Kamal Mouzawak, an eccentric, occasionally flamboyant, but consistently articulate social entrepreneur, is sitting on a terrace overlooking the village of Douma.
He is dressed in a long blue robe, has a light woollen scarf wrapped around his neck, and slippers that dangle loosely from his feet.
“Lebanon frustrates me a lot,” he says. “But frustration is good when you turn it into something constructive. If not, it’s just a depression. But I’m very grateful for Lebanon. Because with all these problems it’s given me an opportunity to do something.”
When Mouzawak and I meet at Beit Douma it is ostensibly to discuss his new book, Manger Libanais, a culinary journey across Lebanon and a return to his roots as a food and travel writer. But philosophy and life keep creeping in. He dismisses with disdain any notion that he is helping others through his work (“I hate this authoritative, colonialist, paternalistic approach”), while any assertion that his success has grown from a love of food is rejected.
“I’m not an Epicurean. I’m not a foodie. I hate this word,” he says, his dark hair smoothed back into gentle waves. “It’s a love of life. I’m not a chef, I’m a home cook who studied macrobiotic cuisine. All that I do is out of love of life and respect for life. If you have this, how are you going to celebrate it? If you love life you love to eat, if you love to eat you love food and you respect the ingredient. I’m not trying to create a fancy restaurant or wait for a Michelin star. It’s about celebrating life. It’s about celebrating our traditions.”
Beit Douma is high in the Batroun Mountains. A traditional 19th century Lebanese house, it took three months to renovate and was the first of Mouzawak’s guesthouses to open back in 2015. Beit Ammiq and Beit El Qamar followed the same year, but it was at Beit Douma that he first combined architectural preservation with culinary tradition. A 19th century Ottoman palace in Ziftar is currently in the process of being renovated.
To a large extent Beit Douma works because it is curated. There is not one plastic chair or desultory object and the rooms have been peppered with carefully chosen ornaments and items of furniture. Outside, old fabric handwoven in the village is brought for inspection, while the garden, though wild in appearance, has been meticulously planned and studied.
It’s an ongoing process. Two curtains, for example, hang in the windows nearest to us, one traditional, the other contemporary. The former may sell reasonably well, but it is the latter, designed by Rabih Kayrouz using a single detail, that most interests Mouzawak.
“It’s the small details that make a difference. It enhances the experience,” he says. Inside, a group of guests are being taught to cook handmade pasta with garlic sauce by Jamal Chalhoub.
“This is Douma more than anything else,” he says, gesturing to our immediate surroundings. There are gardens and terraces and orchards of olives. “The dough they were making when you went into the kitchen is Douma more than anything else. If you have something, why not preserve it and be proud of it.
“If I was properly dressed I would be dressed like you,” he continues, gesturing towards me and Sari Haddad, one of the founders of Lebanese Wanderers. “This uniformity. What’s the end of it? We dress the same, we eat the same, and then what? And then I need to prove my identity through what? Through integrism? Through religious integrism?
“You know what, maybe it’s much easier if I prove my identity and my difference through something that is not excluding the other but inclusive. Your religion I cannot share. It is this that is my drive and my passion, not the food itself. It’s for the sake of life and for the sake of humans. For me it’s human development, nothing else.”
This vision of human development has proven both inclusive and empowering. The Souk el Tayeb farmers’ markets, for which he is most well known, have given small-scale farmers and producers the chance to sell their goods, while the farmers’ kitchen Tawlet, which means ‘table’ in Arabic, has allowed producers to share their recipes and local traditions. In doing so they have earnt money and recognition. Tawlet in particular, with its constantly changing menu and rotation of chefs, has proven extremely popular.
All is built around what Mouzawak has previously described as the “idea of coexistence through sharing food and sharing tables”. It’s a coexistence that includes both non-profit and for profit elements and has been extended to include work with both Syrian and Palestinian refugees.
