Food From The Heart: Imad’s Syrian Kitchen Charity Pop-up At Pikes

Posted on August 23, 2019

Words: Olivia Ebeling

Images: Tamara Sini

Imad Alarnab has one of those rare personalities that it’s impossible not to fall in love with from the second you meet them. Despite having suffered losses, dangers and cruelties of war that are unimaginable to most of us, he radiates warmth, positivity and hope. His smile is genuine and infectious, and right now, he has good reason to be happy, with his latest culinary pop-up at Pikes Ibiza another sell-out success. But instead of lining his own pockets, the Syrian chef is giving back to those less fortunate than him.

Before the civil war began to ravage his home country, Imad was a successful restaurateur in Damascus running three popular eateries. But, like many other innocent civilians, he faced losing everything when two of his restaurants were bombed. Hoping things would get better, he struggled on for three years before making the momentous decision to leave Syria in a bid to find safety and a new life in the UK for himself and his family.

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Imad was one of the lucky refugees who made it safely across borders and treacherous seas to the shores of Calais, where he and his 13 friends slept on rough on the steps of a church for 64 days. There, he would use his cooking skills to feed his own group of 14, but at times up to 50 people every day. His first work in the UK was to sell cars, but with the support from charities he eventually returned to his lifelong vocation and developed the concept for Imad’s Syrian Kitchen and Imad’s Falafel Bar. Serving up the authentic flavours of his home country, in collaboration with Help Refugees and their concept store Choose Love the culinary pop-ups have raised thousands in funds to help improve the lives of those who are suffering the same fate as Imad.

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2018 saw Imad’s Syrian Kitchen pop up on the White Isle for the first time in the shape of a Syrian-inspired supper club at the legendary Pikes Ibiza. After the success of the first event, this summer he has returned for four exclusive dates at the quirky boutique hotel, with the final date set for September 17th. Having established a bit of a gourmet fanbase here on the island, the talented chef is changing the menu for each event to make sure returning diners can taste something new. We were given the chance to talk to Imad on the night of his latest sell-out supper club and talk to him about his incredible journey and the message of hope he has found within his darkest hours…

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Thank you so much for your time, Imad. How has your summer at Pikes and on Ibiza been going so far?
I love everything about this island. People are extremely friendly, which is the most important thing to me, and it’s a real melting pot of cultures and nationalities.  The pop-up has been really busy from day one, sold out and even overbooked! At the first event, we had some little struggles but now everything runs smoothly. We have doubled the numbers, but we’re having fun in the kitchen and this spirit to me is very important. I’m very relaxed in my kitchen and I don’t like working in a stressful environment. I prefer a cosy, friendly kitchen and this was something Pikes has provided easily. Lee [Milne, executive chef at Pikes] and his team are very professional and everyone at the hotel has been so welcoming.

You want to show diners ‘the real taste of Syria’. How did you create the menu?
The dishes are either traditionally Syrian or my own creations, but we are trying to cater for all tastes; from specialist diets like vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free to seasonal plates. But we also wanted to include something from Ibiza, so a few days before we started working on the menu I came out to the island to see what I can find in the markets and on the farms. I found these small, purple aubergines that are amazing, and I love the tomatoes. So we try to take something local and season it with Syrian spices.

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For the uninitiated, can you tell us more about Syrian food?
Damascus is the oldest city ever, so I think this is what makes Syrian cuisine very special. And due to the country’s geographical location between Asia, Africa and Europe, you can find a lot of Greek, Turkish and Spanish – even Indian – influences. We must have hundreds of vegan and vegetarian dishes, for example, which is something other chefs might be struggling to find. Then, there is also the sociable and sharing aspect. I have 14 uncles and in 1990 we were 98 cousins – after that, we stopped counting. So this sold-out dinner at Pikes tonight is like Friday breakfast with my family!

How important is the element of sharing food in your culture?
In Syrian, we get together for family meals all the time. Food is a very important part of our life and even if we go to see a movie, we have to plan the food we will have before or after. We have this saying that translates to, ‘It’s not about the food, it’s about the being together.’ And when you invite someone to your house, even if you make the simplest thing it’s better to us than a five-star caterer – because it comes from the heart. Honestly, I think this is the reason for the success of Syrian Kitchen. I have never, ever, cooked a dish when I wasn’t feeling it. Even if it means changing the menu at the last minute, which has happened before, if I’m not feeling it that night I’m not making it. When you do something with love, people can feel it.

