Iconic entertainment with Anissa Helou

Iconic entertainment with Anissa Helou

Chef Anissa Helou is not only the winner of the Foodics Icon Award for Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants 2023, but she is also a renowned cookbook author who popularized Levantine cuisine on an international level. In this exclusive interview, she explains how she got to where she is today.

How did this journey come about?
At first, I wanted to write a book about collecting art but then began writing about food following a ca chance meeting with my literary agent and a Lebanese friend as they discussed cookbooks. I decided to write a book on Lebanese cuisine centered on my mother’s recipes. I didn’t know much about food writing, but fortunately, I had great mentors who helped me along the way, and my book was a great success when it was published approximately 30 years ago. I thoroughly enjoyed the project and decided to leave the art world to continue writing about food.

This year, you won the coveted title of Foodics Icon Award for the Middle East and North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants in 2023. What does this accolade mean to you?
It is always lovely to have one’s work acknowledged by peers and the world at large. I wasn’t expecting it, but I am happy for the wider exposure provided by this award.

Your cookbooks are not only about recipes but history as well. What is the relation between the two and why did you choose to highlight the history and culture behind the dishes?
For me, food is at the crossroads of a country’s history, culture and people. As such, writing about food is more than just writing recipes. By placing dishes in a social and historical context, the writer creates a much richer canvas that allows readers to better understand a country and its people through its food and culinary traditions.

Why do you believe that Middle Eastern cuisine doesn’t exist?
Neither European nor Middle Eastern cuisine exists. The Middle East is a very large region, and even if Levantine countries share many dishes, each country has its own variations. For instance, meat in Aleppine dishes is often cooked with fruit or fruit juice, yet you will not find equivalents in Lebanon. They do this in Iran, but the way in which they prepare rice there is very different from the way it is cooked in Lebanon and Syria. So, grouping these different cuisines under one umbrella doesn’t do them justice.

How are you supporting fellow women chefs in a largely male-dominated industry?
I don’t let myself be intimidated by men in general, and I am totally confident in my ability to do whatever I am supposed to be doing without having to rely on or refer to men. As for helping fellow women, I always make sure I give them the right advice on how to deal with aggressive behavior in the kitchen or workplace in general, and I try to mentor them on how to stand their ground. And of course, whenever I can help women get a job, a commission or whatever, I do so.

You are currently writing a new book unearthing the regional cuisines of Lebanon. What can readers look forward to uncovering?
It is interesting how such a small country has so many regional variations, some of which are linked to the different religious communities, and I will be exploring these variations and the reasons they exist, whether it is because of the terroir or religious confession. I will also trace the history of the different communities and how they came to settle in the various regions, as well as how all of these were put together to create Greater Lebanon.

Website Icon png images | PNGEgg anissahelou.substack.com 


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About author

Rita Ghantous

Rita Ghantous is a hospitality aficionado and a passionate writer with over 9 years’ experience in journalism and 5 years experience in the hospitality sector. Her passion for the performance arts and writing, started early. At 10 years old she was praised for her solo performance of the Beatles song “All My Love” accompanied by a guitarist, and was approached by a French talent scout during her school play. However, her love for writing was stronger. Fresh out of school, she became a freelance journalist for Noun Magazine and was awarded the Silver Award Cup for Outstanding Poetry, by The International Library of Poetry (Washington DC). She studied Business Management and earned a Masters degree from Saint Joseph University (USJ), her thesis was published in the Proche-Orient, Études en Management book. She then pursued a career in the hospitality industry but didn’t give up writing, that is why she launched the Four Points by Sheraton Le Verdun Newsletter. Her love for the industry and journalism led her to Hospitality Services - the organizers of the HORECA trade show in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan, as well as Salon Du Chocolat, Beirut Cooking Festival, Whisky Live and other regional shows. She is currently the Publications Executive of Hospitality News Middle East, Taste & Flavors and Lebanon Traveler. It is with ultimate devotion for her magazines that she demonstrates her hospitality savoir-faire.

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