Egyptian-born Tarek Thoma, owner of Middlesbrough restaurant Oven, has expressed his Teesside pride at being honoured by his adopted country in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Tarek has long felt a great affinity with England, the country that he has called home for the last 30 years. It is where he has built a life, career and business. He has nothing but praise for the country and its people and now the honour has been returned.
Tarek has been honoured with a BEM (British Empire Medal) for his services to the community in the wake of the first wave of Covid-19 and the devastating impact lockdown had on the lives of the most vulnerable on society.
With partner Lisa, he opened his popular Middlesbrough restaurant, Oven, on the corner of Linthorpe Road and Southfield Road, in 2015 and was understandably devastated when it was forced to close when lockdown took hold.
“I put my heart and soul into the restaurant and am proud to have created jobs in the town while serving food that people love,” he said. “So, of course, it was hard when we were told to close.”
But the big-hearted restaurant owner decided to turn his own misfortune into an opportunity to help others.
“I am so lucky that the country looked after me, my business and my staff in the way they did.
“But I looked at the panic around me – the shortages of basics that people were suffering – and I thought, ‘I have access to all of this through my suppliers and it wouldn’t be expensive’, so I got in touch with the mayor Andy Preston’s office, explained I’d like to help and it all went from there.”
Soon, with Tarek leading the way in the kitchen, Oven was working with Middlesbrough Council and other local businesses to get urgent supplies of food to the elderly and vulnerable.
Care packages were also put together, comprising essentials such as tea, coffee, breakfast cereals and toilet rolls, along with freshly cooked meals.
But it didn’t stop there. Aware the pandemic and lockdown were wreaking havoc across communities, Tarek decided to provide free food to local homeless charities, women’s refuges and the local hospital too.
Oven was transformed into an emergency charity food hub, supplying up to 100 meals a day.
“Once I heard James Cook Hospital, Thirteen’s homeless charity and the women’s refuges were struggling too, I was cooking thousands of meals a day, around the clock, 17 or 18-hour days in the kitchen,” recalls Tarek.
“It was hard work but I had a fantastic time doing it because it meant I didn’t have time to feel sorry for myself about Oven being forced to close.”
Now Tarek’s incredible generosity has been recognised with a BEM, though he is still finding it a little surreal that he should be a recipient of such a prestigious honour.
“I got an email from the Cabinet Office about telling me the news,” he recalls. “I had to read it a couple of times for it to sink in. I had no idea I’d been nominated, let alone for something so magnificent. It was hard to sit on it and not tell everyone for the next month.
“It’s unbelievable really. It supersedes winning the Lottery.”
So why did he do it? What drove him to such extremes of generosity?
“I did it because I could,” he shrugs. “I knew I could buy stuff, I had the suppliers, I had the kitchen staff and I had my own skills.
“We were in an extreme emergency, almost like a war. The only thing I was thinking about was helping others and helping us get out of this crisis. Money took a back seat. I wanted to pay back a tiny bit of what I’ve been given.
Raised in Cairo, Tarek, now 55, came to England as an art student in 1990 before switching his career to food. He worked in the kitchens of Michelin-starred restaurants and moved to the North-East, where he met his partner Lisa. They have been working together ever since.
He famously cooked for then prime minister Tony Blair and US president George Bush at the Dun Cow in Sedgefield before Tarket and Lisa bought their first restaurant, Oven in Darlington, which they sold to switch attentions to their Middlesbrough eatery of the same name.
“When I came to England, I pretty much had nothing but this country has given me just about everything there is to give,” he explains.
“I feel British through and through, I don’t feel like a foreigner. When I came to England, I made an effort to integrate from day one – I embraced the culture. I learned what makes England England. I love it here – it’s my country.”
Now, as restrictions start to lift, Oven is back open – but with a twist. In addition to maintaining their popular Middle Eastern influences and “classic dishes” their regulars know and love, there is the introduction of a well-researched and developed pasta and stone-baked Neapolitan pizza menu.
“I’m trying to make the food a little more accessible,” he says. “My knowledge of Italian food wasn’t so vast, but I used the time in lockdown to research and develop my knowledge of pasta and pizza, while ensuring I had the very best ingredients.
“We can now promise visitors to Oven a true Italian food experience, as good as you’d get in Napoli or Sicily.”