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Khaled Hegazzi has kept Egyptian heritage central in his life since immigrating two decades ago from Alexandria on the Nile delta to New Orleans on the Mississippi delta.
A poet and writer, he owns the Egyptian import shop Pharoah’s Cave in the French Quarter. More recently he started a pop-up, Sittoo’s Kitchen, based on traditional Egyptian flavors. At home, he is always cooking kofta kebabs and the layered lentil and pasta dish koshary for friends and family.
Now, Hegazzi has a key role in the most important showcase of Egyptian art and history in New Orleans in a generation, and that contribution comes through food.
The New Orleans Museum of Art this week debuts “Queen Nefertari’s Egypt,” a collection of 230 objects that present life in ancient Egypt some 3,000 years ago through the lens of the wife of pharaoh Ramesses II. The exhibition runs March 18 through July 17.
Throughout the exhibition, the restaurant within the museum, Café NOMA, serves traditional Egyptian dishes on its everyday menu and hosts a variety of special meals, cooking demos, and happy hours focused on Egyptian cuisine.
Hegazzi is part of a team that has been working behind the scenes for months to make sure museum visitors get a genuine taste of his home country. The result is a mix of Egyptian home cooking, street food and more elaborate dishes on offer in different ways over the next five months.
“I’m excited to see so much attention to Egyptian culture,” said Hegazzi. “When people come, they’ll see the cultural aspect and then you get to experience it in a different way and really feel it through our food.”
‘Has to be authentic’
Café NOMA is accessible both through the museum and also independent of museum admission, with a separate entrance. It’s part of the Ralph Brennan Restaurant Group and is overseen by veteran local chef Chris Montero, who also runs Napoleon House in the French Quarter.
In the past, the café has worked some museum programing into its culinary offerings, but Montero said the scale and importance of “Queen Nefertari’s Egypt” augured something more. The museum, after all, is hoping it sparks the same kind of public fascination that attended the blockbuster Treasures of Tutankhamun exhibition here in 1977.
The issue of culture authenticity came up from the start.
“The question was, do we want the food we’re doing here to be first and foremost familiar and accessible to people, or do we want it to be authentic?” Montero said. “The answer without hesitation was it has to be authentic, and so we needed Egyptians to come in and say ‘this is how we really do it.’”
Montero began working with Dina Daniel, an Egyptian-born chef who runs restaurants under her Fava Pot brand in Washington, D.C. She shared invaluable experience translating Egyptian cuisine to the restaurant format, especially for a multicourse dinner she will host at Café NOMA later this month.
However, Café NOMA also found talent much closer to home with Hegazzi.
Soon after they began talking about working together, Hegazzi invited Montero to his house in Lakeview for dinner. It was the kind of thing Hegazzi serves all the time, a traditional spread from dips and cumin-studded flatbread to a whole selection of stuffed grape leaves, falafel and ful, the deeply-seasoned fava bean stew.
“Once we experienced that, I knew he had to be part of it,” Montero said.
Hegazzi’s role has been as hands-on consultant, working through menu development and training Café NOMA staff. He’ll also be working in the kitchen for special events and other opportunities here when he can get away from his shop.
“Working with Khaled is like the difference between reading a recipe in a magazine or standing next to someone who’s actually cooking it,” said Montero. “You learn how it should feel, how it should smell, the timing and the intuition that goes into it.”
Food as a bridge
Back in Alexandria, where he and born and educated, Hegazzi met a fellow writer from Mobile, Alabama, Frank Dorghtry, and the two developed a friendship around their work.
“He would bring up New Orleans all the time, certain buildings in Alexandria, certain foods, we were always talking about New Orleans,” Hegazzi said. “He made me fall in love with the city before I’d ever been to the States.”
He’s lived here since 2001, and over that time food has been a potent way to connect his New Orleans life and family to his own roots.
His daughter Retiba has grown up cooking with him. In 2017, at age 9, she appeared on the Food Network show “Chopped Junior” and won the competition. She wowed the judges with a pairing of Egyptian and New Orleans flavors – lamb koftas and beignets. Today, as a high school student, she’s in the culinary program at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
During the pandemic, Hegazzi developed the pop-up Sittoo’s Kitchen with Michael Kerwin, a local musician. It combines Egyptian cooking with dishes from Kerwin’s Lebanese heritage. Family flavor is the common thread; Sittoo is Arabic for grandmother (look for Sittoo’s Kitchen appearances at the Broad Theater, 636 N. Broad St., on March 18 and 19, from 6 p.m.).
Even the falafel is different
One reason Hegazzi was eager to join Café NOMA’s project is how rarely he finds his homeland’s culture in the spotlight. Egyptian cuisine is commonly lumped in with Middle Eastern food more broadly.
“It’s about time to correct that,” Hegazzi said.
With the Egyptian chefs board, Café NOMA is showing the nuances and regional traditions, even in dishes that share common names around the Arab world.
Ta’ameya, Egyptian falafel, is made with fava beans, not chickpeas, for instance. Dolmas, or grape leaves, are typically filled with grains, not rice. The hummus has a thicker texture than other regional versions.
“You can feel the crunch in it,” Hegazzi said.
The overall goal is presenting food in sync with a limited time exhibition, rather than creating a conventional restaurant menu. Montero said that opened the doors to what the chefs and Café NOMA could do, and they’ve come up with different ways to sample this food.
Drop in for the daily “Nefertari Hour,” an exhibition-themed happy hour, for sampler platters and Egyptian-style flatbread to pair with specialty cocktails and wine.
The dinner that chef Daniel will host March 31 brings a five-course progression that starts with spicy feta dip and ends with kunafa, a regal dessert of sweet cheese under a crisp crust.
Street food staples will be on the daily cafe menu, including koshary and hawawshi, a meat-stuffed bread, and flatbreads topped with eggplant and crumbled lamb koftas. Egyptian falafel, hummus and dolmas stuffed with freekeh will be served daily too.
“When people leave here I want them to feel they had a cultural experience in the exhibition and a spiritual experience with our food,” said Hegazzi.
New Orleans Museum of Art
1 Diboll Circle, (504) 381-5107
Open daily during “Queen Nefertari’s Egypt” exhibition, March 18-July 17, from 10 a.m.
In addition to Egyptian dishes on the everyday menu, Café NOMA hosts these events:
- An Evening With Nefertari: March 31, a five-course dinner led by Dina Daniel of Fava Pot restaurant in Washington, D.C., beginning with docent-led exhibit tour, 5:30 p.m., tickets $80.
- Artful Palate Cooking Demo Series: March 29 with Dina Daniel and May 10 with Khaled Hegazzi; future editions to come, all from 6 p.m.
- Royalty for the Day package: for groups of 10 or more, a guided exhibit tour followed by a two-course Egyptian lunch, $58 per person.
- Nefertari Hour: a happy hour with specialty cocktails, wines, Egyptian sampler platters and flatbreads, daily 3 p.m. to closing
For details and tickets, see cafenoma.com.
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