Tell us about yourself
My name is Dareen Akkad. My husband Ahmed Helmy and I are the owners of What the Crust in Cairo, Egypt. We are the first pizzeria in Africa affiliated to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, with the first female head Pizzaiola (pizza-maker) in the Arab world. The Association, headquartered in Napoli, protects and promotes the traditions of the True Neapolitan Pizza.
I grew up in Montréal, Canada and earned a Bachelor of Arts from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. My parents were Egyptian and Syrian immigrants.
I’ve always been obsessed with traveling, exploring new places, cultures and languages. I enjoyed finding ways of connecting with the people around me.
With time, I learned that very few things in the world can bring people closer together like food.
I am a mother to three young children, and that’s been by far the hardest job and responsibility I’ve ever had. Over the course of my working life, I’ve done a bit of anything and everything to make ends meet. I’ve been a clerk, a caterer, a server, a fast-food employee, a bartender, a sourcing analyst for a car parts company, a yoga teacher, an Account Manager and an English Copywriter at multinational advertising agencies (amongst other things!).
What’s the inspiration behind What the Crust?
I have always loved everything related to bread, and over the years, I became a very good home baker. I was constantly reading, studying and practicing. When a Neapolitan pizzeria opened in Kuwait (where I lived), I discovered the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. I knew from that moment that one day, this was what I was going to do. For me, making a great pizza starts with knowing how to make very good bread. This was the perfect evolution of my knowledge and passion. Nothing compares to a good true Pizza Napoletana! And everybody loves pizza!
I first travelled to Italy in 2009. An Italian friend I had while I was working in Kuwait showed me around Rome, introducing me to some of the best food I’ve ever had. Afterwards, I travelled to Napoli by myself. Of course, I had the best pizza of my life. It wasn’t a famous place, but I remember thinking that it was different from what I had in Rome, and better! Napoli felt familiar, and I knew I was going to be back again.
My aspirations to start a pizzeria found a home when I moved to Cairo. I quickly noticed that there was nobody making authentic Neapolitan pizza in Egypt, despite numerous attempts and close imitations.
Exactly 10 years after my first visit to Napoli, in November 2019, I went and did my training course at AVPN. My husband, Ahmed Helmy, is a strategic business planner and consultant with extensive experience in start-ups, branding and communications. We sold a property, saved enough money to start-up a small restaurant and found a location which we started renovating. It was a perfect partnership: I make the food; he runs the business.
What sets apart your restaurant is its authentic Neapolitan identity, how and why was it important for you to preserve the authenticity?
I am quite unconventional and liberal in my everyday life, but I am a puritan when it comes to food. Food is a reflection of the culture and land from where it hails. It is a language we all have in common. There is so much you can learn about a people if you just eat and discover their traditional food. Pizza is a prime example of a traditional food that has been exported, adapted, imitated and enjoyed the world over for decades – but nothing compares to the real deal.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not a pizza snob. I love a good slice of New York-style pizza, but the idea is: if you’re going to do something, do it right. I wouldn’t label my restaurant as having a Neapolitan identity. After all, we’re called What the Crust! I didn’t want to limit my potential or be seen as an “Italian restaurant”. Instead, we want to be known as an establishment that makes an authentic, high-quality, world-class product. And we want to grow. Neapolitan Pizza is our stepping-stone. It’s a way for us to establish a reputation for quality and authenticity, while staying relevant to the world of baking.
What The Crust has recently been awarded the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana certificate, what’s your proudest moment and to what do you owe your success?
My proudest moments must have been when we received our member number sign and certificate by mail.
Also, when I was asked to be the first Arab to ever teach a True Neapolitan Pizza Masterclass in Arabic to a worldwide audience by the Association.
The Association was very proud of our work and we are truly humbled by this opportunity! I got to teach alongside world-famous pizza chefs who I greatly admire, including the owner of my favourite pizzeria, Ciro Salvo from 50 Kalo in Napoli.
You’ve mentioned on the What the Crust website, that Neapolitan pizza has a lot in common with Shami Fatayer or Levantine Pizza, in what ways are they similar? And how does What The Crust encompass the best of both worlds?
Absolutely! Pizza, pita, and fatayer all have a common ancestor: ancient Egyptian leavened flatbreads. The ancient Egyptians were the first to discover and develop leavened (fermented) bread. At the time, they were already prolific in fermenting grains for beer, so the fermentation of flour and water was inevitable. The Egyptian baladi oven is also the ancestor of our modern Neapolitan oven. Even the word “pizza” may have its origins in Ancient Egypt: a possible etymology for the word pizza takes us back from “b’taw” in Ancient Egypt, to “pita” in Greece” then “pizza” in Italy. Baked flatbreads are a shared cultural element of our Mediterranean identity, which extends to the Levant and the rest of the Fertile Crescent.
Would you say What the Crust has gained a lot of popularity in a short amount of time?
Definitely! It’s amazing how big of a city Cairo is, but how small of a pond we live in. It’s also amazing what social media can help you do as a business. From very early on, we decided that we were going to adopt a no-paid-advertising policy.
We believe good food and good service markets itself…
…and that word-of-mouth is the most powerful tool. Our business showed steady and organic growth from the very beginning. Though, we never imagined it would get so hectic so quickly. We’ve only been open for dine-in since July. However, we’ve been fully-booked almost every day since September. We are very proud and grateful, but it’s very hard work. The F&B industry is tough. We are working at full capacity almost every day.
What are the challenges you faced as a female restaurant owner and pizzaiola in Egypt? What advice would you give to women aspiring to open their own restaurants?
The biggest challenge I faced was to be taken seriously as a woman by suppliers and potential partners, including my staff.
There are certain industries where women are greatly misrepresented as leaders and workers, most notably in Food & Beverages.
This problem is not unique to Egypt – even in Italy and beyond, there are very few women Pizza Chefs and owners. So much so that the words for “pizza-maker” in Italian, “Pizzaiolo”, is masculine in origin.
There is an underlying cultural “faux-pas” to women in a kitchen outside their own home, even if we are not conscious of it. Even we at What the Crust, as a women-led business, are suffering from a huge gender gap in our team. Our next goal is to bridge that gap by calling for women to apply to our current vacancies. We must change the cultural stigma attached to women from a certain socio-economic profile to work in restaurants.
For any women who are thinking of opening their own restaurants, I would say, do it! We need more of you.
Get a lawyer. Do the research. Save the money. And be fit. Working in restaurants is a very physically-intensive job, and you need to be in good shape. Also, I would advise anyone who wants to open their own restaurant in Egypt to really raise the bar. You can find the best quality ingredients, both local and imported, if you just decide not to cut any corners. Be involved. Be the real deal, even if you won’t make as much money. You’ll make a difference.
Most Egyptian women have had to answer the question “Hanefra7 Biki Emta” before in reference to marriage, despite any accomplishments they may have already made. What would you say in response to that question?
I would say what I have always said “bass ana far7ana delwa2ti, mesh 7atefra7 bi far7eti?” – meaning “but I am happy now, why can’t you be happy for me already?”. It immediately puts a mirror in front of that question’s narrow-minded intentions. Unfortunately, this societal expectation is perpetuated by men and women alike.
It’s time we made it clear that women can be both mothers and leaders, or neither if they choose to.