First look: Lebanese mother-daughter team open Em Sherif Sea Cafe in Abu Dhabi

Mireille and Yasmina Hayek have created homes away from home across the Middle East and Europe

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For two women about to open a new restaurant, mother and daughter duo Mireille and Yasmina Hayek are remarkably calm.

Sure, they tap away on their phones now and again but distracted they are definitely not as they prepare to unveil their 16th location, the Em Sherif Sea Cafe at the Rosewood Abu Dhabi on Al Maryah Island.

The cafe is currently in its soft launch phase and joins the growing number of Em Sherif outlets in nine locations worldwide, encompassing restaurants, delis and cafes.

Scroll through the gallery for images of Em Sherif Sea Cafe in Abu Dhabi

A taste of Lebanon

Known to her myriad fans around the globe as Em Sherif — or the Mother of Sherif — Mireille, 51, has become as renowned for her cooking skills and business acumen as she has for creating a home away from home for those craving traditional Lebanese food.

“I cook authentic food,” she says. “I work as if I were in my home, not in a place of business. I treat my restaurant like my house, supervising everything from A to Z, and people love it because they feel at home.”

Mireille’s daughter, Yasmina, an alumna of the prestigious Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France, and the Scuola Politecnica di Design in Milan, Italy, is the perfect foil for her mother. “I’m a very competitive person, so I want to always be the best and I always push further. Every opening is a lesson,” Yasmina says. “I feel pride and I would like to inspire others.”

Turning passion into perseverance

Yasmina credits the Monaco outlet with allowing her to 'play around more than elsewhere'. Photo: Em Sherif

“I started 11 years ago in Beirut,” says Mireille. “My passion was to cook at home for family and friends, and everybody would tell me: ‘You have to have a restaurant just for fun and passion.’”

The first Em Sherif outlet opened in Ashrafieh, Monot, in 2011, and was an instant hit, but also an anomaly on the Beirut dining scene. Here was a restaurant offering a fine-dining experience, but that still felt like home. The menu was filled with traditional Lebanese dishes, yet with a refined take on the millennia-old cuisine.

“Perseverance, honestly,” Mireille says of the secret to her success. “I work every day like it's my first day, so for me, it’s never done. Every day is a challenge that I enjoy. I want the business to grow healthy and successful.”

After abandoning her plans to become a doctor, Yasmina embraced her destiny to step into the family business, bringing the skills she accumulated catering for the likes of McLaren and Carolina Herrera, as the former chef de partie at Copenhagen’s three Michelin-starred restaurant Geranium, and as a commis at Le Grand Restaurant and Restaurant Hexagone in Paris.

“We grew up with food at the centre of the family,” says Yasmina. “Mum was a great cook, so we were surrounded by amazing food. It’s the presence. We treat our staff and customers like family so everybody feels valued. The service is personalised and intimate.”

Family first

Em Sherif founder Mireille, left, with her daughter and executive chef Yasmina. Photo: Em Sherif

The Em Sherif brand has made its way across the Middle East, with outlets in the UAE, Oman, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Jordan, as well as in Monaco and London. Despite this commendable expansion, though, Em Sherif remains first and foremost a family business.

Spearheaded by Mireille, the team also includes Yasmina, Mireille’s brother Dany Chaccour as chief executive and her son Nabil as business development manager at Em Sherif Lebanon.

“Our relationship evolved a lot,” says Yasmina of the work bond she shares with her mother. “After culinary school, I went to Lebanon with another vision — which was to go against the current, but it didn’t work out. I realised my mum knows the market, and I had to adapt myself to it and bring the best of both worlds to the same place.”

After discovering the truth behind the old adage of “mother knows best”, Yasmina, 26, became an integral part of the brand’s international expansion, a growth of which Mireille only half-jokingly notes: “I didn’t want to expand, honestly, but it happened. It’s my baby.”

“I’m a very lucky mum,” she says. “With Yasmina around, cooking is fun. Even the stress of work becomes less stressful. Of course, we disagree, but if I’m convinced by Yasmina, it’s always constructive.”

‘Playing around’ in Monaco

Yasmina Hayek in the gardens at the Hotel de Paris de Monte-Carlo. Photo: Em Sherif

The brand opened at Monaco’s Hotel de Paris de Monte-Carlo in April; it was more than four years in the making. Em Sherif — The Deli, meanwhile, opened at Harrods, London, in January.

“We were supposed to open in Monaco before Covid, but obviously that was put on hold,” says Yasmina. “When we finally got the go ahead, the staff came to Beirut for two weeks to train and then I went to Monaco. We had one month to go there and source all the ingredients.”

Noting that the challenges came from adapting recipes to suit less spicy European palates, she admits to enjoying “getting out of the box and changing things up… being able to play around more than elsewhere”.

“The restaurant celebrates with delicacy a culture that you can taste, see, hear, and feel,” says Ivan Artolli, managing director at Hotel de Paris de Monte-Carlo, noting that “visitors from the GCC and the Levant represent our third largest clientele”.

He says the menu offers famed Em Sherif dishes with French produce, with a focus on seafood. "The signature dishes are created especially for Monaco and vary according to the menus," he says. "Living in the principality inspires chef Yasmina and she’s bringing this creativity to her dishes.”

‘My favourite dish to make is everything’

A traditional approach to Lebanese cuisine is at the heart of Em Sherif's global success. Photo: Em Sherif

Speaking about the family business's latest launch in Abu Dhabi, Mireille says: “Em Sherif Sea Cafe is my love letter to Lebanon’s Mediterranean side, with fresh bright flavours and welcoming interiors filled with natural light and beautiful sea-inspired designs."

The Sea Cafe opening in Abu Dhabi follows the model’s launch in Bahrain, and there’s an opening planned in Riyadh later this year.

“We try to innovate while staying true to ourselves and staying authentic,” says Yasmina. “At Em Sherif, there are no constraints, no boundaries. We always push further, to be more creative, to come up with new ideas while preserving tradition and authenticity.”

While their latest Abu Dhabi outlet promises to serve the likes of raw red sea bream, shrimp provencal and samak ras asfour amid a Mediterranean and Portuguese-inspired decor, for Mireille, the simplest of dishes can still inspire the most creativity.

“My favourite dish to make is everything,” she says. “I like old cuisine, anything cooked well in a nice way. I love my manoush, which is a very simple dish but one that I always keep working on. The recipe has to be perfect, and with a little bit of your soul in it.”

Updated: October 28, 2022, 12:48 PM
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