For Tamim Abdo, the decision to open an Italian restaurant in the garden of his family home was not made despite Lebanon’s economic crisis, but because of it.
“We want to make food, we want to be happy,” he tells The National while hand rolling gnocchi. “But the main reason is that I don’t want to sit not doing anything, because this would make you feel more useless. And if you’re working, if you’re doing something, you’re going to feel more alive.”
Abdo’s first experience of cooking for a large number of people was during the nationwide protest movement that swept Lebanon in the autumn and winter of 2019. He and his mother set up a kitchen in Al Nour Square in Tripoli, the northern Lebanese city’s protest hub.
“We used to everyday wake up in the morning, cook until two, three o’clock, and then go down to Al Nour Square to do the service. We had only one table, one gas and one stove,” he recalls.
The protest movement, while exhausting and sometimes dangerous, gave young people like Abdo a sense of optimism and community solidarity. But the movement was unable to sustain itself as winter turned to spring, and then the Covid-19 pandemic began.
Lebanon was also hit by a series of crises: as well as the coronavirus, there was the port explosion on August 4 in 2020 and, all the while, the complete collapse of the economy, which brought with it skyrocketing inflation and a nationwide fuel crisis.
But when Abdo saw a portable kiosk for sale, he also saw an opportunity. Preferring the security and control of using the family’s home over setting up the kiosk on the street, he towed it to the back garden and adapted a large metal-framed tent they’d used during the protest movement to cover the dining area.
Abdo’s menu is limited. Due to the country's economic crisis, he can’t afford the meat he would have cooked for hundreds during the early days of the protests.
Nevertheless, cooking from home brings its own advantages. Abdo has direct access to his kitchen garden, full of ingredients that fit right into his favourite Italian dishes. What’s more, a lot of these ingredients grow easily in Lebanon’s climate.
“We’re both Mediterranean cuisines,” he says. “So we use a lot of common vegetables and herbs.”
Tamim’s Kitchen has now been open, from Friday to Sunday, for almost two months. The restaurant has had steady bookings, but for Abdo this is about more than just money and keeping busy. A friend sent him $100 from abroad, which was used to provide meals to people who don’t have means to pay otherwise.
“Up until now we’ve given 10 plates to people that are maybe shy to tell you that they don’t have any money,” says Abdo. "We have to help each other more. We have to look out for each other everyday. Because this is the only way we’re going to build a country.”