Anissa Helou interview: Accidental Cook

Food writer, chef and entrepreneur tells us how she found her way to the head of the food industry’s table
Helou tried her hand at art and antiques before moving into the food industry
By Massoud A. Derhally
Thu 02 May 2013 04:10 PM

For someone who became a cook by accident, Anissa Helou, is a bit of a food diva. Her journey to becoming a food writer on Middle Eastern cuisine, a renowned chef and food consultant took a long winding road that began with her rebellion against convention in Lebanon where she grew up after finishing school.

After studying at a French convent school Helou, born to a Lebanese mother and a Syrian father, had her heart set on studying abroad away from the social confines of Lebanese society and the conformity of marriage and children. Good in languages she initially wanted to attend interpreters school in Switzerland.

“After I finished school my father wouldn’t let me go,” Helou recalls. “Me being very stubborn I said to him good if you don’t let me go and study abroad I’m not going to study. So I refused to go to the American University of Beirut (AUB) which was foolish. My obsession at that time was to leave Beirut, I didn’t want to stay.”

While her father was away on a business trip Helou convinced her mother to sign papers that would allow her to sign up as a hostess on Middle East Airlines (MEA). That allowed Helou some independence. She was able to travel freely now and earn her keep.

“I was trying to find ways of breaking that barrier with my father but I didn’t have money so I couldn’t go against him,” she says. “Two weeks later I realised I was a maid on those planes so I wasn’t really happy to do that job but at the same time it was a question of pride after having made such a fuss. So I stayed in the job.”

In 1973, at the age of 21 and two years before the outbreak of Lebanon’s fifteen year civil war, Helou left to the UK. At first she completed an interior design course but her heart wasn’t in it. It was later at a dinner in London that Zaha Hadid (the acclaimed Iraqi-British architect), who Helou would later become good friends with, suggested she consider attending an art course at Sotheby’s auction house.

“I applied and got accepted and I did the course and they hired me because it was the beginning of the oil money and everybody wanted to do business with the Middle East and I was their Middle Eastern lady,” says Helou. “I travelled for them except that they never invested enough in promoting themselves in the Middle East whereas Christie’s did.”

Helou’s parents were quite supportive and her father helped her financially, but Helou struggled in the art world. Being a woman wasn’t easy, she says. Her three years at Sotheby’s however would change as a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Helou’s client base, mostly Kuwaiti at the time, including members of the ruling Al Sabah family, was more concerned with survival and getting their homeland back than art.

The war in Kuwait would, as fate had it, mark the transition of Helou from the world of art to food.

“The Gulf War came more or less at the right time because I was getting bored and wanting something new,” says Helou.

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At 24 with the help of her father she opened a shop in Paris that sold nineteenth century antiques, objects and furniture. The business didn’t take off so she closed the shop and became a freelance art consultant, buying and selling on her own account.

With little progress against a well-entrenched network of dealers and agents in the art world, Helou called it a day.

“I always wanted to be a writer because when I was a teenager I read a lot. I was influenced by French existentialism and the idea of me leaving Beirut was to have a kind of intellectual life abroad,” says Helou. “I never lost the idea of becoming a writer, so I started to get bored with art dealing and when the market started changing and no way could I be a dealer because I didn’t have the money and started thinking about what to do next.”

As she considered writing Helou got a literary agent who would introduce her to the niece of famous British-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani. It was at dinner with the Houranis that Helou would come away with the idea of cookery writing for the Lebanese diaspora living all over the world as the civil war raged on.

“We were having dinner and they started talking about cookery books,” she recalls. “As I listened to them I thought I could write a book on Lebanese food. There wasn’t anything that was user friendly for people who didn’t know the cuisine but at the same time I didn’t know anything about cookery writing. I didn’t consider cook books as serious literature then and there were old fashioned cookbooks heavy on the use of butter and old recipes. The only person who encouraged me was Albert Hourani.”

By chance Helou’s agents happened to have a publisher who was looking for an author to write a book on Lebanese food.

As part of her feminist outlook Helou didn’t like the idea of cooking. She refused to cook for her companions.

“I refused to cook because I considered it being domesticated,” she says smiling. “I knew a lot about food and I liked food but I just didn’t want to cook. It was not my world at all.”

