THE FRENCH-PALESTINIAN CHEF FROM BETHLEHEM
We spoke to French-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan, one of the most famous chefs in Palestine, who in addition to his boutique Hosh Al Syrain he also runs his Fawda restaurant in the heart of Bethlehem. During the pandemic, he started a food-related radio show in which he talks about traditional cuisine, he has also launched Teta’s Kitchen, a travel and cookery series.
WHEN DID YOU REALIZE YOU WANTED TO BECOME A CHEF?
Actually I realized I wanted to be a chef already in my grandmothers and my mothers’ kitchen. It was the love of food, the love of the produce but also the celebration I remember when both entertained, the morning where you start the preparations, and it’s all happening together, the food, the table, the cutlery, the glasses, that moment it is built up to then a fantastic meal, and I love that,
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOUR OVERALL COOKING PHILOSOPHY?
Local, local, local is maybe the shortest way to put it. I love to honor local produce, the quality, the choice of the produce and the marriage of flavors the amalgamation of how can I summarize the taste of Palestine in a mouthful. It is also the approach to waste management, that is zero waste realization. I usually source my produce in Bethlehem in the morning and design the menu of the day.
I really start with the herbs and the vegetables because those come from farmers at the market and the quantity and the quality vary, and I then go to my butchers for the meat element, which is very often something that I have already thought about, and then I finish at the spice place where I buy my grains and my spices.
In the upcoming “London Project” the philosophy is still the same, so it is local produce but as it is a Palestinian project, the produce that is coming from Palestine will mainly be dried cut spices, dried herbs and diary and the fresh produce will be sourced locally. Quite simply, my philosophy is to celebrate Palestinian food.
WHAT WAS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE YOU’VE HAD TO OVERCOME?
In terms of food, when we opened Fawda in Bethlehem, the first gastronomic restaurant of Palestine. I wanted it to be as I dreamed, and that meant training the team to things they have never worked with. I actually trained a team, most of them that had never worked in the restaurant industry before, because that was very important for me to have, I would say, an approach of people discovering a bit of an incredible job.
It is a tough job of being a chef, being a waiter, being a restaurant manager, but it is also about passion and how you learn how you love this, and you have it. The challenge came up, we literally created tables of the sizes we needed, I had to run around to find dry cleaners which were going to accept to use starch on the white tablecloths because that’s what I wanted. You have to remember I came from a former French training, 25 years ago. So a lot of the expectations were not present here, and I think we did for 5 years a great job. Again, it was a fantastic team and a fantastic family support around me, to be able to go on that journey.
WHAT IS THE MAJOR THING YOU WANT TO TEACH THE WORLD ABOUT PALESTINIAN FOOD?
I don’t claim I can teach the world anything, but I do want to share with the world that Palestinian Food exists. It is diverse, like our terroir that goes from the Mediterranean Sea to the desert and to the hill tops of olives and figs, apricots and eggplants. What I really want to share is our traditional cuisine being transformed into a restaurant cuisine with a modernizing approach and something that will help preserve but also share this kitchen more easily.
IS THERE ONE FOOD THAT YOU’RE SECRETLY OBSESSED WITH HAVING AT HOME?
There are many, but olive oil, sumac and zataar I would say are the three I am really obsessed with, I even travel with them. There is one that is not a food, it is coffee. I am obsessed with it also, even when I am doing the shopping for the house, the first item is always coffee.
YOU GIVE PALESTINE CUISINE A MODERN TWIST BY REINTERPRETING TRADITIONAL RECIPES. PLEASE TELL US HOW YOU DO THIS AND WHAT PEOPLE CAN EXPECT IN YOUR RESTAURANT?
I try to honor the produce we have each day. I give you an example, we have a terrific dairy product called jameed, which is dried yogurt, it comes from the Bedouin tradition and how they preserve dairy. Usually it is re-hydrated to make a sauce to make some traditional dishes like mansaf.
I love to use it dry, when you can still break it down with your fingers into small particles. I really enjoy combining methods, there are either very traditional Palestinian or a variation with different herbs. One of the herbs I use a lot is mouloukhiya which is mallow made into stew in Palestine. Actually dehydrate the leaf or fry it and use it to decorate a plate, it is just fabulously crunchy and the taste is great.
