Yehia El-Nemer, Oasis cafe

27 Sep

Everyone in Islington has a story… Few spend as much time in the park as Yehia El-Nemer who runs the Oasis in the Park cafe at Highbury Fields. Here’s what life’s like at the Oasis, plus Yehia’s plans to make it even better.

Interview by Nicola Baird.

Yehia El-Nemer: “This is a painting of my cafe, one of my customers, Mary Cook, gave it to me as a free gift.”

“I love it here in Islington. Because I live in Highbury I used to walk in the fields with my children. But this is the best spot,” says Yehia El-Nemer who runs the Oasis cafe at the top of Highbury Fields – just by the 2 o’clock club and the tennis courts. Without that café, and Yehia’s unfailingly gentle smile and enquiry “How are you?” Highbury would be a less welcoming place.

“I give my life to here,” says Yehia smiling. “I’m here seven days a week from 8am until 7pm. Nine o’clock in the summer time. It’s hard work. But it’s very friendly. I know everybody – all the famous people. There’s Boris*, Nick – he’s my best friend – and Clive. Lots of writers, actors, painters and famous people.”

Mothers are also big clients making use of the tables in the dog-free fenced area  opposite which always seems to catch the sun. Yehia, who will be 60 in April 2013, has added the toys toddlers adore (push cars and a little slide) so that little children can play safely outside without heading for the traffic and buses on Highbury Grove. It helps that he’s a dad. And a very proud one, his eldest Charles, 19, is in his first year at York University studying economics and Alexander, 16, is at Camden Girls School. “They are both very good tennis players,” adds Yehia. “Alexander is #5 in the county (Middlesex) and coaches. They both started playing tennis aged four and always went to the Highbury Fields tournaments.”

Yehia learnt tennis when he was a child too. Tennis is obviously still important to Yehia – it’s the background music at the Oasis as players use the nearby courts. He also sells tennis balls alongside the cakes and delicious main meals.

Yehia was born in Cairo, Egypt and originally trained as an agriculture engineer dealing with import and export of fruit and vegetables. In the 1980s he came to the UK and worked in hotel management for 30 years. It’s all been preparation for running the Oasis which he took over around 2004 from Anna and her husband who were retiring to go back home to Italy.

Yehia El-Nemer: “As soon as these Highbury people see the sun they come here.”

Seventeen applied for the café lease, including Starbucks. Yehia came second, but luckily for him the winning bid – from a mum he knew at St John’s Highbury Vale Primary  where his boys went to school – pulled out. “The council phoned me and said they liked my CV and business plan. So I took over. I’d worked in so many hotels – Jarvis (previously London Embassy) and the Royal Lancaster and started as a food and beverages manager so I knew suppliers. I didn’t work as a chef but I knew about cooking. When I opened Oasis I tried the Egyptian food I like and people loved it.” The menu now is mixed Egyptian and English food – most popular is the Egyptian potatoes, the aubergine special and falafels. “People like the Egyptian pasta with béchamel sauce too (it’s like a lasagne). And I serve a lot of children’s food.”

While most of us talk about the weather, Yehia’s business depends upon it. “Knowing the weather is not for me only. As soon as these Highbury people see the sun and the warm they come here. There is no doubt – where else will they go? I listen to the weather report a week before, and the night before too, because I have to get the orders right; contact the staff (two work part time at Oasis) and know what to cook. On a good day about 200 people will come by. But when the weather is not so good and no one but the dog walkers and tennis people come, then you only go home with £20 in your pocket.”

Yehia – his family name means tiger – has ambitious plans to make his café better for winter visits with a double-glazed, covered sitting area to keep his customers warm.

He’d also like to see the council offering another loo, currently there is only one superloo that costs 20p to use. “There should be more toilets – what do mothers who are pregnant or toddlers do? Where can they go?” he says.

His café has 10 tables in a roofed but open-walled area so most years he closes in January and February, although sometimes his nephew Mohamed will open on winter weekends. “This year I will go to Egypt, see my family and relax. I like to go to the beach and chat with friends. And I’ll learn more Egyptian dishes. I want to work on my lentil soup.”

Yehia may be the one you recognise behind the Oasis counter but he also finds time to notice all the changes to the area. “Highbury has more and more houses – there are building at the old university at the top of the hill and at Aberdeen Studios, the old office area on Highbury Grove. Houses are everywhere, so I want a bigger kitchen and to extend the menu to attract more people.”

Here’s hoping Yehia’s plans come off as it would mean local residents would be able to bump into each other at the Oasis every day of the year, rather than just when the sun shines. See you there.

Oasis in the Park café, Highbury Fields, N5 is open every day from 8am to dusk (later in the summer). In the morning there is delicious coffee and a range of cakes including raisin scones and apricot flapjacks. For lunch and summer evenings try the Egyptian specials. Children’s meals approx, £2.50.

Words

  • Boris, Nick, Clive – Boris Johnson, Nick Robinson, Clive Anderson

Over to you
What do you think of this wonderful man and the Oasis cafe? By the way, if you’d like to feature on this blog, or make a suggestion about anyone who grew up, lives or works in Islington please let me know, via nicolabaird.green@gmail.com. Thank you. And yes, this blog is inspired by Spitalfields Life written by the Gentle Author.

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5 Responses to “Yehia El-Nemer, Oasis cafe”

  1. nicola baird September 29, 2012 at 10:10 am #

    From Dan:
    Gosh, he looks young for 60.And it’s heart-breaking that sometimes he only goes home with £20. Great article. Any way of linking to the other people lower down the page… I didn’t realise there were more interviews… I’ll read them too later.

  2. nicola baird October 3, 2012 at 3:09 pm #

    From Ann: Am enjoying reading about interesting Islington characters.

  3. Nidaa Eldosougi Nounou October 22, 2015 at 9:53 am #

    A very relaxing place. Fantastic food, drinks and warm, welcoming and caring customer service. Well done Yehia.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] in Highbury Fields, we popped into the Oasis cafe.  This is a brilliant outdoors place to take the kids as it has loads of little cars for them to […]

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