A hungry visitor to the West Bank might typically be confronted with Palestinian dishes such as falafel, za'atar bread, the rice and chicken mix known as makloubeh, or the sweet, syrupy knafeh dessert that is the signature dish of Nablus. But, in the famed holy town of Bethlehem, a revolution in Palestinian cooking is afoot.
Palestinian fare is traditionally cooked at home, infused with elements of cuisine from the different cultures that settled in the region and inspired by the areas from which their people were exiled at Israel's birth. Recipes are passed down from generation to generation, dictated by family tradition. This makes it difficult for the most enthusiastic of diners to find the best that Palestine has to offer.
Most Palestinians do not have the opportunity to put their cuisine on show to the wider world. The Israeli occupation is slowly chipping away at their homeland, their colourful creations cloaked behind the grey, barbed-wire wall. But Bethlehemite chef Fadi Kattan is changing that, and he wants to hold on to what’s left.
The only thing that counts is good cuisine
The 40-year-old chef is attracting locals, foreign nationals and diplomats to the boutique Hosh Al Syrian guesthouse in Old Bethlehem, with Palestinian gourmet fare brought to life by French cooking techniques. And he’s doing it within the confines of occupation, hand-picking local produce from the bustling nearby farmers’ market and the villages of the West Bank.
“What am I trying to do? Transform Palestinian cuisine that is traditional, often home-cooked food, into a gourmet dining experience,” he says.
The food perfected by Palestinians has long been at the centre of a tense struggle with Israel, the country that they say has not only sought to appropriate their land since its birth in 1948, but their food, too. Fadi wants to put authentic fare on his diners’ plates, but most importantly, the food must be impeccable.
"There is no difference between modern and traditional cuisine, there's only one thing that counts, and it's good cuisine," he says. "That's what we live by here at the restaurant. If it doesn't taste good, we'll do something else. But if it works, it works. Just be creative, don't limit yourselves."
The chef comes from one of the oldest Christian families in Bethlehem, growing up in the holy town just off Star Street, its most famous boulevard. Kattan has obtained a wealth of culinary experience to bring to dining tables behind the wall, from the Lycee Francais de Jerusalem, a French international school in the city, to an Italian restaurant in Paris, the InterContinental Hyde Park Corner in London and the InterContinental Bethlehem that closed during the Second Intifada.
He opened the Hosh complex and its Fawda Cafe, a gastronomic surprise hidden along an old town alleyway, to customers in 2015. Fawda is Arabic for “anarchy”, but the restaurant is anything but.
'We don’t care about religion, we don’t care about politics'
Kattan pushes his young Palestinian kitchen team – two Muslims and two Christians – to love their craft and strive for perfection, a challenge they appear to relish. “What I think I learnt from all of the people I worked with is … enjoying cooking,” he says.
“I sometimes laugh when I see chefs who are being extremely serious, and they are not enjoying what they are doing. It’s too much.”
The restaurant’s staff is symbolic of the wider diversity in the town, where the Unesco-listed Church of the Nativity – believed to sit on the site of Jesus’ birthplace – stands alongside the Mosque of Omar in Manger Square.
Kattan’s restaurant is a space for young Palestinian cooks to learn new skills from a top chef and step out of the conflict’s shadow. “We don’t care about religion, we don’t care about politics,” says a 22-year-old waiter. Kattan says his restaurant is about “making people happy, and not just outside the kitchen”. To that end, Kattan’s staff have broad smiles on their faces.
He walks around Bethlehem in preparation for the night's meal. He walks into a shop to talk spices. Metres away, he shakes his breadmaker's hand, before engaging in small-talk with market vendors selling him fresh radishes and cauliflowers. His final stop is the most important: the butcher. The Natsheh family have joints of lamb hung, aged, prepared and ready to be cut and swept away by Kattan for the evening's main event. He admits that his passion in the kitchen is working with meat and, as the chef bounces around the butcher's, you would not think otherwise.
Preparation begins at around 5pm every day for a 7pm start. Kattan cajoles his workers to pass him pots, pans and serve his every command. The restaurant looks impeccable. The tablecloths, ironed with starch, sit pristine under dimmed lights. The chef stays out of sight during service. He is charismatic and commands attention, but in the two hours of dining, he doesn’t need to say anything. The food speaks for itself. The dishes could be served in any restaurant lining the high-end boulevards of Paris.
'I enjoyed my food, but I knew what I wanted'
The amuse-bouche is a French dish that the chef says often confuses diners. The roasted cauliflower and radishes served on a slate are not meant as a starter, but to warm the palette for what is to come. A crunchy maftoul salad follows, filled with mint, parsley, chickpeas, green beans, green onions, radish stalks and a crunch provided by hazelnuts, walnuts, pine nuts and toasted almonds.
The fukhara – a traditional Palestinian dish cooked in a large clay pot and served with a freekeh (roasted grain) gratin – steals the show. Whereas Gazan offerings are defined by spice and seafood, West Bank food is typically hearty, heavy and meaty, and Kattan’s restaurant does not disappoint. A soft and rich chocolate mousse coupled with a crunchy, roasted pear completes the evening.
Kattan’s inspiration comes from his grandmother’s kitchen. She founded the Arab Women’s Union in Bethlehem – the first in the town – entertaining many guests. His grandfather would take him to hotels on holiday in Paris to introduce him to a variety of new flavours. If his grandfather forgot to take him, Kattan would cause a stir.
“I was young, and I was difficult with food. I enjoyed my food, but I knew what I wanted,” he says. This attitude is reflected in his restaurant. He picks his produce on the day, the menu changing with the ingredients available to him.
When high-level figures come through, such as UN Middle East envoy Nickolay Mladenov or the Maltese foreign minister, they get a fresh Kattan creation. He even cooks for their security details. “I think it’s rude to leave people sitting outside for five hours,” he says.
A much-needed tourism boost
The chef’s efforts are now being steadily recognised. This year, Hosh Al Syrian was crowned by TripAdvisor as one of the top 25 guesthouses in the Middle East, as chosen by travellers themselves. For Bethlehem’s authorities, Kattan is providing a much-needed boost to tourism numbers in the town of 36,000 with his authentic experience.
“I don’t want them to stay in a 10-storey building. I want them to see the Old Town, the old values, the Hosh, the arches,” says Anton Yousef Marcos, General Manager of Bethlehem Municipality. “This is very important. This is what Fadi provides the visitor; this uniqueness.”
As many Bethlehemites leave the town because of the effects of Israel’s military occupation – for what Marcos says are greater economic opportunities outside of the barrier – Kattan, who refuses to cook alongside Israeli chefs, plans to remain. He says he will renew the agreement with the municipality for the Hosh this year.
The chef sums up his fine-dining experience when speaking of his restaurant’s flowers being delivered, pointing to a wilted rose. “That’s yesterday’s. If it was today, I would just throw it in his face,” he says of his florist. The same principle applies to the fish, meat, herbs and greens at the core of his inventions, they must be fresh.
“It’s precision. It’s perfection. And, it’s a bit obsessive,” he says.
This high level of cuisine would fool even the most savvy into thinking that Bethlehem is not a town at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And, as you walk back to your stone-walled room at the Hosh, sated after a four-course Kattan spread, you do forget about it, if only for a moment. That may be the Palestinian chef’s greatest achievement.