"This was cutting edge and something I had never seen"by Wendell Steavenson / April 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Tarek Alameddine is a big friendly guy from a small village in Lebanon’s Chouf mountains. When he graduated from cookery school he didn’t want to cook boring formal French-style food. He applied twice to Noma in Copenhagen (then the number one restaurant in the world), before he got accepted. Noma’s chef, the diminutive Macedonian-Danish genius Rene Redzepi who invented New Nordic cuisine, told him, “a Lebanese! We never had one of those before!”
Alameddine mastered tweezering and the exacting art of plating dishes like “ants on a branch.” And he developed his own dishes, using traditional Levantine flavours, making jmash by rendering cream into rich caramelized butter by cooking it slowly for three days, which amazed the multicultural Noma kitchen brigade, and then cooked quail in it.
Noma closed its doors at the end of last year. A new chapter in a new space is planned for later this year, but this spring Redzepi is moving his chefs to Mexico to explore traditional Mexican ingredients and cooking methods in a pop-up venture between the jungle and the Caribbean coast. I met Alameddine when he was in Lebanon for a couple of weeks between the Danish winter and the tropics. “They just sent us an email telling us to pack shorts,” he laughed. We were driving up the coast from Beirut because he was teaching a cooking class in the northern coast town of Tripoli.
He enthused about the terroir he had grown up with and lamented that Lebanese produce was not more widely celebrated.
“Ah the wild tomatoes in the summer!” He cupped his hands together to show how big they grew. “You crush a tomato open with your hands and inside put garlic, sumac, arak and ice and let it sit for a while. It’s the tradition, on Sundays when everyone sits around and drinks, that’s how every house does it.”
“Like a mountain Bloody Mary!” I said.
The women of the cooking class had all lost family and homes in the Syrian civil war and the fighting between Alawite and Sunni militias in Tripoli. They had been brought together by Souk el Teyeb, a Lebanese social enterprise that started with a farmers market and has since grown to include restaurants and training schemes all over the country. The idea was that the women would learn how to turn their home cooking into a skill which could help them find work. More importantly, it was a way to encourage people from opposite sides in war to share stories and find a common purpose.