Nicha Sursock: Knocking the stuffing out of stuffiness
It's all in the attitude
It is late on the night that Nicha Sursock is illustrious to have transformed from a workweek night into one of the most definitive party nights in the city. It is Wednesday, and with typical disregard for routine, Nicha has chosen this favoured night for the opening of his latest venue.
His customers, an eclectic group embodying every age and clique of Cairo's well-to-do socialites, do not care that there is some form of professional commitment the following day. They are used to this.
Nicha is a pillar of Cairo's social scene. He put soul into its once sterile night life, and in the process he revolutionised the Cairene concept of restaurant and bar.
"He upset the structure of the three-course concept, introduced T-shirt clad waiters, knocked up first floor flats to connect them with ground-level shops, had falafel stuffed with cheese and smoked salmon wrapped in vine leaves, all of which came in designer-styled interiors, casually packaged for the up-and-coming and up-and- still-coming hipsters of various ages," one local critic wrote of Nicha.
And where he goes, people follow.
Four weeks before the opening of his newest haunt Nicha sat in the open-air space of High Heels lounge and bar -- yet another joint that has received his Midas touch -- and reflected on what he has become.
"I never meant to try to make myself into something big in the restaurateur world," he begins. "And I don't really consider myself a restaurateur," he mumbles, fiddling with his fingers, the cigarette box on the table, the lighter which emerges from the pocket of his white linen blazer. "It's one of those things that just happened."
He trails off, shifts in his chair, fidgets some more. He seems scattered, dishevelled -- torn between the realm of a vibrant imagination and present reality.
"Let me talk to you about Miro's Studio," he says, swallowing the ends of some of his words. "The idea behind this is really great."
His speech is clearer, more animated.
"It's about a man, an artist, Miro," he explains of Joan Miro, the Spanish painter who died in 1983. "The story is that Miro inherits a castle, and one day goes to the castle, with his art things, puts everything down, his easels' up, and he makes it his studio."
"What's happening," he explained, "is that on Sunday the transformation of the space from a castle to a studio will begin. We have taken a space, what used to be Rive Gauche in Zamalek, and the designer I'm working with on this -- Reesa -- is going in and creating the 'studio' look."
It was a process that entailed minimal breaking down.
"It's meant to look like this guy just put his things down and started painting," he elaborates. "The floors, the walls. Adding a few pieces of furniture, but really adapting what's already there to adopt Miro's style."
It seems apt that this Lebanese-Egyptian- Croatian has chosen Miro, a painter whose style has been described as "whimsical" by many, his canvases transporting viewers to alien worlds inhabited by all manner of curious creatures. Characterised as psychic automatism, an expression of the subconscious in free form, his work is distinguished by the use of brilliant pure colour and the playful juxtaposition of delicate lines with abstract, often amoebic shapes.
On opening night Miro is everywhere: the walls, the lighting, the shapes of the pouffes, the murals covering the walls and sprawling down across the floor. Like all Nicha venues, Miro's Studio has a distinct identity. It is this very distinctiveness that betrays the Nichan touch. Something, he says, which developed by fluke.
"How I started is a very simple story. I was sitting in a bar, playing darts with the owner, and next door there was his restaurant. The bar was full, the restaurant was empty. I asked him why, he said he had no clue, I told him it was a shame because it's a nice space and shouldn't be empty."
Despondency has its own value -- with all hope lost the owner offered the management to Nicha, who off-handily replied yes.
"I don't know what made me accept," he says, tilting his head in curiosity at only himself. "I had no experience. I had done everything you could think of before that. I studied cinema, directing, and worked before that in Lebanon doing a little bit of everything -- I was in a printing press, I was selling steel, I was selling false ceilings, I was illustrating in magazines, I was a journalist. Everything!" he pauses to breathe. "And," he picks up, stressing the "d", "I did advertisements for biscuits, sports events... anything you mention I did."
And then he did a restaurant.
