and tomatoes, a sliced boiled egg and falafel, all drizzled with Egyptian feta cheese blended with tomatoes, mint and olive oil, served with baladi, whole wheat pita bread.
Spending at least 15 hours every day at work, Maha and her kids consider the restaurant their “second home away from home.” Maha believes that “dreams do come true by hard work not just by dreaming them.” She advises anyone who’s starting a new career to follow Nike’s motto, “just do it”.
To learn more about Maha’s Restaurant, visit its Facebook page