Helou went to the annual Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery where she met cookery writers and chose a few mentors that would help provide the foundations for a book on Lebanese cuisine.

“I didn’t realise writing a cookery book was serious work,” says Helou, adding that she had to bring her mother, whose recipes she recorded growing up, to come to London and help her.

“It took me six months to do the proposal for what was a miniature book,” she says. “It got accepted then it took another two years to write the book. I brought my mother to London. The purpose of the book was to do a Lebanese cookbook that was user friendly not only for foreigners but for all those young Lebanese people that were displaced by the civil war and didn’t have the chance I had of growing up in Lebanon around my grandmother, mother, aunts in Syria.”

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The influence of the Syrian kitchen on Helou’s cooking is pronounced as a result of the time she spent with her aunt where everything was done at home from the butter to the bread to milking the cows.

Helou’s book did well when it finally came out and was the first of six books that Helou published. Writing the book helped Helou build contacts within the food world which she describes as convivial rather than glamorous.

A cookbook on Moroccan street food followed and HarperCollins Publishers would then publish a book on Mediterranean food by Helou.

“I was interested in food as a hobby and certainly not as a profession,” Helou says. “But once a chance presents itself then you make in a way your luck and you grab it and turn into something very positive.”

As she ponders her seventh book Helou is looking to consulting these days. She resisted going into business before because she didn’t think she was a good enough businesswoman to do it on her own and didn’t want to spend all her time in a restaurant kitchen or on the premises. But consulting, she says, is the perfect solution.

“I’m still in food but on the business side, the practical side,” she says.

At the beginning of May a venture, concocted by two Egyptian entrepreneurs, she’s helped guide by helping develop their menu and recipes, will open in London to sell street food.

Located in St Martin’s Lane, Koshari Street (kosharistreet.com) is all about the one dish concept. It will focus on the Egyptian street food staple of koshari, a fast-food dish that combines lentils, rice and pasta topped with a spicy tomato sauce.

“I don’t know where I read recently that fine dining is coming back into fashion. I don’t think it ever went out of fashion,” says Helou. “People are interested in eating very well but casually now. This koshari place is tiny but if you can go and eat something for ten pounds that’s exquisite, instead of something mediocre or average then that’s great. That’s how we’re eating half the time while we work and rush around.”

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Quickfire Q&A

If you were to speak about entrepreneurship, what would you tell people?

I would say that education is super important and I was foolish to refuse to go to university. They have to believe in what they want to do and not be waylaid by either social conventions or worries about not being able to make it and having mentors is very important.

Where did you get the inspiration to be in this business?

The inspiration is within me of always wanting to do something that interests me.  I haven’t made enough use of mentors because I have this obsession about being totally independent that I want to do things on my own which is good and bad. It’s sometimes counterproductive because you’re rejecting help from people who could be quite helpful. I’ve always wanted to be independent, professional and successful. Money was not my motive although I love money like everyone else, my motive was to have a really interesting life and that has been my inspiration all along.

Do you think there will be a time where we will have a culture of a booming time for chefs?

The problem here (in the Arab world) is that there isn’t the glamour attached to the job of a chef that is in the West. Also until now the people who are writing about food or cooking they’re not exposed enough, they’re not actually very creative they’re not traveling everywhere or going to the best restaurants to see what’s being done. When people are modernising in the Middle East they’re still not doing it with enough creativity. But there are a lot of young people who are into food and want to go into it. It’s a question of encouraging them.

What’s not happening yet is that a lot of them are not seeing food as culture. I combine the two. I’m quite serious about researching food, the history and influences.

If you were going to have your last meal for dinner what would it be?

I don’t have a single favourite thing. I would probably ask for a lavish buffet that would include all the things that I adore, some would be expensive things and some would be street food and from my childhood (fois gras, caviar, man’ousheh [Lebanese bread topped with Zaatar], fatayer) and probably something Japanese because it’s my favourite cuisine.

Favorite dessert?

Whips of Aleppo (Karabij Halab) and Knafeh (cheese layered with semolina and sweet syrup).

If you would open a restaurant down the road what would it be?

What I wanted to do in the past was a casual place from all corners of the Arab world, keeping a harmony between the dishes.

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