Em Sherif: a hearty and heartfelt masterclass in Middle Eastern hospitality

Claudia de Brito - 20/03/2023

Em Sherif Art of Hospitality

Middle Eastern hospitality is often hailed as the best in the world – but what sets this region and its restaurants apart from the rest? Claudia de Brito speaks to the team behind Em Sherif in Beirut, winner of the Art of Hospitality Award for Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, to get their privileged insights into a world of service that goes well beyond the walls of the restaurant

The word for hospitality in Arabic, karam, also means generosity and is an integral part of Middle Eastern society across the region. It’s a way of life.

What sets Middle Eastern hospitality apart is the unique combination of many facets: ambiance, food, music, decor, service and the ability to cater to a diverse clientele. Anyone who’s ever been to Lebanon has undoubtedly experienced the unmatched ability its citizens have to make guests feel at home and taken care of. It’s a cultural norm brought to life in the offering at Em Sherif, this year’s winner of the Art of Hospitality Award, as well as No.20 in Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023.
Details of the interior of Em Sherif in Beirut

In 2011, mother and daughter duo Mireille and Yasmina Hayek opened Em Sherif, meaning ‘the mother of Sherif in Arabic. The restaurant embodies both a traditional and refined take on multifaceted Lebanese cuisine that triggers memories of home cooking while simultaneously delivering an abundant dining experience.

A nod to nostalgia

It’s not just the seemingly never-ending flow of vibrant dishes that hark back to home cooking. Quality, consistency, authenticity and perseverance in the face of challenges that would bring most to their knees are all part of the Lebanese hospitality experience.

Speaking about the way in which her restaurant represents the regional approach to hospitality, chef Yasmina Hayek says: “Em Sherif is a flagbearer for Lebanese culture and hospitality. No matter where you are in the world, that is what you’ll feel when you come to eat in an Em Sherif restaurant. Everything from the service to the food, decor, clientele... it all has close ties to Lebanese life, and our hearty, authentic, yet modern cuisine.

“We always look back into our history and heritage in order to create and to make our food and culture evolve in time. Our food is authentic with a hint of modernity and sophistication, and we use techniques that in many cases have been forgotten. People of our generation just don’t cook like this anymore. We are carrying on traditions in our own way, and staying loyal to them as we create authentic food for our guests.”
Ouzi (spiced rice in filo pastry with creamy walnut sauce) and Kibbeh Nayye, a type of Lebanese beef tartare

According to Yasmina, family has been key to the business and the way it is run. It’s how they make decisions and how they’ve trained and continue to train their staff.

Shifting her focus to what people at home can do to emulate what she and her mother have created at Em Sherif, Yasmina says: “Cook with love, and cook with care. Food comes from the heart, so it really does need to be made with love because the guests will be able to feel it. Also, generosity and attention to detail are key.”

Community support

Hospitality is something the mother and daughter team have also experienced first hand. Yasmina is quick to dispel any preconceived notions of the difficulties faced by women operating in the restaurant industry in the Middle East. “Despite what many may think, it is a pleasure working in a male-dominated industry, because in our culture men have a lot of respect for women,” she says. “Being surrounded by men most of our team is made up of men, too actually made things easier for us.”

Em Sherif has also experienced unwavering support from its customers. “We continuously ask for feedback,” says Yasmina. “We involve our customers in our day-to-day operations, which allows us to make them feel at home. It’s beautiful to see the same faces come to your restaurants everywhere in the world. I’m grateful to our clients for being our best and most loyal ambassadors. That’s what has allowed us to grow and have a strong community.
Yasmina and Mireille Hayek received the trophy on stage from Chef Hiroyasu Kawate of Tokyo's Florilège

“We are good listeners. Our customers are part of our success. We continuously base ourselves on feedback to create a better cuisine every day. Perseverance is our best recipe; the client is really king at Em Sherif.”

Looking inwards, Yasmina credits the family’s strong foundation for the restaurants’ success. “It’s great having my mum’s knowledge for the market, for design and for Lebanese culinary techniques, which are then mixed with new ones thanks to my expertise in the field. My mother knows the scene, so I take her amazing expertise and translate it in a creative way, she says.

Despite its continuous expansion, Em Sherif has managed to hang on to the values that inspired its loyal following in the first place. It’s a family-run, close-knit team with constant and meticulous training.

International expansion

Family-run doesn't mean small. Em Sherif currently operates 20 restaurants across 12 locations in the region and beyond.
Em Sherif Café in Abu Dhabi

Yasmina says: “We have opened two of our concepts in the UAE: Em Sherif Café and Em Sherif Sea Café. Em Sherif Café is currently open at Manzil Downtown by Vida in Dubai and at West Bay in Abu Dhabi the latter was followed by Em Sherif Sea Café at the Rosewood Hotel. We are proud to bring the Em Sherif dining philosophy to the most iconic locations around the world by opening in London at Harrods, in Monaco at Hotel de Paris and soon in Greece, France and Switzerland.”

In addition, Em Sherif restaurant outposts are set to open in Oman and Dubai. More Em Sherif Sea Café concepts are in the works in Riyadh and Em Sherif Café will open in Oman, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan and Iraq. There are extensive expansion plans for the Em Sherif The Deli concept currently in operation in London’s Harrods – which offers grab-and-go items from an extensive menu.

A Lebanese love letter

Still, it's clear that both Mirelle and Yasmina’s hearts are in Lebanon. “Our country gave us the gift of a culture of which we’re so proud, it provides the continuous inspiration for Em Sherif and it’s what allowed us to succeed,” says Yasmina.Beirut Mon Amour is the sentence we’ve been using in all our restaurants to declare our love for the city and country that gave us so much.
Fattet Fatayer, za'atar-stuffed pastries with yoghurt and tomato sauce

Speaking about the Art of Hospitality accolade that she and Mireille ascended the stage to receive at this year’s MENA’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony, she says: “We are very happy about this award, because Em Sherif is a reflection of Lebanese and Middle Eastern hospitality. We hope to become Lebanon’s brand ambassador’s all over the world because it is Lebanon that has given us our culture, which in turn made Em Sherif a success. A success for us is a success for our country too.”

Now catch up on the highlights from MENA's 50 Best Restaurants 2023:

The list of 
Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, sponsored by S.Pellegrino & Acqua Panna, was announced at a live awards ceremony in Abu Dhabi. To stay up to date with all news and announcements, browse the website and follow us on FacebookInstagramTwitter and YouTube.