Nermine Aly Hanno
Titles: Presenter for Culinary TV program in pre-production; member of the Egypt Chefs’ Association
Hometown/Country: Egyptian National living in Saudi Arabia
Education: Grand Diplome from Le Cordon Bleu, London; apprenticed with Chef Chris Galvin at the 1 star Michelin Restaurant, The Orrery, in London.
Career Highlights: Landing my first culinary job at Effat College
Nermine Aly Hanno’s responses to the Women in WACS questionnaire illustrate that an international network of women chefs and mentors would be helpful to overcome notions of isolation. They also demonstrate the necessity for creating personal strategic plans that take into account professional as well as personal goals, building a strong support network, and seeking out niches that allow you to pursue your professional dream regardless of restrictions.
What made you decide to enter the culinary profession?
“My love for cooking! I originally have a BA in English Literature from the University of Alexandria and I worked as a lecturer at the English Department after receiving my degree, but wanted to make cooking my profession.”
Do you have culinary childhood memories?
“My mother cooked at home and she is an exquisite cook. Coming back from school, I was filled with anticipation to what the meal of the day was going to be. And it was always good! I was also an exchange student to the United States for one year during which I lived with an American family whose mother was also an excellent cook. So I was exposed to international cooking very early on and I was fascinated by the different methods of cooking and the infinite possibilities of culinary creations.”
At what age did you first enter the food service industry? What was your first job?
“I studied at Le Cordon Bleu in 2002 when I was 37 years old and went into service at the age of 38. I catered from home for a time and then I landed my first job at Effat College, a girl’s college, as women are not allowed in kitchens where there are male chefs in Saudi. Since trained women chefs are extremely rare to come by in Saudi, if not non-existent, I was hired as the Executive Chef and restaurant operations manager.”
What were important stepping stones to reach your current position?
“Education at one of the top culinary schools and training in a Michelin star rated restaurant. I also believe that keeping up to date with culinary techniques, trends and inventions through reading and exposing oneself to the ever expanding horizon of cooking is key.”
Did you or do you have a mentor?
“I do not have a mentor as such, as in Saudi I am quite secluded. However, I admire and look up to people like Herve This and Chefs like Ferran Adria, Pierre Gagnaire, and Heston Blumenthal. I would love to be able to learn first hand from them.”
What, if any, problems did or do you encounter in your career?
“Finding jobs because, as I mentioned earlier, in Saudi, women are not allowed to work in kitchens with men, therefore this is an impediment for me to find work. I am living in Saudi because my husband, who is also Egyptian, works here.”
How did you overcome that hurdle?
“I am still working on it. However, while at Effat College, I was offered a job at Unilever as their Executive Chef and Consumer Relations Manager for the brand Knorr. I worked there for two- and- a-half years. The reason I resigned was because I got tired of cooking out of a sachet and I wanted to go back to haute cuisine, which I haven’t yet been able to find.”
“As a result, I pursued a job as a presenter for a culinary TV show, which I managed to land with the only Arabic food channel based in Dubai, Fatafeat Channel. They are working on preproduction of my show.”
What is the male/female ratio in your current job?
“In Saudi, it is basically all male.”
Describe your current work conditions.
“At the moment, I am not working, and awaiting the TV show to be in production which will be shot in a country other than Saudi, which means being away from home for, give or take, a month per series.”
Are you married or in a partnership and do you have children?
“I am married and have two children aged 18 ½ and 17.”
How did you balance child rearing and your career?
“I went to London to study only when my children turned 11 ½ and 10 respectively. This was a reasonable age to leave them with my husband who took care of them while I was pursuing my dream in London.”
“Later on, I catered from home which was convenient and then both jobs at Effat College and Unilever were day jobs, so I was home a couple of hours after they returned from school which was also very convenient.”
“For the TV program, my daughter is already at University in Montreal, and my son is in his first year of IB (International Baccalaureate).”
Did you have support from your husband while you raised your children?
“My husband was both mother and father to our children while I was studying in London. If I do travel for the TV show, he will do the same for me. He is very supportive and appreciates my passion for cooking. He sacrificed a lot so I can reach my goal.”
What is your advice to young women entering your specific field?
“To love cooking! It is the love and passion that makes it bearable, whether it is long hours or in my case, no hours. I am still hopeful to find work, and I am not about to give up.”
What are your interests outside the culinary field?
“My interests are manifold and include mysticism, especially Sufism, literature, classical music, reading, swimming, string theory in physics, astronomy, psychology, drawing, and more.”
Do you manage to integrate those interests in your life?
“Yes, because they are all interrelated. Herve This, for example, taught us about the application of chemistry and physics in cooking. Cooking is a synergy where the end product is more than the sum of its parts--that is mystical. Cooking is also an art, therefore, an appreciation of the arts only helps one to imagine further possibilities because for instance, music has only 7 notes as its ingredients, and listen to the possibilities. Drawing helps with the composition of the plated dish, etc.”
What are personal and professional interests that you would like to pursue within the next 5 years?
“I would like to get a job so I help with the university expenses of my children, and I would like to study molecular gastronomy.”
In your opinion, does the foodservice industry address problems specific to women adequately?
“Not where I am living, but I think that in Egypt as well, it is yet to be addressed.”
How could the foodservice industry/your national chefs’ association/WACS better address such problems?
“By providing online mentors for those who do not have the opportunity of having mentors where they reside, or mentors for those who wish, by providing training sessions specifically for women addressing issues that may arise in the work place which may impede their progress in pursuing their careers, by creating opportunities for international internships, by establishing an online support network for women chefs and promoting women chefs to head hunters.”