Since fleeing his war-torn home country, Syrian chef Imad Alarnab has cooked for refugees in Calais and is now feeding hungry Londoners to save Aleppo’s only paediatric hospital. The next step: open his dream restaurant…
‘When I was very young, my mother would say, “If you keep studying the way you’re cooking, you’ll be the best doctor in Syria.” Clearly, I didn’t listen! In 2000 I started my first restaurant, and then two more, several juice bars and some coffee shops. Before the war, I had a small empire in Damascus.
After 2011, it became really difficult. People couldn’t even afford to cook in their own houses. I lost two restaurants in 2012 because they were near a very dangerous road. Some of my workers were killed, and others kidnapped. It was devastating. In 2014, I closed my last remaining restaurant. I couldn’t handle it anymore.
When I left Syria in 2015, I wanted to go to the UK as I speak English. If I couldn’t speak the language, I couldn’t work – and I didn’t want to claim benefits. I travelled to Lebanon, then flew to Turkey and boarded a boat to Greece. The boat was supposed to be for nine people, but there were 54 of us. Luckily, the sea was as smooth as a swimming pool. When we arrived at the Greek coast, an old lady began waving and shouting: “Don’t worry, you’re safe! This is Europe, this is Greece!”
My journey across Europe was full of angels like her. In Calais, I met the Help Refugees volunteers. I’d started cooking for 40 to 50 people a day. It was very basic: we only had a picnic stove, one bowl and one knife, and we fed people from all over the world. The first time the volunteers came and asked if I needed anything, I said, “Yes – I need you to try this food.”
When I first arrived in London in October 2015, it was night-time and the city was full of life. The temperature was really lovely too. I started to work as a car washer, and later as a car salesman. I had no experience with cars, but I had a family back in Syria to support. The people were kind, so it wasn’t a hard time for me, but I felt like I was saving myself for something bigger.
When I looked for jobs here, I didn’t want to work in a kitchen unless it was my own. In March 2017 I ran my first pop-up restaurant. Since then I’ve been doing catering for parties and weddings. I am not targeting Syrians as my customers: I am targeting all Londoners, and I have had a huge response. It’s not just a chef connecting with a customer: it’s personal. It’s amazing to get to know them.
I had left Damascus on July 27 2015 and my wife and daughters joined me on July 26 2016 – one day short of a year later. I love London – I think it’s the greatest city in the world – but the most important thing to me is that it represents my daughters’ future. I see the city through their eyes: they already feel it’s their home. As for me, I’m kind of a Londoner – though it doesn’t make me any less Syrian.
Forty days after I arrived in the UK, my mother passed away. I wanted my father to join me, my wife and my daughters, but he wasn’t included in the family reunion policy. I appealed and won, and he arrived just ten days ago. I hadn’t seen him for almost three years. When he arrived I cooked him kebab hindi: lamb with a tomato and onion base. We visited Columbia Road, where I’m running my current pop-up restaurant, and he loved the idea of a flower market.
My dream is to have my own restaurant full-time. I want all of British society to be able to come to it and feel like it’s their own. In London, you can find something for everyone. That’s very important. This city will accept everyone – this is what makes London so great.’
Interview by Julia Rampen.
Imad’s Syrian Kitchen x Choose Love is at 134 Columbia Rd, until May 31. Tickets are £40, including a £15 donation to Hope Hospital: the only children’s hospital in the Aleppo region.