BEIRUT: What started out as a personal challenge to give up meat eventually led to a career change and a new passion in life for Firas Abi Ghanem, better known as Firas Yatbokh (Firas cooks).
A household name in Beirut, Firas, who has hosted various cooking evenings and events over the years, has brought his talents to Metro al-Madina, the Hamra venue which recently celebrated its first anniversary.
The simple supper menu consists of sandwiches and soups, and different themed snack foods for various concerts or performances. It will be sold from a soon-to-be-completed kiosk inside the hall, designed to recreate fun memories of the school canteen.
But the love that Firas and the other members of the Good Food Collective have for food render the menu more than your average cafe fare.
His holistic approach to food – viewing the quality of the soil in which the vegetables are grown, the mood in which it is prepared and the atmosphere in which it is eaten as equally important – and his passion for the craft – turn Firas’ food into more than just something to fill a hunger gap.
He is also motivated by a firm belief that food should be a pleasurable, guilt-free experience.
“There is this eerie insistence on this reductionist approach to food whereby we eat to get nutrients. No! It’s not just about that.”
In the past, he says, people did not analyze the nutritional content of everything they ate: They also happened to be much healthier than 21st century humans.
“When we eat, first of all it should be about pleasure, and ... then the social aspect, the interaction while eating. And then the expressing of one’s identity, which is very important.”
Food is such an obviously vital part of life that is naturally an important topic of conversation. Often he says the first thing people discuss when they meet for the first time, “even if we’re from the same country, is ‘Oh, that’s how you make tabbouleh?”
The culture surrounding food “is so rich by itself, without the nutritionist or health expert,” Firas adds, and as such he is committed to getting back, sometimes literally, to the roots.
He is worried about the increasing industrialization of the food industry, in which he believes producers, nutritionists and food journalists all work together to promote, at different times, the latest super food or dietary fad, but motivated by profit rather than a genuine commitment to health or a respect for food.
Having started cooking when he became a vegetarian around 10 years ago, Firas, now 33, is also motivated in his work, by showing that “when you do vegetarian food it doesn’t mean it’s bland or dull or boring or tasteless or a bunch of boiled vegetables.”
However he insists that he does not preach his faith, and indeed, other members of the Good Food Collective use meat in their recipes.
From a background in conflict resolution, Firas also believes that the social aspect to eating is incredibly important.
In peace building, he says, “I don’t just sit here and tell you, ‘Now let’s do some peace building,’ – that’s not how it happens. The way it happens is we enhance communication, and quality of expression, between any two given individuals or groups and it just so happens that food is one of the easiest ways to effectively communicate and to talk about things that we can actually agree or disagree about. But it can still be a pleasurable experience, and we don’t have to go to war over how we make tabbouleh.
“This communication, and this thing builds. It’s not very tangible perhaps, but it’s very real.”
On top of spoken communication though, is the musical element. At the Firas Yatbokh evenings, which grew from simple dinners he cooked for friends into regular nights, friends would come together with their various talents to contribute to the evening, and guests, many of them strangers, would attend.
“Naturally when you’re having a jolly dinner, and after you’ve filled your stomach and you’re in this digestive stage, you’re very open to good music. And it so happened that many of my friends are musicians or artists.”
So too would friends take part in the cooking process, and at any one time around six people were in the kitchen, “someone is playing music, someone is telling jokes, someone is peeling potatoes, and I think that interaction adds value to the food.”
After writing a dissertation about migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, often an invisible community here, Firas says, “I didn’t want it just to be the person who cleans my house, but a person with a culture and traditions and recipes.”
The Good Food Collective therefore includes friends of his from many different backgrounds, whether it’s Southeast Asia or North Africa, and adding much needed variety to the often monotonous Lebanese culinary scene.
And if he wasn’t busy enough, Firas is soon to embark on a new series of cooking workshops for children, after the success of the Mlawwan (Colorful) program in December.
“It’s about getting children excited about food. We just made a sandwich and a salad, but if the child is involved in the process and feels empowered, then they will enjoy healthy food.”
Metro al-Madina, Sarolla Building, Minus 2, Hamra Street, 76-309-363.