WHAT IS YOUR CULINARY GUILTY PLEASURE?
To eat or to cook? For me it is a dish called malfouf which is stuffed cabbage rolls with garlic and lemon. They also contain with rice and meat, I believe my mother makes the best malfouf of the word, and my guilty pleasure is to eat it cold in the middle of the night straigh from the fridge.
My other guilty pleasures are two raw elements, raw lambs liver with just a little squeeze of lemon and olive oil and raw oysters. My guilty pleasure to cook, I suppose, would be working with black tahini made of Nigella seeds. I love working with olive oil because I think it is a fantastic product and I use a lot of it.
WHEN ARE YOU HAPPIEST AT WORK?
There are many moments, one of them is that moment before the first guests walk into the door, where your kitchen is ready, the fresh flowers are on the tables, the candles are lit, the kitchen is buzzing, making sure the mise en place is done for the cooking and reviewing the list of customers coming that night. We are happy that some are returning customers, some are difficult, and some customers are happy because they know what to expect, and we know we can give them an enjoyable time with our food.
The other happy moment is when somebody wants to find out more about our Palestine food. When they ask to talk to me, and at the end they may want to accompany me to the market the following day, I think that is incredible! My last happy moment in the world is when we finish the service and the last desert plate is out, I go sit outside with a strong Espresso or an Arabic coffee, some sparkling water and I have a cigarette. I take a deep breath, and I am very proud of what we have achieved that night.
IS THERE A CHEF YOU ADMIRE MOST?
Yes, there are many chefs that I admire. To make it easy, I will talk about three chefs. The first is a historical chef, and that is Escoffier. One of my most beautiful lessons was when one of the chefs that was teaching said: Here is the Le Guide Culinaire of Escoffier, take it home, put it under your pillow and that is going to be your Bible, your Koran, your best friend, your Torah, whatever you want it to be for the next few months.
I think that it is Escoffier who did something fantastic, which qualified French cuisine. When you are modernizing a cuisine, you are actually coming from a foundation that is qualified. In Palestinian cuisine we don’t have one book that qualifies, it is actually oral transmission, and therefore I would say if I get to choose two, it would be Escoffier for the French cuisine but also the methods and the equivalent in Palestine are the tetas, the grandmothers because they are the chefs that preserve the cuisine.
The second chef, who is also from the past, is called Yacoub Salbis He is Palestinian from Jerusalem, sadly he passed away a few years ago. He was the first chef in Palestine to really work with our kitchen and did incredible work. The third chef, who is today for me a great inspiration, is Massimo Bottura. As I said earlier, I learned how to cook in my grandmothers’ kitchen. She was also the one who founded the Arab Women’s Union which had a section in the organization that does food, and what they do is, on one side they employ women to cook, to create food, but also they have another social responsibility which is to share food with people who are going through a tough time.
Massimo has managed to create some- thing beautiful with his philosophy, from which I learned a lot. I would say his books, his inter- views are the things I use and read a lot. Not only that, but I think he put his fingers where it hurts in the food chain and that is food waste, and how we are responsible, and that links me a lot to the past, actually at the time when there was no powdered broth, you made your broth with what was left over in the kitchen, you used the bones and that is what I do in my kitchen. That is what a lot of chefs do and what our grandmothers used to do.
WHAT ARE YOUR NEXT PROJECTS AND FUTURE PLANS?
We are planing a food project in London that is really exciting, and also a few pop-ups in different locations. The Teta’s kitchen series, where I like to go around the country and meet with grandmothers and cook with them. There are a few episodes yet to be made, so I am really looking forward to meeting and seeing the grandmothers, continuing every day to share about Palestinian food and continuing to cook.
The thing I miss the most is that sacred moment when you light the gas burners in your kitchen and the light comes in, that is the moment when you start to cook, I miss that moment very much, and I am looking forward to lighting the gas in the restaurant again and hearing the first pan going on the gas.
The full article was first published in Issue 15