The sandwich board outside the Pyramid Cafe on Windsor Street tells the whole story. Yaser’s back.
OK, maybe not the whole story, but diehard fans of Yaser El-Helaly don’t need to know much more than that Yaser is back in Halifax and behind the grill.
The 39-year-old classically trained chef made his mark at Cafe Vienna, the once somewhat grotty little diner atop the Bluenose Laundromat. He didn’t cook in the European tradition, as you might think, based on the name of his then-cafe, or on his French-cooking training in Luxor, Egypt. Instead, he made Middle Eastern food and diner breakfasts, including vegan versions.
El-Helaly came to Halifax nine years ago. He was a line chef at the Holiday Inn and lived near the Bluenose. At the time, Maria Zelios, who owns the Bluenose with her husband Bill, was running a small cafe above the laudromat. Then, it was just somewhere for customers hang out during the spin cycle.
“My eye landed on that place,” El-Helaly says, in the post-lunch lull on a recent afternoon. “I offered to buy it, and they accepted.”
By 2002, El-Helaly was running the cafe. He expanded the kitchen and did a whopping take-out business.
Meanwhile, his family in Egypt was missing him. When his lease expired in late 2004, El-Helaly decided to sell. He taught his recipes to Lolita and Shane, the new owners, packed his bags, and flew back to Egypt.
Maria Zelios says the new pair made a good run at it. “They had a great summer, but we realized after Christmas that they just weren’t doing as well as they should be. They stopped paying rent, and I let it go for as long as I could. But after three months, I shut them down.”
In the meantime, Zelios was working on tracking down El-Helaly. But it wasn’t easy.
“We only had his father’s number,” she says. She called and asked for Yaser, but she couldn’t get anyone there to pass along her message. Finally, she got Bill to call. His message got through, and Yaser called back.
He’d been spending time with his family, but he was busy too, working two jobs. At night, he cooked at a five-star hotel in Qatar. By day, he ran a business, moving dry goods such as rice and beans between Egypt and Qatar, but a lack of experience took its toll.
“I wasn’t very successful,” he says. “But right away, as soon as I started complaining, I got a call from Bill and Maria. I was just sitting there, feeling sad, and she said, ‘Do you want your restaurant back?’ And I said, ‘Yeah.’ I didn’t even think about it.”
Forty days after they made contact, Yaser was back in Halifax. The Pyramid has been rocking since it opened on May 6. Regular customers have flocked back, lured in part by the proprietor’s friendly, engaging manner. “It doesn’t take long for people to recognize me—it’s a small town,” he says. “After this long weekend—we were very busy, since Thursday—I got back most of my customers, and more.”
Zelios says she’s delighted to see the cafe a success again. She has a few ways to measure its progress. “It’s great to pass by and see it full,” she says. “And customers in the laundromat come over and say he’s doing well. Everybody’s so glad to see him back.” Another yardstick? “The garbage—we used to get it picked up every two weeks, and that was enough. But now, with the way the cafe is going, it’s piling up so much, we’ll have to get it picked up every week!”
For El-Helaly, it’s about treating customers as friends—and in many cases, they are. “The people in Canada are like no other people in the world,” he says, leaning in close, “and the people in Halifax are like no other people in Canada. People here are like my family. It’s wonderful to get that welcome back.”