Bringing culture to MacCurtain St in Cork city

JOHN KELLY talks to a Cork city trader and businessman who is keeping up the tradition of MacCurtain Street as a melting pot of culinary cultures
Bringing culture to MacCurtain St in Cork city
Taoufik Hammami of The Hand of Fatima café and shop on MacCurtain Street.

INSIDE The Hand of Fatima café and shop on MacCurtain Street, previously called Sultan Delight, there is a photo taken in what had been the shop right next door.

In black and white, the picture is from the 1930s or ‘40s, and the shop in question was Hadji Bey Turkish Delight — a name that will resonate among many older Corkonians who will recall that iconic establishment on the site for more than half a century.

The photograph is a mark of respect on behalf of Taoufik Hammami to the history and culture of the street and city. It’s also a nod to the serendipity of how he has brought Turkish, as well as Greek, Middle Eastern and North African cuisine, back to the street.

Taoufik recalls how he grew his business into what it is today. It all began just over a decade ago when he was looking to establish a food business in Cork.

“After seeing the farmers’ markets, I contacted one of the organisers and she said the Shandon Street Festival was on, on June 27, 2008 and I was welcome.

“I had a barbecue, got some meat from the butcher and a few other bits. €30 was my costs and €90 for the space, which the organiser told me I could fix up at the end of the day.

“It was busy! Up the walls! It was my first time doing this and I left with €495 for the day.

“I paid the rent, covered the money I spent and went home to look at what I had made. Of that money, I didn’t use it for anything else. The organiser came to me and asked was I interested in doing more? So I started building up from there.”

That’s not the start of the story that brought Taoufik from the tourist town of Sousse in Tunisia to Ireland in 1999.

But it is the real beginning that has brought him through every farmers’ market going, to establishing the Sultan Restaurant & Sheesha Lounge (now owned by his brothers, Wissem and Ali), up to The Hand of Fatima Café and Shop, complete with its own cookery school.

Taoufik Hammami of The Hand of Fatima café and shop on MacCurtain Street.
Taoufik Hammami of The Hand of Fatima café and shop on MacCurtain Street.

Initially working at a restaurant in Blanchardstown in Dublin, Taoufik went on to manage clothes shops between the capital city and Cork before permanently settling in Cork in 2004, working in a furniture store.

“I knew I could do something new in the city,” he told me, going on to say that Cork is clearly on its way to being the best city in Ireland.

His big chance, ironically, came with the 2008 crash, when he left the furniture store.

“After that, I said to myself, I’ll never work for anybody else. I was 30. My old boss even said that one day he wanted to see me with my own business.

“People said I started the business from zero. And I wondered what they meant? If you have a brain, it’s not from zero.

“Anyone of us can have a diamond hiding inside but we can’t be afraid to show it.

“You see, I had experience — I worked in the food business, the clothes business, the furniture business. So I thought, why can’t I use this experience? If I lost, I lost. Then I’d get up and do it again.”

The real adventure had started. And like any adventure, there was also defeat, where the maxim of getting up and going again had to be lived.

“One time, I lost my business. It happens. So I went to the dole and they asked me if I wanted to do some courses. And I thought, why not? I have the free time, why don’t I use it? I found one on how to be your own boss.”

The question “Do you have a place in town? You should have a place in town!” sparked the opening of the Sultan Restaurant and Sheesha Lounge in 2013 and the Sultan Café in 2015.

A particular source of pride for Taoufik in that is the small cookery school, catering across the board to vegan and gluten-free interpretations of the cuisine.

“Many of them have never met each other before,” he says of the clientele. “It’s a funny thing that happened — two people came in, they had a chat and now they are together! They’re boyfriend and girlfriend which is amazing, they just came here for classes in different little groups and they are together now!”

I was touched by this story as I perused Taoufiks medals he has been awarded for Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

The future looks bright for The Hand of Fatima, with the docks and railway station area set to explode into life soon.

Taking into account the completion of the pedestrian bridge, the move to two-way traffic on MacCurtain Street and the strength of tourism, the area will be even more of a hive of activity.

“But we have to always bring something new and keep pushing. That’s why I’m here, like Hadji Bey… All we have to do is work hand in hand with each other,” says Taoufiks.

“One person can’t do this alone, it has to be all of us, together we can build it up — each of us with any small idea or experience, working together.”

Taoufiks’ energy, determination and work ethic are pretty stunning. A full-on gentleman, he also seems to be, in part, a perpetual motion machine, always with an eye to what he might do next.

I’m reminded of a quote from hip-hopper Jay Z: “I’m not a businessman. I’m a business, man!”

It’s impossible to say whether or not The Hand of Fatima will reach the mythical status of Hadji Bey. However, it’s certainly not possible to say that it won’t.

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