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The food whisperers

Cite Magazine

Curtin graduates Nysreen El-Mahmoud and Pascal Kelly are giving Hong Kong food lovers something new to rave about. After Nysreen relaunched the much-loved restaurant, Zahra, Pascal was inspired to create a unique social network for culinary tourists looking to connect with Hong Kong’s award-winning dining establishments.

Pascal Kelly (left) and Nysreen El-Mahmoud (right).

With restaurant owners as parents, Nysreen grew up in the kitchens of Zahra, one of Hong Kong’s pioneering Lebanese restaurants in the 1990s.

“I grew up learning all the family recipes that made Zahra so unique, and obtained incredible first hand experience of the ins and outs of running a restaurant from a very young age,” Nysreen reminisces.

When her parents decided to close Zahra ten years ago in order to retire, both Nysreen and Hong Kong lamented the lost of Zahra’s authentic Middle-Eastern dishes.

“There was always something inside of me that wanted to bring Zahra back to life and share our family recipes once again with Hong Kong,” Nysreen says.

In 2013, Nysreen and her sister Nadia decided to fulfil this wish and together they opened the second generation of Zahra, the Zahrabel Dining Club, in Hong Kong.

The entrance of Zahrabel Dining Club.

While running a restaurant could be considered a far cry from Nysreen’s bachelor degree in multimedia design, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Nysreen not only runs Zahrabel’s kitchen, but is she also in charge of all the design and marketing for the club.

“My Curtin degree has been very important in teaching me the relevant and necessary technical skills to be able to do this,” she says. “From initially designing our corporate identity and overseeing all our branding, promotional material, in-house printed material, to managing our social media.”

“Every day brings its unique challenges and events, whether it’s hosting an event at the restaurant, doing a restaurant photo shoot for a magazine feature, meeting new diners, creating new dishes or discussing new opportunities.”

And new opportunities are on the rise at Zahrabel’s. Pascal Kelly, Nysreen’s partner and fellow Curtin alumni, has been working together with Zahrabel Dining Club to develop and pilot the Ookus project.

After moving to Hong Kong, Pascal learnt the day-to-day routine and challenges facing a restaurateur. Recognising the difficulties of restaurant management, the Ookus project began as a means to help manage Zahrabel’s bookings.

“I initially used my existing skills to come up with a solution. Spreadsheets helped, but didn’t offer as much flexibility,” Pascal says. He turned to learning programming skills and how the ‘Cloud’ worked to create his own IT solution.

Pascal’s booking system was an instant success at Zahrabel Dining Club. But he did not stop there.

“I saw the opportunity to offer other establishments the same benefits,” he says.

Ookus has now expanded beyond Zahrabel Dining Club to become the world’s first social booking network.

The principle behind Ookus is quite simple. As a member of the Ookus community you will be able to search and connect with award-winning restaurants as of October.

The platform also recommends restaurants to the user based on reviews from people they have previously connected with on Ookus – they could be friends, family or a fellow food lover who share similar tastes. A news feed shows users ‘whispers’ such as a restaurant commendation from someone in their network, or a restaurant promotion.

A sneak peek of the upcoming Ookus version.

“It’s all about creating a buzz,” says Pascal. “Establishments are also able to manage their online bookings and will soon be able to sell their goods and merchandise via Ookus. Our aim is to develop further features, which will enhance the diners’ experience and also offer an out-of-the-box solution for award-winning establishments.”

Currently Ookus is only available in Hong Kong, but there are plans to expand to Macau and Australia, and later the world.


Dr Garry Willinge, Chair of the Curtin Alumni Association in Hong Kong (left) and Pascal Kelly (right).

With a background in psychology and having graduating from Curtin in 2007, Pascal was taught to think critically and to be a consumer of science literature – a habit that has come in handy for conducting market research for Ookus and when working as an analyst prior to his move to Hong Kong.

“Psychology offered me a window to the world,” says Pascal. “Above all, it taught me that the only thing we can be certain about is the diversity of people in its many forms. Therefore, understanding, empathy and tolerance are some of the values to be pursued on one’s life journey.”

It’s this outlook that shines through in Ookus’s mission statement: “We dream of a world where the simple and yet powerful experience of food will bring people together around tables, offering the heart and soul of chefs and restaurateurs worldwide in an effortless, elegant and contemporary manner.”

Pascal is now busy gathering feedback from the budding Ookus community and is gearing up for the launch of a new version of Ookus in October. With Zahrabel Dining Club being the first to adopt this innovative way of bringing people together through their love of food, Hong Kong’s culinary culture is heading towards new bountiful heights.