PARIS: Chef Alan Geaam has two flags sewn onto the collar of his white coat: The Lebanese — representing his homeland, where his love of cooking began — and the French, symbolizing the fact that Paris has been his adopted home for the past two decades, the city where his dreams came true.
Geaam grew up in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli during Lebanon’s disastrous Civil War. His mother’s cooking provided some respite from the horrors.
“Despite the war, my mother was always cooking over a pot, adding spices, and the smell of the food would emerge,” Geaam tells Arab News. “Everything that we lost in the war was compensated with my mother’s cooking.”
From a young age, Geaam had high ambitions. “French food is internationally famous. I would see it in magazines and on the television, and I said to myself that someday I would go to Paris and learn,” he said. “Some children want to go to the moon or be Superman. I wanted to learn about cooking in Paris.”
Within his family, some members of which were engineers or doctors, there was skepticism about Geaam’s career choice.
“I told my mother that I wanted to become a chef,” he says. “(I explained that) in France, a chef is very respected, like a lawyer or a doctor.”
Geaam finally made his life-changing move to the French capital in 1999, when he was in his twenties. It was anything but easy. He traveled by himself, he didn’t speak French, he didn’t know anyone, and his visa was valid for just seven days.
“I had 200 Francs — that’s 30 Euros — in my pocket,” Geaam recalls.
He landed his first day job cleaning out workshops, in which he also slept. At night, he worked in a Lebanese snack bar, helping out and learning from the chef, until one day things took a turn.
“The chef didn’t come to work and I said, ‘This is my opportunity.’ I jumped right into cooking and did the service,” said Geaam.
Over time, Geaam’s situation slowly improved. Aside from his professional growth, he received a residency permit and started teaching himself French by reading books. He also changed his name — from Azzam to Alan. “It was easier for people to pronounce,” he says. “Honestly, I didn’t have confidence in my story. I didn’t learn at school and I was ashamed of that. Eighteen years later, I broke that barrier and I’m proud of my story.” He adds that he hopes others will find inspiration in that story.
“I was a young Lebanese man with no money and no education,” he says. “I started from zero — even below zero. All of us can reach our goals, but we need to wake up in the morning, work hard, and not give up.”
In 2017, Geaam opened Restaurant Alan Geaam, a fine-dining concept that presents Lebanese cuisine in a sophisticated French style. The following year, something of a miracle happened. “I got a phone call at 6:30 and they told me, ‘Welcome to the Michelin family. You got a star this year,’” he said.
In the country that has the most Michelin-starred restaurants, Geaam claims he is the first Lebanese chef to have his restaurant attain the most-coveted honor in the gastronomic world. The French press has taken note too; Geaam has received mentions in Le Figaro and Libération.
“It’s a dream to open a restaurant, but what’s even nicer is when you open a restaurant that gets a Michelin star,” he says. “It’s proof that your food is delicious and you’re clever.”
Geaam has also set up a number of casual eateries in the city’s third arrondisement — Qasti Bistro, Qasti Shawarma and Grill, and Saj, la Galette Libanaise — as well as a small food store, Le Doukane, providing products imported from Lebanon, combining to create what Geaam calls “a Lebanese neighborhood.”
With its authentic Levantine flavors and generous hospitality, Qasti Bistro has proven very popular and is often packed with customers munching on warm shawarmas, falafel sandwiches, or hummus.The wavy blue patterns of its interior are reminiscent of the Mediterranean waters off Lebanon.
Geaam clearly likes to keep busy. Aside from his Parisian enterprises, he recently launched a new branch of Qasti in the coastal town of Marseille. With an autobiography/recipe book in the making as well, it seems Geaam’s story is only just beginning.