Maha’s, a family business feeding the masses
BY Jillian Kestler-D’amours
For Maha Basoom, there are no sweeter words than, “This is exactly like home.”
The chef and entrepreneur aims to transport Egyptians back to their native country, the minute they step into her restaurant – eponymously called Maha’s – in Toronto’s east end.
And introducing Canadians to the unique flavors of Egyptian cuisine is just as important.
“The most rewarding thing is when somebody says, ‘Oh my God. This is exactly like home. You made me feel like I went to Egypt and came back,’” Basoom says from a table in the small but cozy restaurant, on a recent summer’s day.
After coming to Canada from Cairo in 2000 with her family, Basoom first worked as an Arabic-English interpreter and then as a caterer, cooking up Egyptian favorites for private parties and events.
She opened Maha’s with her children, Mark and Monika Wahba, in 2014 after seeing the positive response people had to her cooking.
On the menu: Everything from ta’amiyeh (Egyptian falafel), ful medames (fava beans) and duqqah (a mixture of Egyptian spices, dipped with olive oil) to dishes like shrimp po’boy sandwiches, grilled cheeses stuffed with dates, and lentil soup.
Maha says now that she always knew the business would be a success. “They were so scared. I was not,” she says, laughing about her children’s earlier anxieties regarding the restaurant business.
But the decision to open an all-day, Egyptian breakfast and brunch spot in a city overflowing with culinary offerings, still posed quite a challenge. The family had to secure business permits and a lease, and buy all the equipment to build a restaurant from the ground up, from coffee equipment and a stove, to tables, chairs and decorations. Add to that the fact that their father had just lost his job, and Mark and Monika were nervous about pouring everything they had into the risky venture.
“Mark and I took out loans from the bank. Being 23 and 21 and having a combined $28,000 debt over your head… that was really scary,” says Monika, who had just graduated from university when the family decided to open the business.
“We just really didn’t want it to fail,” she adds.
They also had concerns about how Canadians would react to traditional Egyptian dishes, especially the ful, which soaks overnight and stews for hours on the hot stove.
“I was just having that in the back of my head, like, ‘How are people going to react to our food?’” Mark remembers.
But today, the restaurant is overflowing with photographs, artwork, plants, pottery and other memorabilia from Egypt—and most importantly, people. One recent Saturday morning, every table was full and the restaurant had a 45-minute wait time, with patrons pouring out onto a bench outside. Staff rushed between tables as Mark worked the coffee machine, Monika handled the serving from the front of the kitchen, and Maha cooked on the stove.
Maha concedes that customers may wait longer to get their meals here than at other restaurants, but “the food needs to cook in a certain way.”
“And I hate to rush my food,” she adds.
As the restaurant nears its two-year anniversary, Maha says she has received at least five offers to open a second restaurant in another location in Toronto. But she says replicating the magic between her and her children would be impossible.
“What people do not understand is the relationship between the three of us cannot be repeated,” Maha says.
“I cannot have this bond with anybody else to be successful. I cannot work by myself; they cannot work by themselves. It has to be the three of us together.”