©Wendell Steavenson

Matters of taste: Collective cooking

"This was cutting edge and something I had never seen"
April 11, 2017

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.

The class was held in the renovated Khan, or caravanserai, of Tripoli and we were greeted by a semi-circle of middle-aged women in layers of black; headscarves, gowns, and shawls. Two were bareheaded, one wore the full face veil. In the beginning, the atmosphere had been tense, but now, after several weeks, barriers had broken down and friendships had formed. Alameddine told them he would show them how to make simple dishes with inexpensive ingredients; fresh pasta and a lemon and rosemary mousse cake. The bareheaded Alawite women donned hair nets, everyone pulled on hygienic latex gloves and they all went off in a flurry of bowls and egg- cracking excitement.

The women watched carefully as he raked eggs and oil into flour with his fingers to form the pasta dough. They were familiar with dried macaroni, but they were curious about fresh pasta. He showed them how to fold the dough through the pasta machine and then went to supervise the cake-making. “Whisk the eggs, yes, by hand! No, you should have added the sugar afterwards, this way the mixture is heavier and hard to whip—”

There was a sense of bustling camaraderie. The sesame tuile got stuck on the parchment, but Alameddine managed to peel some of it off. Amid the bustle, the women came to tell me their stories. A husband who had lost one eye and couldn’t work because there was still shrapnel in his liver. A son with a head injury. A family who had fled from Homs in 2012. A husband kidnapped in Syria, no news. Their lips trembled, but then they clapped their hands, “yalla, let’s get on! Is the sponge ready to come out of the oven?”

After a couple of hours, we had a coffee break in the courtyard. The women leaned into each other with affectionate hugs, one started to count four children on her fingers and an older lady in a blue cardigan said, “I was married at 14 and I have 10 children!”

“In my village in Syria,” recalled one woman, “there is a kind of laban, yoghurt, which we make from scalded sheep’s milk. We boil it in a copper pot and deliberately burn the skin, to give a caramel flavour.”

Alameddine blew on the embers of a small brazier and called for the butter to be brought out of the freezer. He was going to show them how to make smoked butter and smoked water and emulsify them into a sauce for the pasta. I paid close attention too. This was cutting edge and something I had never seen. Tarek put wet kindling on the fire to smoke and made a tent out of an upturned saucepan and tin foil. “Ten or 15 minutes, not more or it will be bitter, move it out of the heat, if you need, the butter will soften a bit, but it shouldn’t melt.” A bowl of water was infused in the same way. The women were intrigued. They knew smoked meat, but this was different. One woman said her mother had sometimes put a piece of charcoal tied in muslin into a stew to give it a smoky flavour.

In the kitchen Alameddine heated the smoked water to 60 degrees and churned in the butter. It whipped up like mayonnaise and tasted divine. He tossed it into the pasta with handfuls of pumpkin seeds. We lunched outside. The cake was glazed with chocolate ganache and decorated with yellow flowers one of the women found growing nearby. Everyone thanked Tarek for his enthusiasm. I thought about those arcs that map airline routes in the shape of starbursts. From a mountain village to the fine dining restaurant, swapping tastes and techniques, full circle to home and home cooks again. He grinned at me. “The ladies are so fun, so full of positive energy. I am Druze, a different religion and a different part of the country, so they have also helped me to see different people too. It changes the way you think.”

The women sang a folk song. You sweet mothers, You beloved, God Protect you. Everyone sang together and everyone knew all the words.