Road from Damascus: The Syrian restaurateur serving London’s foodies the tastes of his homeland

Chef who supported refugees through pop-up projects now runs permanent kitchen

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Imad Al Arnab knows a lot about overcoming major obstacles, which is perhaps why the Syrian refugee remains cheerful despite a long wait to open his own restaurant during the pandemic.

After years of hopeful toiling, he was set to open Imad's Syrian Kitchen to the public on the day England entered its third lockdown in January.

"One thing I can tell you is that the food bank in the area was very, very happy about it," Imad tells The National, with a joviality that is something of a trademark.

He admits the aborted launch was difficult and disheartening, especially for a start-up business counting the pennies, but he has a resoluteness to match his joviality. When his new business failed to open, he forged ahead with his burgeoning social media presence, and set up a pop-up falafel bar in front of his restaurant to make the most of lockdown restrictions being eased this week.

Given the many setbacks he has faced over the past few years, it is perhaps no surprise that he is undeterred by the tumult of the past year. In his native Damascus, Imad was a chef who ran two successful restaurants and a chain of juice bars he built up over a decade. A year into the civil war that has now spanned a decade, his businesses were destroyed and he spent the next three years in an agitated flux.

When the violence peaked in 2015, he joined the millions of Syrians fleeing the unrelenting conflict, to neighbouring Lebanon with his family before embarking on the perilous journey across Europe alone.

After three months through 10 countries in which he ran, cycled, took a train, a boat and slept on the steps of a church in Calais for 64 days, Imad arrived in London in October 2015.

As he settled into life as a refugee, he put aside his passion for food and took up work as car salesman. Once his family – including his three young daughters – had joined him in England in July 2016, he set about reigniting his culinary ambitions.

Initially unsure of how the UK market would receive him, Imad took tentative steps by hosting supper clubs for friends and posting on social media. The overwhelmingly positive feedback and a dash of support from an entrepreneur pushed him forward. He opened his first pop-up restaurant in east London, in March 2017 in support of Unicef’s work in Syria, to rave reviews, and has since run more than a dozen in England, France, Germany and Spain.

Imad is an active member of the Choose Love (formerly Help Refugees) movement, which helps raise funds to support refugees. His pop-ups he have raised funds for various charitable initiatives – from helping young people start their own careers, to the homeless in London and a hospital in northern Aleppo.

"My part in it is to give back to the community and at least say thank you to the supporters of refugees," he tells The National.

For Imad, mixing charity with business has been a professional and personal gain. “It made me feel good about my income, to be honest, to share it with someone else. I had really tough years between 2012 and 2015, especially during my journey to Europe, it was really, really difficult and now … I feel like I can pay back to this community. It makes me feel brilliant,” he explains.

Of the many sumptuous Syrian dishes Imad has offered his long line of happy customers, he says his homemade falafel and hummus are the biggest hits. The more traditional kibbeh in yoghurt sauce – a popular delicacy in Syria – proved less popular.

Imad’s Syrian Kitchen. Courtesy Imad Al Arnab

“My family ended up eating it for 10 days because no one would try cooked yoghurt, which was a huge surprise because in Syria it's a big deal for us,” he says, laughing.

Despite that experience, he says being in London allows him to be more experimental with his food than he could be in Syria.

“When you serve Syrian food for non-Syrian people, it’s much easier and you can be creative. They're much more picky about being traditional and following the rules,” he says of a people renowned for gastronomic excellence and pride.

Slow-cooked lamb shoulder, ouzi (a rice, peas and lamb dish wrapped in pastry) and a halloumi orange salad are some of the culinary delights on his menu when his restaurant finally opens – rules permitting – in the middle of May.

He says he doesn’t want to put people off with too much fanciful fare and is focused on providing top-quality home cooking.

He has visited his shuttered restaurant every week during lockdown, taking great care to water his jasmine plants, Syria’s ubiquitous flower. He says he wants to create a calm, quiet and simple atmosphere reminiscent of the traditional courtyards of a Damascene house.

After the England's third lockdown cancelled the restaurant's big opening, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen in central London will finally open its door to the public in mid-May once restrictions have eased. Courtesy Imad Al Arnab

“I want people to look at me in the kitchen, look at how we are cooking. If they are curious to learn something from the kitchen, that would be amazing. If they want to know how we do stuff, that would be great.”

The disappointment of the most recent lockdown was undoubtedly balanced out by the welcome news from the Home Office granting his indefinite leave to remain in the UK. Calling it "a relief", he is overjoyed to know that the city he calls the "capital of the world" will be his permanent home.

“In London, you can find someone from everywhere, you can find something from everywhere. I have never been short of tahini, sumak, hummus – everything I need is here.

“I feel like I am in this incredible community. I didn't want to bring my Syrian community to London. I just wanted to be part of the community here.”

Luckily, Imad feels very much a part of his community. He lives with his family in a house with a garden in the suburbs, surrounded by neighbours he calls family, and he has a community of helpful friends he calls his "angels".

“For a period of time … I felt desperate. Those people made me believe again, those people made me feel alive again.”

Now the chef is focused on bringing the tastes and textures of his homeland back to life.

Imad's Syrian Kitchen pop-up is on Ganton Street in central London and is a partnership with Choose Love. And £2 ($2.75) from every box bought will be donated to help fund meals for people living in refugee camps.

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