In Lebanon, the chef position opens up to women who become beacons of reconciliation among the numerous communities that divide the country. But a far broader purpose lies behind Kamal Mouzawak’s feminist initiative: making traditional and family cooking a vehicle for peace.
Welcome to Mar Mikhael, the arty and trendy district of Beirut. This Lebanese SoHo is in full excitement, the population is young and eager for nocturnal outings. From these bustling streets, rises Tawlet a new-generation of family and cooperative restaurant which opened in 2009.
Women in charge
Here, women are in charge … and bend it like chefs ! Kamal Mouzawak, the owner, has traveled all over Lebanon looking for the guardians of the greatest intangible heritage of humanity: traditional and local cuisine. He pushed the doors of the most remote houses to convince mothers and grandmothers to join the adventure and leave their private apartments to become great chefs! ANd he succeded.
In Tawlet – which means “table” in Arabic – plates are well stocked, dishes are homemade, and most importantly, cooked by granny! In the kitchen, more than twenty women from all over Lebanon are taking turns every day to serve regional homemade specialties!
“Lebanese women go to college and then get married”
Some will agree that there is nothing more comforting than our mother’ or grandmother’s cooking. Yet, it is extremely rare to have female chefs. And this is far from being a Lebanese specificity. Throughout the world, professional gastronomy remained a men sector, despite the gradual integration of women into the labor force. “It’s not in our culture,” says Barbara Massaad, a Lebanese culinary consultant and author of several local cookbooks, “Lebanese women go to college and then get married.”
But more than challenge, necessity convinced Oum ali, one of the cookers, to join the club This woman was 39 years old in 2004, when she started pro cooking. While she was an housewife, her husband’s income became insufficient to feed the family. Oum Ali had never been to school, so she started cooking for the people of her village. At first, her husband wasn’t really on board, but he changed his mind seeing that Oum’s incomes allowed the family to send their four children to school and build a new home.
Gather women from different backgrounds around the kitchen, a vehicle for reconciliation
Beyond emancipating women, Kamal had a much broader idea: to create a social peace. He has thus appealed to women from very different backgrounds, with different traditions, origins and sometimes opposite confessions. In his farmer kitchen, very different mothers and grandmothers, opposed by everything – from Syrian or Filipino refugees to Palestinian women alongside with women from the Christian militia – have come to know each other by working hand in hand. By giving them a space to share their culinary secrets and thus tell their own stories, Tawlet has successfully managed to promote the positive effects of multiculturalism and it fills the plates up!
Giving its geographical location and the richness of its history, the country, smaller than the Parisian area, succeeds in melting all those influences into a fine and authentic cuisine, which knows how to innovate while preserving its traditions. This abundance of inspiration allows the country to shine and find echo throughout the MENA region, and even beyond, for the greatest delight of the taste buds. Kamal explains: “What else can you do to meet a refugee? Talk to him about poetry? It’s difficult, so it’s very easy to share a meal. It opens the heart and the mind “… and the appetite!