Imad Alarnab cooked his way from Damascus to London
Syrian chef, now London-based refugee, Imad Alarnab, just launched a two-week pop-up and he’s already sold-out.
In a small kitchen with creaky wooden floors, Imad chops thin strips of lettuce to perfection while he tells me about the past two years for him and his family. The kitchen opens up to a cosy dining area with two long tables and windows that look down onto London’s trendy Columbia Road. He’s been a car salesman since he arrived in London in 2015, but in Damascus he was a successful restaurateur. His two restaurants and several juice bars and cafes were all destroyed in Syria’s now six-year long civil war.
In July 2015 he left his family, and set off on a path that countless Syrians have now tread. It took him seven days, going through eight countries, to reach the refugee camp in Calais, France. Two months later he made it to the UK, and one day shy of a year after the day he left, he was joined in London by his wife and two daughters. He describes the months leading up to leaving his home, “With all the war back there, I was very very sure to see my daughters as much as I could – we even used to play before school” he went on, “one year without seeing them, it’s been too much.”
Imad is soft-spoken and quick to smile. He speaks slowly and deliberately about the hardest year of his life, and yet, he is visibly at ease as he multitasks around the kitchen. Members of a volunteer group called UNICEF NextGeneration, which supports refugee families in London, met Imad through one of their campaigns and wanted to help him get back to doing what he loves: cooking. They partnered with the catering company, The Hampstead Kitchen, and Appear Here, a company that finds temporary spaces in London. The idea became a reality in a matter of weeks, and before the end of his first weekend serving home-style Syrian meals, the full two weeks have already sold out.
Imad takes a break from chopping to stir a spiced chicken stew that’s been cooing at a low simmer on the stovetop next to us. He’s cooking dinner for 50 people – two shifts of 25 – but this isn’t his first time cooking for large groups in new places. Imad cooked everyday for fellow refugees in Calais, “We were always 25-35 people. Of course it wasn’t a proper kitchen over there, we were literally in the street, but when there are a lot of good people around you, it’s a little bit more comfortable for you. It’s not scary any more.”
Imad and his growing team of supporters hope to see him open his own brick and mortar spot within the year. Bringing community together around a meal is the thread that ties his past in Damascus to his difficult journey here, and now his future in London. When I ask Imad about the pop-up experience so far, he pauses, “You know, after working 12 hours serving dishes on the dining table, and someone tells me ‘I love it’? Suddenly, I’m fresh like new.”