Homeless Lebanese dishwasher becomes Michelin-starred chef

One of alan Geaam’s favorite dishes at the moment is “an escalope of foie gras lacquered with pomegranate molasses served with a tartlette of beetroot and pomegranate. (AFP)
Updated 09 February 2018
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Homeless Lebanese dishwasher becomes Michelin-starred chef

PARIS: When Lebanese chef Alan Geaam first arrived in Paris two decades ago he found himself sleeping on the streets, lost and penniless with hardly a word of French.
This week Geaam, who began his career as a dishwasher while he was sleeping rough in a Paris park, received his first Michelin star from the French gastronomic bible for his acclaimed new restaurant within a stone’s throw of the Arc de Triomphe.
“I never thought the Michelin would be interested in someone like me, who was self-taught, who had to sleep in the street at 19 and who began as a dishwasher,” he said.
“I thought the guide was about chefs in big fancy hotels or those trained by the great masters. But it turned out to be the opposite. It’s a wonderful surprise,” said the 43-year-old, who was born to Lebanese parents in Liberia, before they exchanged one war zone for another by returning to Beirut.
By then Geaam’s fascination with food was clear, watching cookery shows on television rather than cartoons after school.
He started cooking while doing his national service in Lebanon, and the colonel of his regiment was so impressed he made him his personal chef.
But Geaam never thought we would be able to cut the mustard in France, and only got his break when the chef of the restaurant where he was washing the dishes was rushed to hospital when he slashed his hand with a knife.
“I worked during the day as a construction worker and at night delivering pizzas and washing dishes. One night the cook cut his hand and had to go to hospital. No one asked me, but I just took over. There were 14 tables and so I just feed the customers and at the end of the night they were delighted.
“The owner said to me, ‘But you can cook!’ and I said, ‘Yes.’“
“The reason I cook is to make people happy,” said Geaam. And he has certainly spread joy among restaurant critics with Michelin’s rival Gault Millau guide raving about his langoustines and chard and its dark chocolate-colored sauce tinged with Vietnamese cardamom.
Alexander Lobrano, author of “Hungry for Paris,” was even more effusive, declaring this “gentle, shrewd, self-taught chef as one of quiet men of Paris gastronomy ... who has a brilliant future ahead of him.”
Although Geaam delights in bringing the very best of French produce to his table, Lobrano said he also brings the “tender buds of his very personal cooking that makes references to the lost world of a little boy born to a foreign family living in tropical Africa.”
And the influence of his Lebanese roots is never far away either.
One of Geaam’s favorite dishes at the moment is “an escalope of foie gras lacquered with pomegranate molasses served with a tartlette of beetroot and pomegranate.
“I ate a lot of pomegranates when I was a kid,” he said. “I made juice with them, I made lots of reductions with them, and I loved putting this very Lebanese touch with something so French as foie gras.”
Since Geaam got his Michelin star on Monday night his restaurant’s phone has not stopped ringing.
His said his small, tight team of highly-talented chefs — whose CVs he admits look far more impressive than his own — “really feel that something has happened in our lives.
“You can criticize the Michelin guide but I can tell you the effect, a star massively boosts a restaurant.”
Within hours the restaurant was booked up for three weeks. “It is quite something,” he said.
Geaam, who told how his son boasted to his friends at school that his father got a Michelin star, put his success down to his own parents, who “lost everything” in Liberia only to have to struggle again in Lebanon during the civil war.
He said working with his father in his grocery shop from the age of 10 gave him a taste for business while his mother “taught me how to love people and how to cook.”


Startup of the Week: For the love of chocolate

Joudy Delights take part in many of Jeddah’s public events. (Supplied)
Updated 11 December 2018
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Startup of the Week: For the love of chocolate

  • The store offers additional flavors every month for a limited time

The love for chocolates transcends geographical boundaries, ideologies and cultures. Chocolates are considered a must in times of happiness and to express one’s feelings all across the world.
Saudis also share the love for sweets or chocolates with rest of the world. People in this part of the world do not mind trying different kinds of chocolates — from traditional Arab ones to their European counterparts from as far as Switzerland.
Keeping in view the huge popularity of chocolates in the Kingdom, a Saudi couple decided to launch their own business in 2017. Joudy Delights is a local, home-based specialized chocolate brand that is produced with the highest quality ingredients. The Jeddah-based store is run by 25-year-old housewife Wejdan Shaheen and 29-year-old private sector employee Rakan Nejaim.
Due to stiff competition in this business, it is necessary for an entrepreneur to come up with a novel idea so as to gain an edge over his competitors.
The couple, faced with the same dilemma, chose to introduce a delicious dessert in the market.
“Any new idea needs to go through a lot of experiments. We also had to face the situation when we decided to introduce our famous chocoballs. The finalized version of the product took some time. We had to carefully select the best combination of chocolate and suitable stuffing,” said Nejaim.
Joudy Delights offers milk chocolate, dark chocolate and white chocolate that are filled with two types of different chocolates and two types of biscuits which Shaheen calls their “secret mix.”
The store also offers additional flavors every month for a limited time.
“The milk chocolate chocoballs or what we call our original chocoballs is our most popular product,” said Shaheen.
The number of orders per week differs depending on the season, said Nejaim. “But we receive on an average 65-70 orders per week.”
Joudy Delights take part in many of Jeddah’s public events.
“Many of our clients prefer our products at family gatherings like weddings etc.,” Shaheen said.
The store is planning to expand its reach outside Jeddah, and is likely to introduce a delivery service. Joudy Delights can be found at local Saudi talent shop Crate, located in Al-Salamah district.