Pop-up With A Difference
By Layla Yarjani
‘Pop-up’ restaurants are not an unusual sight in East London. Over the last few years hundreds of these temporary eateries have appeared, seemingly overnight, in bars, on streets and anywhere else some precious bit of space is available. But up on Columbia Road in Hackney, there is a pop-up with a different twist: run by Imad Alarnab, a Syrian refugee, this pop-up is raising money for the children impacted by the conflict in his home country.
It all started in October last year, when #CookForSyria co-founder Serena Guen and I were invited to meet Imad; a Syrian restaurant entrepreneur and refugee. Imad wanted to support this Unicef NEXTGen London initiative to somehow give back to Syria. Back in Damascus, Imad had been a successful restauranteur with three restaurants and a juice bar. His restaurants were always full and known for having great food and generous portions.
But in the war Imad’s restaurants were destroyed. Like many thousands of others, he took the hard decision to leave his country and head to Europe. His journey was challenging: from being crammed on the back of a lorry intended to transport sheep with 92 adults and many more children, to the fear of being beaten at the Hungarian border, to sleeping on church steps for 62 nights. Of course, there were people who helped him on the way – angels, he calls them. Like the Norwegian volunteer standing on the shore in Greece when his boat arrived shouting ‘you are safe now!’, and Imran, a Pakistani-British volunteer in Calais who helped Imad support volunteers on the ground in Greece as a translator and got him set up in London.
On this long and difficult journey, Imad’s love of food never left him. He became something of a mobile chef, frequently cooking for other refugees – sometimes hundreds at a time. He found even in the most challenging times, his passion for food and bringing people together remained strong.
Now in the UK, where he has been living for a year and a half, Imad works as a car salesman and was able to bring his family to join him. He is proud to have his family by his side after nearly a year of separation. He is proud to be working. He is proud to be able to build a new life and to provide for them.
Imad had a vision: to cook again. No plan exactly how, but after meeting Imad through his involvement with our #CookForSyria campaign, I was keen on helping him and knew others would be too. I mentioned Imad’s story to Appear Here founder Ross Bailey and he immediately had ideas of how he could help (Appear Here is the leading marketplace for short-term retail). Ross and his team came on board full charge: they found the perfect location on Columbia Road, took the lead on brand & creative, and transformed the pop-up into a beautiful Syrian kitchen – bringing Imad’s idea to life.
It quickly fell into place. Imad started preparing recipes. He would serve some of Syria’s favorite dishes, which includes traditional dishes such as Fattoush (toasted flatbreads, pomegranate molasses, tomato and cucumber), Kabsa (spiced chicken with cardamom and rice) and Tabakh Rohoo (aubergine, squash and tamarind stew). This will be a family kitchen-table style supper, with food placed on sharing platters to be enjoyed with fellow diners.
As the menu progressed it quickly became clear we needed a hands-on chef and so, Saima Khan of The Hampstead Kitchen joined the force, offering to help Imad prepare the food and introduce him to her community. The Hampstead Kitchen’s Feeding Fund has also generously sponsored the cost of food. And the final ingredient, Gemma Bell, London’s leading food PR, has helped us to tell Imad’s story and introduce him to the food scene.
Imad’s pop-up opens tonight and runs for two weeks, until Friday 25 March, and 10 per cent of proceeds will benefit Unicef NEXTGeneration and our #CookForSyria campaign.
Please come join us at Imad’s Syrian Kitchen and be part of the journey.