Chef Tarek’s mission in MENA

30 May 2018

Chef Tarek

Mention the name Chef Tarek anywhere across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, and chances are it will spark instant recognition.

Master Chef Tarek Ibrahim is literally a household name in the region, with more than 300 million viewers tuning in to the popular live television talk show he currently appears on, called Al Qaher Al Youm, or Cairo Today.

One of the most celebrated chefs in the Middle East, Tarek is also MLA’s Dubai-based Corporate Executive Chef, and the face of Australian lamb and beef in MENA, one of our most valuable export markets.

In 2017, Australia exported 106,691 tonnes shipped weight (swt) of sheepmeat to MENA, and 29,220 tonnes swt of beef.

In his role with MLA, Tarek not only appears regularly in the media promoting True Aussie Beef and Lamb, but provides training sessions to executive chefs and food service professionals on meat handling and cooking methods.

He also conducts in-store demonstrations in major retail chains including Carrefour, LuLu and Spinneys, and at international trade shows like Gulfood.

And then there’s Tarek’s Facebook page, where his more than 55,000 followers can also view his popular “how to” videos, featuring Australian red meat.

In May, visitors to Beef Australia 2018 in Rockhampton had the opportunity to see Tarek in action and sample his culinary talents, when he showcases recipes he has developed using what he calls “non-loin” cuts such as beef cheeks and oyster blade.

Among the dishes will be a new twist on a traditional Egyptian dish called koshari.

“It’s usually a vegan dish, but I’ve added oyster blade to it. The flavour of the dish is wonderful and the meat elevates the dish even more,” Tarek said.

“I’ve been making it here in the Middle East, and people are shocked because when I say koshari their brain goes immediately to vegan, but it’s wonderful.”

The dishes are an extension of his passion for promoting the use of non-loin cuts in his homeland.

“The Middle East went through the Arab Spring in 2011 which really impacted on tourism in the region, and the food and beverage industry,” Tarek said.

“I have been preaching about non-loin cuts since then because instead of using tenderloin, which is very limited in its availability, people running restaurants and hotels can access non-loin cuts more easily and at a more affordable price.

“Many big businesses closed in the Middle East, but people are starting to invest again in restaurants and small hotels, particularly those that they can manage with their families.

“They’re run by the family, for the family, and they need to source less expensive cuts so they and their customers can afford it, but without sacrificing on quality.

“I recently met with Four Seasons, the elite of hotel groups in the Middle East, and they were asking for non-loin cuts like oyster blade, knuckle, and skirt, for banqueting. I’m meeting them again when I get back from Australia to exhibit all those cuts for them and show them how to use this meat to produce wonderful dishes.”

Beef consumption increasing

While Australia is the biggest sheepmeat exporter to the MENA region, supplying around two-thirds of all sheepmeat imported by MENA’s 29 countries, Tarek says beef is making good inroads.

“Beef is taking the Middle East by storm,” Tarek said.

“The appetite for beef across the region is seeing the opening of steak houses.

“In countries like Jordan, which is more of a Bedouin country, we sell a lot of beef.  Egypt is also a beef eating country, and while Egyptians do eat a lot of lamb, it’s generally only on the holidays. It’s similar in Lebanon.

“In the rest of the Arab world, beef is becoming more popular as food trends from other parts of the world become more commonplace.”

Tarek said within the sheepmeat market, different trends were emerging on the ground in MENA.

“For example, in Lebanon the demand for lamb is starting to grow. I was there about a month ago doing an event with the Australian Embassy, cooking beautiful Australian beef and lamb for about 150 people,” Tarek said.

“The question I kept getting asked was, ‘My God, where is this meat from? We’ve never had lamb like this’.

“I said, ‘it’s because you’ve never had lamb – you’ve always had mutton and you thought it was lamb’. So educating people is a large part of what I do.”

Building Australia's reputation

Tarek is also dedicated to promoting Australia’s reputation as a trusted supplier of safe, consistent red meat.

“I’m bilingual, I speak English and Arabic, and I’m a dedicated Muslim,” Tarek said.

“I really took the helm on this because it would be unrealistic for someone who is not Muslim to be talking about Australia’s Halal system to consumers in the Middle East.

“Being a Muslim and being a celebrity chef, people believe me when I tell them Australian red meat that is exported to our region is Halal.”

Right now, Tarek and MLA are in the midst of the Muslim religious festival of Ramadan, which this year runs from 15 May to 14 June.

“It’s a big month for advertising and attending seminars and I also film every single day during Ramadan,” Tarek said.

“For me, it’s a very long month because I’m working and fasting from dawn - no water, no food, nothing.

“I promote Australian meat, not just because I work for MLA but because I’m a big believer in the quality of Australian meat.

“A message I would really like to get across from me and from all the consumers in the Middle East to the farmers in Australia who grow the beef and lamb is thank you very much for taking such pride in producing such beautiful meat.

“If you did not produce such a product, we would never know the meaning of great tasting meat.

“Thank you also for the welfare and the way you treat your animals – we respect these animals too because to us, they’re a gift from God to nourish our bodies.

“We cherish the beautiful product that you share with us.”

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