Meet the Syrian chef who refused to be a refugee

What the French call gastronomy—quality ingredients in season—is like our daily food in Syria
July 17, 2018

On 20th June, World Refugee Day, I sat with Mohammad El Khaldy, a Syrian chef, outside in the sunshine in Paris. He told me his story and I wrote it down in my notebook: 

“Left Damascus early 2012, Lebanese wife, three small sons, Bekaa Valley, problems with the Lebanese authorities, went to Cairo (without his family), started a restaurant just off Tahir Square.

“Problem with visa permissions, post Sisi takeover Egyptians revoked the Syrian visa waiver, landlord locked him out of his restaurant, offer/opportunity of restaurant in Marrakesh but he would have had to enter Morocco illegally, got involved with another restaurant project in Cairo.

“His wife and sons joined him after more than two years of separation, but he was pushed out again by his Egyptian partners who knew, as a foreigner of doubtful legal status, he had no recourse, sold his furniture, borrowed money, ‘my wife said: no we stay together.’

“13th July 2014 boat from Alexandria back and forth five days between offshore Alex and offshore Libya, every day a hundred more people ferried to the boat, ‘we threw everything overboard, even sonar equipment, to get space to put people.’

“750 people on the boat. 12 days. Dates, water, ‘finished food in seven days.’ Finally a container ship saw them, came alongside, gave them water, milk for children, bread, mortadella, canned fish, radioed their position to Italian navy. Life jackets, weather bad swells, two days on navy boat to Italy, basketball hall, ‘they cooked for us.’

“Police coming in the morning, bus ticket office closed, nice local Mayor opened bus ticket office, bus to Rome, train to Milan, slept in station, cousin in Denmark, 28 Syrians in a group on train, to Hamburg, to Copenhagen, to very north of Denmark, ‘one year I worked helping translate into English, driver at the camp.’ Asylum refused. To Germany. Brother in Paris. Arrived in Paris October 2015. Camp. After six months accepted asylum France.”

I have listened to many similar stories of flight and displacement over the last few years. The details change but there remains an essential template: a miserable shuttling back and forth between closed and closing borders, expired passports, money running out, working illegally, exploitation, separation from family, smugglers, a terrible open boat journey, bureaucracy, documents, all the time subject to the kindness, and the avarice, of strangers.

Mohammad had a thriving restaurant business in Damascus; by the time he and his family had settled in Paris he was penniless. He got involved with the first Refugee Food Festival in 2016, creating a Syrian menu and cooking alongside the great Basque chef Stephane Jego at his restaurant L’Ami Jean. With the help of contacts and the encouragement of a growing number of French chefs he has established a catering company that is cooking for the likes of Kenzo during fashion week and at the Palais de Tokyo. 

It’s a happy tale to warm the cockles of every liberal heart, but I don’t want to write a story about a refugee, with all the inherent imbalance of need and sanctimonious benefaction. At the same time I don’t want to deny the pain and difficulty of Mohammad’s journey and exile either. What I want to say is that Mohammad’s refugee status does not define him, nor should it define anyone who has been forced to leave their country.

“OK, now let’s talk about the food,” I said to him. His face broke into a broad grin. 

“To be honest,” he told me, almost conspiratorial, “what the French call gastronomy—quality ingredients in season—is like our daily food in Syria.” Syrian cuisine has an extraordinary terroir, deep rooted tradition of regional influences—Ottoman, Armenian, Circassian, Kurdish—and a food culture that is as sophisticated and obsessive as the Japanese. Foie gras, fresh Atlantic fish, French patisserie impressed him, but he said, “Europeans don’t really know about spices and herbs.”

Several days after we met I went to a dinner that Mohammad was cooking as part of the Refugee week events, at Refettorio, the Parisian branch of the soup kitchen movement founded by Massimo Bottura. He’s the chef of Osteria Francescana in Modena, voted No 1 again this year on the 50 Best Restaurants list. (Just as there are now Refugee Food Festivals in 10 cities around the world, there are Reffetorios serving food cooked by volunteers and guest chefs to the homeless in Milan, Paris, London and Rio.) 

Paris’s Refettorio is in a long, stone-arched foyer inside the temple Madeleine church. Mohammad had arrived in the morning with no idea what donated food would be available for him to cook with. We began with an amuse-bouche of chicken liver with hummus and pomegranate seeds. And then came a small dish containing a single whole, unadorned potato. 

I cut into it with tentative curiosity. It was counterintuitively cold, yet rich and buttery and at the same time spiced and freshly zinged with something I couldn’t identify at all. It was so delicious I had eaten half of it before I turned it over and saw that Mohammad had stuffed the underside with a mirepoix of apples. He had made a wonderful potato pun: pomme de terre avec des pommes.

Then there was a duck breast with molokoheya, the wonderful velvety spinach-nettle leaf. Sumac was liberally dusted all over the plate and its acidity brightened and clarified the dish in a way that made all those cloying fruit gravies usually deployed with duck seem blanketing and oppressive. Dessert was an angel-hair pastry nest set with a quenelle of orange ice cream and a crisp sheet of phyllo cut in the shape of a bird fluttering atop. It was served on plates printed with Massimo Bottura’s hands cupped in a gesture between offering and supplication. 

Mohammad told me that he had served it the night before to the Refettorio’s homeless clientele and he had been thrilled and moved by their amazed and grateful reaction. “France is the hands that gave me and my family stability,” he told me, introducing me to his wife and three sons. “The nest is our home and the egg is our new baby.” His tiny daughter smiled in her father’s arms.