"I'd say I created the first non-commercial bar out of it," he recalls of Il Capo. "And what I believe made it into what it became, and what made all my other places successful as well, really, was the attitude. When I was operating it I never thought about how much money the place would make and what I would get out of it. I just wanted to make a joint where it would be nice to be, sitting around, have a drink, have a bite. The attitude has changed," he reflects on the past 15 years. "Now it's about going for something to eat, being entertained, being around certain people. It's a whole package."
Much more has changed in the 15 years since he appeared on the scene. Shifting government policies opened the doors for goods and investment to enter the country and, for a sliver of the population, there was a blossoming in the quality of life. It is that sliver that is targeted by the likes of Nicha.
"The attitude then was not even about selecting a certain group of people with money and creating something for them," he says. "Fifteen years ago, the money was not in the hands of a certain social group but one specific age group. Now 25-year-olds can go and order three double vodkas, for example, and a complete meal and this and that. Fifteen years ago you only had enough money to buy a beer and a toast," he smiles.
"So back then if you were under 30 you were not welcomed anywhere. You were a pariah to the restaurateur -- they would stop you at the door and give you the usual line of 'it's fully booked, we're sorry, the conference... whatever, you know."
Nicha sits back and laughs, amused at the formality that once plagued Cairo's eateries, sidelining him, too, more-often- than not.
"I was constantly forbidden at places like the Cellar," he chuckles. "They would always stop me at the door and tell me 'sorry, the tennis shoes won't do, and we're sorry sir, but the jeans won't do either'."
It was something he changed, giving birth through Il Capo to a system that combined quality and service, but minus the tie. "Five-star casual," he termed it.
"Suits were not allowed," he says. "If you were wearing a suit you were asked to take off your tie. It was a sort-of, well, what you do to me when you come to my place, I do the same to you."
Il Capo took off, and he was soon asked to transform another place -- El Patio, the now popular Aubergine. And another -- in Maadi. And then Tabasco in Mohandessin. And Sangria, Bam-Bu, White, Abu Sid and Cairo Jazz Club.
In 15 years he has fathered 25 eateries.
"I was thinking about it just the other night," he says of his places. "Mostly it has been owners who come to me and ask me to renovate and manage a place," he explains. "Tabasco" he says of one of his highest profile successes, "you should have seen the place when the owner asked me to come and look at it. He had just spent a fortune doing it up, putting in marble floors and expensive tiles and wall furnishings. He copied the Cellar -- the most popular night spot at the time."
It was, at best, a gaudy duplication -- money had been spent but it had little charm and the finish was sloppy.
"The owner, a very nice gentleman, couldn't understand why it wasn't working," he laughs. "He kept saying, 'but I've copied the Cellar exactly'. And that was exactly the problem. I explained to him, people want the Cellar they will go to the Cellar, not to a cheaper copy of it."
After much to-ing and froing he went in with a partner, Raouf Lotfi, and they gutted the place.
A few days before the opening the de-marbled floors lay bare -- raw cement poured over them instead to complement the rest of the reformed, now rustic look.
"The owner was worried, shocked, in panic. He didn't understand anything about what was going on," he says, laughing, picking up a cigarette and asking, apologetically, if he can light it. "And of course you know," he resumes, blowing a smoke ring. "Immediately, the moment we opened Tabasco was booming, and never stopped since."
Eventually they bought the owner out. And Nicha's businesses began to blossom, his imprint spreading. It appeared to be an unstoppable conquest of the city's eateries and hang-outs. Customers now laughed that Nicha was "taking over the town".
"But it was just one of those things that can happen to anyone," he insists. "Because like I said, I came in with a different attitude. I came in to have fun, not to make money. It's very simple."
And now he is making money. But along the way he introduced a new dimension to the city's vibrancy, and altered conformist norms.
"Take the Jazz Club boys," he says, sitting up and becoming oddly stern. "We worked together for a few years before they took over. They had no idea about running a bar at first, but we worked together and they adopted that attitude too. They don't wear ties and suits, and they sit and watch the clientele. They sit with the clientele, they drink with clientele, they are the clientele. We are owners that are clients. We are not owners in the old-fashioned sense of the word. The old school owner you would find sitting with a piece of paper, watching the tables, watching the waiters, constantly doing accounts. Before the guest was a client and the owner was a policeman."
"Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity," he offers as his formula for success. And indeed his eateries -- of which now he owns just two, Tabasco and Aubergine, are not extravagant, money- infused places. Most of them veer towards the stark -- minimal in their use of materials and the bareness of their interiors. Perhaps the most intricate interior is his latest -- Miro's Studio. But even there the most lavish element is paint, and the monthly exhibitions by a local artist Miro's Studio will host.
"The difference between this and the others," he says, "is that with Miro's we are trying to add a cultural element too. This clientele may not go to a gallery on a Thursday night, but they will come here and there will be art work. But again, it is a comfortable atmosphere, laid-back, cheerful. Creating the energy is a matter of feel. I consider myself a craftsman. I'm not a businessman, I don't have researched plans, I don't even have an office."
His office lies beside him on the chair that day.
"My office is my bag. And as much as I expand I will not make it a structured business because I don't have that kind of mind. And if I do, I think the places will lose their charm. I don't want to become an empire, I don't want to make it into an empire. I don't want to sit in my offices and control everything. For me the pleasure is the craft. Going into the kitchen, experimenting, coming up with the menus. This is the joy. I'm down to earth with these places."
"Let's face it," he admits, "I don't calculate things, I don't focus on the fine details. I'm willing to go with 60 per cent, and you can get away with that. If you won't settle for anything except for perfection you will keep on wanting forever and never get anywhere. I just take things as they come. Simplicity -- that's all."
It is simplicity, paradoxically, that seems to best describe Nicha, a result, perhaps, of having been brought up in a peculiarly grand atmosphere. Nicha was born and raised in what is now the Marriott Hotel. The gardens his playground, the palace halls and ballrooms his home.
"My grandfather was the Yugoslav ambassador to Turkey," he explains, swallowing his words again, embarrassed, it would appear, by his past. "When World War II broke out he sent my mother to Cairo to be away from the war. She met my father here -- he was a Lebanese businessman whose grandfather was married to Princess Fadila. When my parents met my father was living in the palace. That's all," he stops. "I only lived there for 11 years."
But they were 11 years that played a role in shaping what he has become.
"It made me like small houses, small spaces, studios. It made me like having people around, a warmth, a coziness."
"The government took the property from us in 1961. Nationalised it. A part of it was turned into Omar Khayyam restaurant. I'd say that was the hardest part, going to the restaurant and seeing people eating off your plates, using your forks and knives," he reflects. "But then you get used to it. And then you forget. And then it just becomes something in your head that you don't really think about, part of your past."
But it could be a scar, he nods, which led him to where he is now.
"Any one else in my shoes would probably have the driver waiting outside and be sitting behind some big desk in a big office with lots of phones ringing, and faxes," he says, signalling chaos with his hands and shifting body movement. "I don't want that grandeur. I don't want to create a palace and an empire. I want to just keep doing things the way I'm doing. I'm happy doing this. I'm happy finding spaces and setting my imagination free in them."
Ideas, at present, are abundant. Nicha spews off a list of names, concepts, colour schemes, a restaurant based in Beirut in which the staff are given acting classes to emulate Egyptian movie characters.
"I'm an artist," he chuckles, throwing up his hands, raising his eyebrows. "I create, and this is how I do it. Disorganised? You can look at it that way, or you can look at it like a garden. If my life is a garden, and you ask me about it, I'd tell you that the garden is a bit hectic. You can look at it and think 'what a mess,' or you can look at it and think 'how artistic'."
"I'm happy with what I do. I'm happy going to Aubergine and Tabasco and hanging out with the clients, going into the kitchen and cooking a meal now and then. I enjoy meeting people, mingling with my clients. My big indulgence is that I travel. Who I am is what makes my places successful. Why should I take my shoes off and try to walk around in someone else's? This is Nicha. This is the Nichan philosophy."