Being a chef was never on the cards for Imad Alarnab when he was growing up in Damascus. Like many Syrian families, he explains, Alarnab's parents wanted him to become a doctor or engineer. But he was “always passionate about food,” and from a young age would help his mother in the kitchen.
After a brief career in fashion, in 1999 Alarnab managed to convince his father to allow him use of one of his shops, where he began to sell chicken and potato wraps, eventually experimenting with new spices to create Indian- and Mexican-inspired sandwiches. They were a hit, enabling Alarnab to establish his first of three restaurants in the historic city.
Next month, he hopes to open another, this time in London, but it will be a poignant reminder of what he has left behind.
When the Syrian civil war started with major unrest in Damascus and Aleppo in March 2011, Alarnab thought the violence would be over in a matter of months, “something like the other countries in the Arab Spring,” he explains. Alarnab and his family moved house five times in three years from 2012, attempting to evade danger; he was forced to close his three restaurants in the capital: Castelo, which centred on fast food such as shawarma wraps; Al-hatem, which had a weekly changing menu based on home-style cooking; and Panino, a large venue serving “a bit of everything.”
By 2015, Alarnab decided to flee, leaving behind a 13-year career in restaurants as well as his family, some of whom he would never see again. He entered Lebanon, before passing through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany and France, by boat, foot, and bicycle. “It was really, really scary,” he recalls, particularly in Hungary, which he crossed hiding in a car boot. “Everyone was saying if you're caught there they will beat you, it wasn’t really safe.”
After spending 64 nights sleeping on church steps in Calais, brought to an end by an aggressive police force who kicked Alarnab and 13 others out, he finally made it to England, in the back of a lorry, on October 1 – five years ago today.
Alarnab's sister and aunt already lived here and his cousins were born in the UK, but the main incentive to come was the language. Alarnab's mother, Samar, who died just over a month after he arrived in Britain, studied English at university and and instilled the language into him from a young age, reciting Shakespeare’s plays and poems. “She taught me the two things I’m using right now, English and cooking.”
Alarnab now has indefinite leave to remain in the UK, and having started out washing cars, and then selling them, he began a pop-up restaurant in 2017 on Columbia Road in London. “I wanted to cook what my mother used to cook for us, not something you’ll find in every Syrian restaurant,” he explains, favouring the kibbeh (lamb and bulgur meatballs) and fatayer (pastries stuffed with cheese, spinach or lamb) he used to help Samar to make over more well-known classics like shawarma and hummus.
Since arriving in Europe Alarnab has sought to help others who have faced the terror and violence he has: cooking for them in the refugee camp in Calais on a small, gas-powered camping stove, and raising almost £200,000 through his pop-ups for the Choose Love charity, members of whom he met in the camp. Most of it went to support a children’s hospital in Aleppo, and Alarnab plans to donate £1 from every bill at his new London restaurant to the same cause.
He is attempting to reach a £50,000 crowdfund target in order to launch Imad’s Syrian Kitchen permanently in Soho (on the site recently vacated by Asma Khan's Darjeeling Express), which will serve slow-cooked lamb and grilled chicken, served with fresh flatbreads, as well as Syrian mezze including falafel, watermelon halloumi and za’atar salad and fattet makdous, a dish of crispy baby aubergine stuffed with lamb.
Alarnab’s says his take on Syrian cuisine is one that “doesn’t need to be very traditional, it can be more modern, but you need to feel the Syrian taste of it.” Thus, there’s a strong use of spices like cumin, dried mint and smoked paprika in his dishes. "In Syria we like ghee, fat, garlic – strong flavours," he says. "I wanted to, not change the recipes, but make them more acceptable for other cultures to like Syrian food.”
A sense of homeliness, Alarnab hopes, will not only be felt in the food, but the restaurant’s atmosphere, too. “I want people to feel like it’s their own restaurant. They can come and relax.” Much like his previous pop-ups and supper clubs, where guests dined on long, convivial tables (and those who couldn't afford the dinner could come for free falafel), he aims to bring people together. “It will be a bit difficult now, but hopefully in the future we will have two long tables at the restaurant.”
After five years in Britain, Alarnab has fallen in love with the capital. “London is my home, I consider myself a Londoner,” he says, but a return to Damascus, if only to visit friends and family, is never far from his mind. “Every day I hope to go back, but it looks like only a dream right now.”