For Ashraf Gamal, returning to his home country of Egypt after a three-week exchange program in the United States was anything but relaxing! In just the first few weeks of his return, there was a major annual food industry conference to manage, a live cooking competition with Red Sea Chefs to host, and a presentation on his exchange experience to share with members and staff of the Egyptian Chefs Association (ECA) where he serves as Director of Operations. Ashraf is accustomed to being busy, but thanks to his life-changing experience with the International Visitors Leadership Program (IVLP), he found himself especially re-energized and brimming with exciting new ideas.
Prior to being nominated for the IVLP by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Ashraf initiated a business development arm of the Egyptian Chefs Association, which has provided technical assistance to nearly 190,000 small and medium enterprises involved in the Egyptian food and beverage industry. Through strong, long-term relationships with food, beverage, and equipment companies, Ashraf has generated funds to make the organization ground zero for the exchange of information and services among chefs, and Egypt’s premier source of culinary knowledge and training.
For years, Ashraf has worked passionately to improve and implement standards for culinary professions. He envisions a higher level of inclusion for internationally-certified Egyptian chefs in the global food and catering industry. Therefore, when Ashraf was selected to participate in the IVLP project “Economic Development through Culinary Exchange,” it was the ideal opportunity to make major advances towards his professional objectives. He looked forward to exploring best practices in his field by engaging with American food industry practitioners and networking with other like-minded professionals from Algeria, Morocco, Oman, and Egypt.
After arriving in Washington, D.C. to begin his IVLP, Ashraf and the rest of his group first visited D.C. Central Kitchen, where he was impressed with their model of helping the homeless and ex-prisoners to reshape their future by providing them with culinary job training. “It was so exciting to express my feelings on how they inspire each of us,” Ashraf commented about being chosen to say a few words to the trainers following the meeting.
Another highlight for Ashraf during his time in D.C. was a visit with the leadership of Union Kitchen. “What a great idea – helping small businesses to grow by providing a low-cost, full service kitchen,” he remarked. Ashraf liked the concept so much that he is promoting it in Egypt and has plans to launch a similar project in Cairo within the next few months.
In New York, the group had the chance to experience the city’s world-famous food scene – ranging from popular food carts to Michelin three-star restaurants to influential culinary institutions. “I was astonished when I found myself inside the James Beard Foundation. It is well known in Egypt for its food writing, chefs, and amazing restaurants,” said Ashraf.
Visiting the headquarters for Green Market, which gives small farmers the opportunity to sell fresh, high-quality products to customers directly, was particularly inspiring to Ashraf. “I promoted this concept to our conference, ‘From Farm to Fork,’ which was held nine hours after my traveling 23 hours to Cairo from the U.S.,” he said. “By the end of the conference different farm owners came to me asking to work under the Egyptian Chefs Association umbrella.”
Next stop on the group’s agenda was Portland, Oregon, where Ashraf and his colleagues not only got to experience the city’s vibrant food culture, but participated in a home hospitality stay with several American families. Ashraf noted the prevalence of food trucks in Portland and felt it could become a successful venture once adapted to suit to the Middle East’s busy cities.
In Pensacola, Florida the group learned about the successful cooperative relationship between public and private sectors that has led to economic development in the area. The group visited a number of community gardens before traveling to their final destination – New Orleans, Louisiana! Ashraf was fascinated by the city’s unique Cajun identity and how this impacts the city’s culinary character. “Food is the core of the city – you can see how many cuisines were absorbed to form, by the end, a distinctive New Orleans cuisine.”
After returning to Egypt, Ashraf reflected on the deep impact of his IVLP experience – “I came to the conclusion that I come from a different culture from yours, but through food and culinary arts we can cooperate and understand each other. I have a dream to fight hunger and poverty. We need to provide chances to the poor to be trained to cook, and to find jobs. We need to educate people how to cook and eat healthy foods. We need to find solutions for food loss and food waste. And we can work together to protect the planet and feed future generations.”