GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Restaurants have been spreading in the Gaza Strip as local investment projects, while unemployment rates among university graduates reached 69.5%, according to a report published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics in July 2015. This situation prompted Nour Naji, who graduated from the faculty of science at the Islamic University in Gaza in 2011, to create a first-of-its-kind project in Gaza to teach culinary arts and give unemployed young people the opportunity to work and earn a good income.
Naji first thought of the project, which she called “Smile Kitchen,” in 2015. She told Al-Monitor, “It was just an idea, and when I started to consider it seriously I faced many obstacles to implementing it. This project called for renting a location, which could cost no less than $7,000 a year. The project remained ink on paper as I did not have enough capital to invest in it, until the Smile Training and Development Center — which works to develop skills in various fields in Gaza — adopted it and I was offered a location to launch my project in May 2016 and organize cooking courses there. This is how it all started.”
Naji introduced her project to the public through Facebook, creating a page to promote the cooking courses. She said, “I was really surprised by the broad acclaim and the number of people who registered for the courses. This was a great motivation and encouraged me to continue.”
She added, “For the first course, many housewives registered because they either wanted to develop their cooking skills or they wanted to open their own business at home to help their husbands support their families. After that, many men also registered for the course to have the opportunity to work in restaurants in Gaza.”
Salah Abu Hasira, the chairman of Gaza's Hotels and Tourist Restaurants Commission, told Al-Monitor in May 2015, “The number of restaurants in the Gaza Strip is increasing by the year. There are 220 officially registered restaurants, hotels and tourist resorts in Gaza, in addition to some temporarily unregistered restaurants … and their number ranges between 100 to 150 restaurants.”
Naji’s Smile Kitchen has so far held five cooking courses for which around 60 female and male trainees registered, and dozens of people are on the wait list for upcoming courses. During each 10-day-course, an instructor teaches trainees all the secrets and skills they need to learn about cooking.
Naji explained, “We gave a course to teach the secrets of making cakes during which trainees learn how to make sponge cakes, Black Forest cakes and cupcakes. We gave other courses to teach main dishes, including many Oriental meals and pastries.”
To create the best and most useful courses possible, Naji sought the help of the best Palestinian chefs in Gaza, such as famous Mustafa al-Zaim, who works at the Blue Beach Resort on the Gaza coast. Naji is currently preparing a new course offered by Maysa Mohamed, a member of the Saudi Arabian Chefs Association and a member of the Saudi Arabian Chefs Table Circle.
Zaim was born and raised in Jordan, where he studied under Jordan's most skilled chefs, and moved in 1994 to the Gaza Strip, where he worked at a number of local restaurants. “I am not only trying to teach the trainees at Smile Kitchen how to make food and pastries, but also how to make certain foods from scratch, such as creme for sweets, which not many know how to prepare since it can be bought ready-made from the supermarket,” Zaim told Al-Monitor.
He said that there are few skilled chefs in Gaza as citizens cannot travel abroad to develop their cooking skills, especially since the Egyptian authorities have closed the Rafah crossing and only open it for humanitarian cases.
Ahmed Abu Taha, the director of Smile Training and Development Center, told Al-Monitor that the quality and the originality of the idea for Smile Kitchen led the center to adopt it. “The results have exceeded all expectations. Although students need to pay a relatively large amount to register, 400 shekels [$105] per course, there is a growing demand among citizens to join Smile Kitchen,” he said.
He noted, “I think it all goes back to the limited number of skilled chefs [in Gaza]. Restaurants, hotels and resorts are always looking for skilled pastry chefs and cooks. In addition, the courses make it much easier for students to open their own businesses later on.”
Sabrin Sununu from Gaza City, a student at Smile Kitchen, said that the harsh economic situation in the Gaza Strip pushed her to take advantage of the project to help her husband support their family.
Sununu told Al-Monitor, “After Smile Kitchen taught me the correct method to prepare food and pastries, I immediately started my own business by starting a Facebook page called Matbakhna Gheer and started selling homemade meals.” Her business, "Our Kitchen is Different" in English, sells all its products online.
She explained that her own project faced many obstacles, including the constant power cuts that disrupt the electrical devices she uses in her kitchen. Still, she said, “I have a good number of customers in the area. The profits I make help support my family, and I wish to develop my project and open a restaurant of my own.”
Naji herself aspires to have an independent location for Smile Kitchen and turn it into an educational academy accredited by the Palestinian Ministry of Education that specializes in teaching cooking.