Has food always been your passion?
Yes, always. But I actually started out working in fashion design because a lot of our family members, including my father, work in textiles. My mother knew it wasn’t right for me. She was the best cook ever and I learned from her. She taught me the two most important things in my life: how to speak English and cooking. Unfortunately she passed away 40 days after I left Damascus.

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You have been on an incredible journey. What was it like to leave your country and starting afresh in the UK?
I lost my business in 2012 but I stayed for three more years hoping that one day soon things would get better. I didn’t want to leave Syria and I home-schooled my three daughters for three years, but it was very difficult for us. They are not demanding, but they need and deserve a safe life and a good education. It took me three months to get from Syria to London. It was a long journey, but I was determined to get to England because my mother had taught me how to speak English. I’m quite old to learn a new language, but when you know the country’s language at least you can work.

What happened when you reached Europe?
I found love in Europe from the day that I arrived and whatever I do, I cannot do enough to give it back. I went from Turkey to Greece on a small boat that was supposed to be for nine people, but in our desperation we fit 54 passengers on it. When we reached the shore, there was an old lady from Norway who welcomed us, telling us not to worry and that we were safe. I remember her smile, and she was happier that we had made it than I was myself to be alive. Later, when I asked about her, someone told me that she had returned to Norway that day. She was on her way to the airport and when she saw our boat on the horizon, she said, ‘This is my last boat to help’ and waited for us on the beach.

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You and your group were sleeping on the streets in Calais for over two months…
It was a challenge. We only had a small camping stove and one knife to cook with. In my group of friends there were 14 including myself, but some days we were cooking for up to 45, 50 people. It just depended who was around, and sometimes we would cook for the volunteers and the neighbours, too. In the beginning, the people living nearby were scared of us but the food helped to build a bridge. There was a lady, who I am now very good friends with, who would make us tea every morning. She would leave it next to our heads where we were sleeping, with a smiling face drawn on it. At noon, she would return to collect the cups for cleaning and to say hello. She never gave up on us. For 64 days, she would do the same every single day. It’s people like that who helped me to restore my faith in humanity.

It’s amazing that you can look back on this time with a smile on your face…
I think that this part of my life, so far, is the most important one. The last four years that I was in Syria, I almost gave up. I had a very dark view of the whole world, but the amazing human beings I met on my way to London helped me to get back to a better place. It has made me and my daughters appreciate what we have now.

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You have been reunited with your family and started a series of successful pop-ups, mainly based around London. What’s next?
My daughters joined me a year after I left Damascus and they are doing very well now at their school in London. They are amazing girls; the oldest one is very smart, the middle one is the funny one and the youngest one is just naughty! I’m very proud of them. After the success of the pop-ups, now we are trying very hard to find a permanent location for a restaurant. But it has got to be the right one because there will only be one Imad’s Syrian Kitchen!

Imad’s Falafel Bar has also become hugely popular. Is it true that you give away food for free to those who can’t afford it?
This is something that we would never even think about in Syria, it goes without saying that you look after the people within your community. In England, we have noticed that people are a little bit afraid to ask so I want them to know that it’s okay, and make it as easy as possible for them. Just tell the people at the till that you are not going to pay – or simply say nothing. No one will ask you for proof or say anything. It’s food, and everyone has got the right to eat. And I feel that if I can give away one portion for free, I’m even happier than the person receiving it.

What has been the biggest learning from your experience that you would like to pass on?
Before the revolution in Syria, I had a small empire. And losing it was very hard, but without losing it I could never appreciate what I have now as much as I do. What I would like to tell the people of Europe is, protect what you have and keep it safe. And the only way you can do this is to stand together and love each other. Just be nice to other people.

The next Choose Love: A Syrian Inspired Supper Club will take place at Pikes Ibiza on September 17th. For more information and to reserve a table, head to www.pikesibiza.com. Click through for more information on Choose Love and Help Refugees.

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