Anissa Helou interview: Accidental Cook

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Helou tried her hand at art and antiques before moving into the food industry

Helou tried her hand at art and antiques before moving into the food industry

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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