The dining experiences created by East London pop-up restaurants are usually the hot ticket in town, but few have sold out within 24 hours, or can boast authentic Syrian cuisine cooked by a former Syrian refugee.
As he chops herbs in preparation for his evening guests, Imad Alarnab tells me about the journey that led him to opening his very own restaurant on Columbia Road. “I travelled from Beirut, Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany and Calais. It took me nine days to get to Calais, I spent 64 days there.”
Launched last Thursday, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen is a pop-up with a difference. Imad says: “The pop-up idea started with a friend of mine who worked with two other friends, one of which worked for Unicef and the other Cook for Syria.” Imad’s friends enjoyed his food so much that they wanted to support him to create a restaurant.
— London Food Month (@LondonFoodMonth) March 14, 2017
In Syria, Imad was a successful restaurateur: “In Damascus I had three restaurants and few juice bars and one café.” When the city became embroiled in the war, Imad’s restaurants were destroyed and he was forced to flee the country.
Making his way from Syria through to Europe, Imad shared his skills by cooking for other refugees, feeding up to 400 people at a time. Even in the most challenging of times, his passion for food and his ability in bringing people together always shone through.
Imad then became involved as an advisor for the #CookForSyria initiative, helping raise money for Syrian children through Unicef’s campaign NEXTGeneration, which brings together diverse groups of young professionals who are committed to transforming the lives of vulnerable children.
Through this experience with #CookForSyria, the chef began to dream of running his own restaurant again. His menu features a series of Syrian dishes which he brought with him from Damascus. “I am very traditional with my recipes. I prefer doing them as my mother used to and cooking them myself as they are all my mother’s recipes. She was a good teacher.”
— LondonPopups (@LondonPopups) March 10, 2017
Before the Syrian Kitchen, Imad found work as a car salesman in Harrow after he first arrived in the UK, and was able to bring his family to join him in England. He said: “Before the pop up I was a car salesman. In Syria I had no idea about the cars, the only thing I am good at is driving.”
“I have been in the UK since October 2015 and my family came in July 2016. My children are learning English, it is easier for kids to learn a new language but it is not completely new as they know the basics, they are doing very well. The credit goes to their mother, and their teachers have been great.”
Imad explains that when he decided to leave Syria his intention was always to come to the UK, as his extended family had already settled here. “I have family here, my sister, my aunt and two cousins. I am also quite old and I can’t learn a new language as it is too difficult for me. If you don’t know the language of a country you can’t work within it. Especially for me as I have always worked.”
“English is an international language and so it was much easier for me to find a job. I didn’t mind working for other things but what I really do mind is not working. My father is still in Damascus in Syria, we are hoping he will join us here, maybe sometime in the future.”
— NEXTGen London (@NextGenLondon) March 9, 2017
Supported by event space Appear Here, Unicef NEXTGeneration and Hampstead Kitchen, the pop-up will only be open for fourteen days, ending on 24 March. Imad tells me of his surprise in selling out all of his tickets within 24 hours. He said, “I think in Hackney people come from all over to try new things”.
The Syrian chef is looking forward to running one more pop-up and then finding a permanent place to open a restaurant in Hackney. On London, Imad said, “it is an amazing city full of life. I think some other places in the UK are beautiful but in London it is quite different. You have to be involved with something that is going on, instead of being on the outside looking in.”
“I’m proud to share some of my favorite Syrian dishes with the people of London. This food isn’t your typical restaurant food; it’s the food you have with your family and it’s a taste of home. What excites me most about this project is that I feel like I’ve met London for the first time. London is an old city, but is full of young life. It means the future for me and most importantly my daughters. I’m looking forward to a new start here.”
Ross Bailey, founder of Appear Here said, “Imad’s story showed us that once safe, once you’ve found a place to live with your family away from the terror inflicted on you and the ones you love – although grateful, appreciative and counting your blessings for making it and finding refuge – what makes that new place a new life is having a purpose. Appear Here’s vision is to create a world where it’s possible for people like Imad to find their purpose and bring their ideas to life. Together with Unicef NEXTGeneration, we’re helping Imad get started in London.”
Iman serves a three-course set menu of traditional Syrian recipes passed down to Imad from his mother. The food is served as a family kitchen-table style supper, with food placed on sharing platters to be enjoyed by everyone. The three-course dinner ranges from £16.85 to £42.95
Toasted flatbreads, pomegranate, molasses, tomato and cucumber.
Spicy chicken with cardamom and rice.
Aubergine, squash and tamarind stew.
Bridie Pearson-Jones has contributed to this story.