“What made you want to be a chef?” is a question ceaselessly asked to those crazy enough to be ones and make a living. The answer is often a romantic one: something to do with a mother or grandmother, a story of earthy family traditions, or a dream triggered by some childhood remembrance. Admittedly, I certainly have an answer like that too, ready to be pulled out of the hat at a moment’s notice. 

A more critical question might be “what made you still want to be a chef?” The answer, for me, is the moment I realized that you can challenge the parameters set around food, by food. It’s been around eight years since I moved from Amman, Jordan’s capital, to New York, to pursue a culinary path. I trained in a culinary school with French emphasis and worked in stiffly structured restaurants where all chefs shared the same French style of training. I thought, for a while, that this is the only way of cooking professionally, until my good friend and I toyed with the idea of creating a series of pop-ups that celebrate Middle-Eastern heritage, cuisine, and art. We sought to challenge the dynamic of our male dominated kitchens and empower our standing in the industry, while creating dinners that plate culture and literature too. We gave it an Arabic name, ‘Ghazal’, Love Ode.

Chebakia, Moroccan Desserts

In truth, the titillation of the challenge outside was punctuated by another one inside. The latter, I have come to discover, makes and breaks, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes painfully, but often creatively. On the day of the pop-up, I was standing across a shiny stainless-steel table, attentive over my thick heavy lacerated cutting board, arranging the freshly harvested sunflower sprouts so that they were all facing the same direction necessarily, with their stems pointing down inescapably. Anxiety was building up as I barely had enough time to complete my prep. The compulsion was far too strong that day. I was setting up for service and I tapped with my fingers all my needed ‘mise en place’ four times as a means of ticking off my interminable mental checklist. It was a day choreographed by a large to-do list, fighting a clock that seemed to be hopped up on something. But even when time was slipping away, I still managed to fit in all the incessant obsessive-compulsive rituals. I dried my fish with a towel as many times as I needed to be convinced it was dry enough to fabricate. I made sure that I had an even number of c-folds on my station. I checked my tool’s tray about a few dozen times, tapping my tweezers, pens, and sharpies until I felt secure enough that they were all there. But, my heart was beating out of my body, disturbing any solace in the resulting arrangement. 

Diners started arriving and they were greeted with glasses of cardamom coolers. The entire art loft, where the dinner was held, smelled of anise, allspice, and coriander. Gentle smoke was erupting from carefully burning frankincense. We hurried to plate the first course, a Fluke crudo with umeboshi and orange blossom. The magic of our preserved plums, ones we’ve been researching and working on for quite some time, was finally being worked. We misted ‘herb bouquets’ with orange blossom water, the whole room was filled with that distinguished floral scent. A refreshing course, a serene start of the night. It was followed by a stuffed pasta course, filled with ‘mohammara’, a Levantine spread made with red bell peppers, walnuts, garlic, and pomegranate molasses. When the diners bit into the whimsical hat-shaped pasta, they were stirred by a big pop of flavor, mellowed by the whipped goat’s milk ricotta served on the plate. The final dish was a roasted duck breast with salt-roasted parsnips and tamarind jus. Our boldest dish of the evening in terms of flavor. The duck is brushed with local raw honey, golden, glistening from a distance. The duck breast was then packed with an anise seed crust and paired with a fig and bourbon cocktail. This is a dish that feels uninhibited, one that tempts the diner to succumb to their innate desires, sip on their boozy cocktail, bite into the crispy duck skin, and give in to the indulgence of the night. Finally, we wrapped the dinner up with an airy auspiciously silky and foamy chocolate mousse, topped with “barazek”, a Middle Eastern sesame ghee holiday cookie; a nod to all the family holidays I have missed over the years being in New York. All the while, cards that had verses from iconic poems by Khalil Gibran and Nizar Qabbani accompanied every course.

The night had come to an end. We were left with the unglamorous tasks of cleaning up, putting things away, scrubbing the stove tops and mopping the floors. I’ll never forget how I felt that night. I was exhilarated. All the obsessing that had kept me up the nights leading to this paid off in some way: it breaks but it also makes. My obsessive-compulsive disorder helped put it all together and that made me feel comforted in a way I haven’t felt before. On top of that, I was able to celebrate my heritage and prove to myself that food can be presented in whatever way we want to express it to be. 

Ghazal felt like a fitting title for that night as, despite the mental challenges, the exacerbated compulsions, and in spite of the antagonism faced as an immigrant woman of color, we still have the power to express the indescribable love for what we do. There is poetry and magic in the culinary arts. A craft that’s to a large degree instinctual and sensual. A language that tells stories and unravels history. The culinary world is a place for those who are willing to push themselves hard, the backstage players and the unseen craftsmen, joined together by a common love. An honest craft, inconvenient at times, agonizing at others but one where we find joviality, acceptance, challenge and exhilaration.