Kamal Mouzawak is sitting on a terrace overlooking the village of Douma. Dressed in a long blue robe with a light woollen scarf wrapped around his neck, he looks every bit the eccentric social entrepreneur.
Flamboyant, occasionally dismissive, yet consistently articulate, Mouzawak is a rare breed of businessman. He has managed to forge a business model capable of transforming people’s lives through food, all via a network of farmers’ markets, restaurants, guesthouses and festivals that are spread across his native Lebanon.
His vision is one of human development built around what he 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.
“What drives me is life,” he says, his dark hair smoothed back into gentle waves. “It is an unbelievable gift and we just need to give back. 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.”
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.
“I see food as the most sincere and authentic expression of one’s tradition, history and roots,” he says. “It is from this angle that I understand and like food, not just as a taste, a sophisticated product, or a ranked or starred restaurant. Food is an expression of emotion, of love. Mothers feed their kids and family, not just to fill their tummies, but to express their care, love and feelings.”
Beit Douma is high up 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.
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, 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,” says Mouzawak, 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.”
The son of a farmer and producer, Mouzawak began 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, his slippers dangling loosely from his feet. “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.”
As with the majority of Lebanese, Mouzawak’s relationship with his home country is a complicated one, although he is grateful for the opportunities it has given him. In particular the chance to reset perceptions of Lebanese food.
“Lebanese cuisine is divided into two completely different things,” he says. “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.”
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.”
It is the bringing of this cuisine to the wider world via Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet that has been the cornerstone of his organisation’s success, generating profit to support cooks and producers, while preserving rural heritage and the natural environment. It has also brought people together – Muslims and Christians, Lebanese and Syrians, Palestinians and Armenians.
“It is always an organic evolution,” he says. “We do something – a project – and let it live. We stand aside, we observe, we bring solutions to problems, stop what must be stopped, develop what will make something better, restructure, reorganise, strengthen.
“Every day I wonder if we are doing what must be done, and how we can do more and do it better. Success is not for me to decide, but through the success of the many producers and cooks.”
* First published in Vogue Man, October 2018