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.”


Babel La Mer: Dining aboard the fisherman’s deck

Updated 10 August 2018
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Babel La Mer: Dining aboard the fisherman’s deck

  • Mezze is already a full-on feast of its own, and Babel knows how to put an ocean-twist on the traditional champions of Lebanon’s “tapas”
  • “Arabic restaurants depend on how good their hummus is”

Standing tall at the southern entrance of Dubai’s trendy, seaside open-air strip La Mer, Lebanese restaurant Babel welcomes diners to enjoy a Mediterranean seafood experience.

Upon entering the high-ceilinged restaurant, diners are met with a faux-night sky that hovers above the wide selection of fresh fish tidily nestled on a bed of ice chips that stretches across the hall. Charbel, an experienced fish connoisseur, stands behind the assortment, detailing the different types of fish and crustaceans and how they would be best enjoyed — grilled, fried or raw. He’s also there to make sure you don’t over-order, as the mezze selection is “extremely rich and worth every bite,” as he put it.

He was right. After taking our seats, we were served a delightful salty algae, a tangy chili sauce and the typical Lebanese mixed nuts and sunflower seeds you’d find at any Lebanese restaurant. Be sure to only take a bit of each though — there’s plenty more to come. 

Mezze is already a full-on feast of its own, and Babel knows how to put an ocean-twist on the traditional champions of Lebanon’s “tapas.” Among the winners — and highly recommended dishes that are must-orders for any first-time (and surely second- or third-) visitors — were the shrimps fatteh (a bed of shrimps sautéed with garlic, lemon and parsley topped with yoghurt, eggplants and fried pita bread) and Tabboulet El Bahar (Arabic for Sailor’s Tabbouleh) which features shrimps mixed with wheat sprouts, tomatoes, onions and parsley. It’s refreshing when experimentation with classic staples yields mouthwatering results.

My father always told me, “Arabic restaurants depend on how good their hummus is.” And as he’s a heavy-set, stubborn Lebanese man who refuses to have a below-par bite, you can take his word for it. He would, I believe, have ordered three plates of the Hummus Beiruti for the table. It’s a pleasantly tangy dish mixed with radishes, parsley and mint. This, accompanied by the well-dressed shrimps and octopus à la Provençale (read: sautéed with garlic, lemon and parsley) and small, crispy cubes of batata harra (spicy potatoes) are the deserving opening acts to the much-awaited main show.

Charbel recommended we go with the ultimate trifecta of the ocean — the prongs of Poseidon’s trident: Grilled jumbo shrimps, fried Sultan Ibrahim (threadfin bream) and charcoal-grilled sea bass. Seafood is all about freshness and too much seasoning can overpower the natural flavors and ruin the whole experience. But Babel makes sure it’s the fish flavor that takes center stage. Small bits of burnt charcoal on the butterfly-opened sea bass complemented the tender fish flesh, as they did on the jumbo shrimps. The Sultan Ibrahim was lightly fried — not so much as to have Greenpeace protest an oil spill, but enough to make the outer skin crunchy with every bite and keep the inner flesh soft and succulent. 

After all that, it’s safe to say that we weren’t just stuffed... we were primed to explode. 

After clearing the table, our server brought us the desert menu, only for us to rapidly wave him away — “Please, no more...” — while patting our bloated bellies. However, he insisted we try the Ghazlieh, the Arabic version of cotton candy, topped with lotus-cookie chunks and caramel sauce. Our resolve already defeated by the mere description of this — and, honestly, what’s an Arabic feast without desert? — we gracefully acquiesced.

I woke up the next morning wishing I had had more of it. The featherlight cotton candy hairs melted into sugar crystals on the tip of our tongues while swing dancing with the cookie bits and caramel sauce, only to be lit up by the vanilla ice-cream hidden at the bottom.

Stop salivating and book a table.