“It’s a complementarity. What I know how to do, Jamal doesn’t know,” he says. “What Jamal knows I don’t know. The important part is having two complementary things and not two things that are the same. You cannot be asking the questions and answering them. I would’ve been useless in that case.”
It was the photographer Ayla Hibri who first told me of Manger Libanais. She’d been shooting kibbeh all winter, she told me in June, watching women cook on old stoves and finding herself drawn closer and closer to Lebanese cuisine. It was something she cherished, as does Mouzawak, who describes the project as a portrait of people and their recipes.
“You know, women who cook, who feed people, who care about people, are all wonderful individuals,” he says. His research took him from Beirut to Saida and Sour, on to the village of Ziftar, then up to the Bekaa Valley and north to Bsharri and Ehden. “Each one of them is really an exceptional character.”
“Lebanese cuisine is divided into two completely different things,” he adds. “You have what I call the public and the private. What people know is the public cuisine, so either street food – what I rather call souk food – and the restaurants. When you go to a Lebanese restaurant it’s a sacred procession of the mezzes, and when you’re eating street food it’s falafel and shawarma and all these wonderful things.
“But there is a completely different cuisine, which is home cuisine, which I call the private, and it’s what people eat at home. It’s very regional, very seasonal, very simple. It’s stews and salads and it is something that people don’t know about. And I’m not blaming you or others, because this is something that is not public.”
We use kibbeh as an example. Most widely recognised in restaurants as parcels of bulgur wheat shaped like miniature rugby balls filled with minced lamb, the number of variations is considerable. It can be made from meat, lentils or pumpkin, baked in a pan, shaped into balls filled with garlic or fat, or cooked in dishes with yoghurt or tahini sauce. In the south they mix raw meat and bulgur with cumin, lemon leaves, wild mint, marjoram and rose buds.
“The capital of kibbeh is Ehden and Zgharta in the north. And this is where they do, in my opinion, the best kibbeh nayyeh (raw meat kibbeh), compared to the one in the south where they add nothing to it. It’s just simple meat, bulgur, salt and pepper. If you put a little bit of grated onion it would be a catastrophe.”
Himself the son of a farmer and producer, Mouzawak started his professional life as a food and travel writer. He would later embrace the teaching of macrobiotic cooking and the life of a TV show host before founding Souk el Tayeb in 2004.
“For me it was an anthropological approach more than anything else,” he says. “That was the start of all of this. Going around the country discovering a country I’d heard about but never visited because of the war. Because each person was secluded in their own region. It was a discovery of this country.”
Mouzawak is in his element in the mountains (“I love high altitudes, the strength of it”), hates the sea, the coast and the heat, and appears relaxed. Comfortable even. “Look at me. I’m in my sleeping gown,” he says with the hint of a smile.
“I’m just trying to do my job. My job now is to answer you and to charm you. Every time I have to give a public talk I think of a lady who makes the perfect kibbeh. And I see her making it like this,” he says, mimicking the actions of moulding. “I see her making these perfect balls, very thin and the perfect shape, and every time I ask myself, ‘am I speaking as well as she makes the kibbeh?’ Her job is making kibbeh, my job now is speaking.
“In Islam they say every act is an act of adoration. Her adoration is through making kibbeh. My adoration is to life. I’m amazed by life. How can it function? How can it be? And what a gift. And what are you doing with it?
“You don’t have to win a Nobel prize. If I’m making the table, I’m making it in the best possible way. If I’m cleaning the room, I’m just doing it in the best possible way for me. When people don’t do it this way any more it drives me crazy. Because they are just doing the worst thing possible, which is not respecting themselves.”
It would be easy to call Mouzawak a perfectionist, a quibbler, a purist, a pedant, but that would probably be missing the point. He simply has a clearly defined outlook on how things should be and takes pride in detail. Hence the success of Beit Douma.
“There is nothing called perfectionism,” he insists. “For me this is what must be done. It’s beyond perfectionism. If you can make a change somewhere, just do it. Because this was an opportunity to use food to try to make a little bit of change.”
* A version of this article first appeared in Emirates Man, November 2017