For Rita Kahawaty, some of her most impacting memories of being born and raised in Beirut were made around the kitchen table. “Eating Nouilles pasta, with its flavorful, creamy nutmeg sauce and Mloukhiye, so healthy and full of goodness,” she says, her megawatt smile lighting up the room. One year after marrying and pregnant with Jessica, her first-born, Kahawaty moved to Australia where she modeled occasionally, choosing to give all her time to her young family. “I focused on being at home with them. I sometimes modeled, but my heart was always in the kitchen. Everything I did in my spare time revolved around food and creating new recipes,” she recalls. Up until recently, Kahawaty split her time between Sydney and Dubai, where her now 32-year-old model and humanitarian daughter is based. However those mother-daughter moments quickly became something more, and today, the duo launch their food venture, Mama Rita.
“For years and years, everyone has been pleading with me to do something with my food—a cookbook, a show, a restaurant, anything! I love cooking for my friends and family as well as sharing new recipes,” exclaims Kahawaty. “About a year and a half ago, we were brainstorming ideas and thought we should perhaps start with a cookbook with all my treasured recipes from my mother and other ones I discovered along the way. The idea progressed as Jessica didn’t feel that it captured the essence of our kitchen. We wanted people to taste the food from my hands and not simply read a recipe. And this is how we started exploring Mama Rita, a food delivery concept with the slogan: From My Kitchen to Your Home.”
Mama Rita food is sourced both locally and internationally. “We aim to support local farmers and communities,” affirms Kahawaty, while she divulges to being specific about her key ingredients such as “Himalayan pink salt and brown sugar for the desserts.” The Bagasse packaging, made from sugarcane, is 100% compostable, microwave and freezer safe.
Self-appointed “chief food taster,” Jessica Kahawaty states, “I just want to bring my mother’s passion to life. Her food is incredible, and I want the world to try it for themselves.” Of her official role, apart from dipping into the dishes herself, she oversees and handles branding, content, photography, logistics, procurement, copywriting, and website design. “I am a perfectionist by nature. I am involved in every minute aspect. I want the brand to reflect the perfection, vibrancy, and warmth of her food. It’s important for people to know that our kitchen is democratic, and our food is for everyone.” All Mama Rita profits from the first two weeks will be donated to victims of the Beirut explosion and their families. Mamarita.com
Jessica Kahawaty in conversation with Vogue Arabia on her new move, Mama Rita:
What can you tell us about the Mama Rita day-to-day operations?
The operations are as any successful food business – complex networks and talented people. From the chefs and sous-chefs, purchasing the best ingredients, procuring sustainable packaging, branding to tell our story, marketing to reach as many people, and social media to stay connected. We have the capacity to serve as many meals as people demand. Some food is chopped and prepared the day before. Many things like the shawarma and chicken are marinated in spices and sauces overnight. Other things need to be baked and refrigerated so they can settle. There is no typical day when working in a kitchen, which makes it special.
Does Mama Rita offer catering?
We are launching Mama Rita with the capacity to cater for 6-20 people for work events, team meetings, small conferences, kids birthday parties, or dinners at home.
How have you managed the launch of a business during Covid-19… What are the challenges and silver linings?
Covid-19 has been a terrible time for the world with many people losing their jobs. We focused on coming closer together as well as perfecting the business and recipes. We were able to extensively focus on Mama Rita as I didn’t have any travels due to the restriction of movement. It accelerated what would’ve perhaps taken another year. It was a blessing to have that much free time in Dubai with my mother to work on everything. The only challenge was not being close to my father, Ghassan and brother, Julien, who are stuck in Australia as we usually do things as a family. The men in my family are major foodies so I would’ve definitely loved for them to be with us.
You have a strong fashion background. How do you imagine combining fashion and the flavors of Mama Rita?
Food and fashion have always gone hand-in-hand. There is a myriad of food references in fashion – from Jeremy Scott’s wearable treats for Moschino to Ralph Lauren’s venture into food and coffee. Mama Rita is a brand that combines her love for fashion in her branding and her naturally colorful dishes. Our branding colors are interchangeable like the seasons of fashion and food.
How are your own skills in the kitchen? Any sous-chef goals?
At times, I attempt to give my opinion about how to make something and my mother would look at me in disbelief as if I said the most shocking thing. And I probably did. However, I do have a great eye and a very good palette. I know good food and I’m usually tasked at curating menus, ordering for the table or recommending dishes, so I tend to reserve my opinions to just the taste and quality of the food.
What is the long-term vision of Mama Rita?
To have a global food brand present in the major Arab and international cities that is delicious, reminds you of home, and celebrates flavors from around the world.
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
It’s so tough to choose because every single item on the menu is a family recipe that we love to eat at home, and I helped curate the complete menu. I love the “Grandma meat pastries” as that is a recipe from my late Grandmother, Nahil. They’re puff pastries with meat, pine nuts, tahini, and tomato on the inside. I also love her salads especially the Kale & Quinoa salads. The Lasagne is the best I’ve ever had, and the Beef Stroganoff is a must try.