Imad Alarnab

Imad Alarnab

Imad Alarnab

A successful restaurateur and chef in Syria, Imad Alarnab left his home country in 2015, after war broke out, to seek refuge in the UK. His kind-hearted nature and excellent cooking meant he quickly built a following here, and he now brings authentic Syrian cooking to London at Imad’s Syrian Kitchen.

Imad Alarnab doesn’t need time to think about what inspired him to first become a chef – it’s an easy answer. He speaks about his mother movingly, describing an incredibly creative woman who painted, embroidered, wrote poetry, recited Shakespeare and taught him how to cook. 'My mum is the only influence,' he says. 'I wasn't really inspired by chefs, it was only her. And not just because she's my mum, but because she's my best friend; she's someone to look up to, someone you want to be like. She was a very good teacher. If I used a lot of flour she would say: 'You know what? I have never tried it this way. Let's see what's going to happen.' She knew what the outcome would be, but she wanted me to try.’ 

Imad’s natural path, one followed by most of his family, would have been a career in textiles and fashion, but the call of the kitchen soon beckoned. In 1999, the building of a new road destroyed half of his father’s textile warehouse, and Imad decided to repurpose part of the Damascus site into a takeaway with a restaurant above. At the time, it was a business opportunity rather than his calling, he says, but Costello and its east-meets-west concept (Western classics using Syrian flavours) set it apart from more common street food options like falafel and shawarma and it was instantly a hit. Imad was hooked. Juice bars, cafés and two more restaurants followed, including Al Hatem, which, based near a mosque popular with tourists, gave Imad his first taste of introducing people to Syrian cooking.

In March 2012, war broke out in Syria and everything changed; Imad’s restaurants were destroyed and his life was turned upside down. It’s difficult to appreciate the enormous difficulty of the time (he remembers distracting his young daughters from what was happening with scribbled maths quizzes), but Imad reflects on it with inspiring positivity. ‘At that point, it was horrific and very difficult, but that’s not the point,’ he says. ‘The point is not that you lose everything, it’s that you survive with your family.’ Determined to find them a better life, in 2015 Imad left Damascus alone as a refugee to travel to the UK, with plans to bring his family over as soon as he could. The journey, which took him through countries including Lebanon, Turkey, Greece, Hungary, Germany and France in the boot of a car and the back of a lorry, was long and arduous.

During two months in Calais, Imad returned to what he knew best, cooking for up to 400 people every night, relying on just a knife and a chopping board. It was, he says, a way of keeping morale high, providing what he knew was more than just a hot meal (in his debut cookbook, he writes that it ‘restored all of the faith that things could, and would, get better’). ‘People try to show the difficult part of it, and I like to show the other part,’ Imad smiles. ‘When I first arrived in Greece, there was this lady waving to us and she was so happy. She made me believe in humanity again. She made me believe there are good people. I always look at the best of people, and I believe if you do that, they will see the best from you too. My mother used to tell us to treat people the exact way that you want them to treat you.’ He points to several similar moments of kindness which peppered his journey; a woman in Calais who brought refugees tea, two in Paris who hosted him for a fortnight and an American friend who, when he had settled in the UK, helped him register his daughters at local schools (the family was reunited a year after Imad first left Damascus), acts of kindness he now tries to pay forward.

Having made it to the UK, Imad initially picked up work as a taxi driver and car salesman to support his family. Cooking was limited to dinners for his daughters and feasts for friends in his own kitchen, but as the family hit their stride in their new life, that soon changed. Within a couple of years, Imad was running pop-ups and supper clubs, working with charities including Choose Love (which supports refugees) and cooking for weddings and events at weekends. The supper clubs were sell-outs, and queues snaked from his lunchtime falafel bars. No-one was surprised when, six years after arriving in the capital, Imad opened his first restaurant; Imad’s Syrian Kitchen in Soho. Its menu celebrates Imad's versions of classically Syrian dishes, from mezze like hummus and labneh to smoky, grilled meat and spiced salads. ‘Being in London gives me the freedom of creating my own dishes,’ he says. ‘For Syrian people, some recipes you cannot change – they sometimes feel ‘this is how we cook’. In London, I can be me and I can have my own recipes.’

Imad is keen to dispel stereotypes about his home country and its culture. Though the UK has a good understanding of Middle Eastern cuisine more generally, the specifics of Syrian dishes, which are often uncomplicated but deftly spiced and delicately balanced, remain less understood. ‘I love the idea of introducing people to Syrian food,’ he says. ‘I don't think people have much knowledge about it. It’s one of the simplest cuisines, it’s all quality ingredients. The spirit is simplicity, but you’re going to love the food because somehow it’s in your memory as well. No-one hasn’t tried cumin before, but we use it in a way that takes it to the next level.’ Part of that education is a reminder than Syria is far more than what we hear on the news. 'People ask me where I am from and, when I say I am Syrian, sometimes they turn their heads a little bit, like pity,' he says. 'But I come from a great culture, a great cuisine. Yes, now we are in a war zone, but Syrians are survivors, we love life.'

Imad has been welcomed to London with open arms. A Souk el Salam (peace market) held there recently to raise money for aid for Gaza attracted 1,500 people in the first thirty minutes. ‘I had to go downstairs and ask people not to queue anymore, and thank them for their support,’ Imad laughs. It’s no surprise that the chef hopes his debut restaurant will one day be joined by a second, perhaps more of a neighbourhood spot further outside of central London. His warmth also makes him a fit for TV, work he hopes will continue his mission to show more of his journey and heritage. ‘I am asked 'what is it like to be a refugee'? I don’t know. We are all different, we are human beings like everybody else. I believe if you love people they will love you. If you have more than you need, don't build a higher wall, build a longer table.’