Refugee chef brings love of Syrian recipes to London
The one thing that has remained constant in Imad Alarnab’s life is his love of cooking.
From owning his own restaurants and cafes in Damascus, to cooking in refugee camps and sleeping rough on the steps of a church, recreating dishes his mother and grandmother once made has allowed him to keep the memories of his homeland alive.
In 2017 - two years after arriving in the UK - he opened his own restaurant in the heart of London. Imad’s Syrian Kitchen sits on a bustling corner of London’s iconic Carnaby Street, and has been drawing crowds ever since it opened.
Although opening a restaurant in London was never in his plans, he’s happy that he’s now able to share his recipes with the world.
“It’s more than just a restaurant,” he tells Middle East Eye. “It’s a celebration of Syrian culture and the food that defines it.”
Alarnab was forced to leave his home in Damascus in 2015 after it became unlivable due to the war. The three restaurants and cafes he spent years building in the Syrian capital, and which had garnered loyal customers, came crumbling down amid the ongoing violence.
Cooking in Calais
Alarnab’s journey with cooking started from a young age, when he would watch his mother and grandmother pair flavours together to make hearty and traditional Syrian meals.
“Many people may never get to see Syria in their lifetime,” he sighs. “So my job here is to bring it to them, with the spices, flavours and colours."
When Alarnab was forced to leave Syria, he spent months stuck in a refugee camp in Lebanon, where he would cook for other refugees and volunteers.
'I wanted to create a space where people could experience the warmth, hospitality and rich culinary traditions of my homeland'
- Imad Alarnab, chef
He later ended up in Calais, an area of northern France that has over time become a magnet for migrants and refugees aiming to reach Britain because of its short distance across the Channel.
Police in this area are notorious for using tear gas to harass and disperse migrants.
During his time in Calais, he faced constant harassment and harsh conditions while staying in the sprawling "Jungle camp", an informal refugee encampment which existed from 2015 to October 2016, when it was dismantled by the French government.
The camp, a former landfill site, became home to thousands of refugees. The migrants, who came from across the world, were all either waiting for their French asylum claims to be processed or attempting to enter the UK.
For 64 days, Imad spent each night sleeping on the steps of a church in Calais and his days cooking for the people around him, sometimes up to 400 refugees a day. This was brought to a halt after police stormed the area and kicked out Alarnab along with 13 other refugees. He managed to get on the back of a lorry and make it to the UK in 2015.
After arriving in the UK, he worked shifts as a car salesman, but his love for cooking never waned. He would then go on to post his dishes on social media and eventually host small-scale supper clubs. He eventually started running pop-up restaurants selling his now-famous falafel, for the refugee charity Choose Love.
But Alarnab was hankering for a permanent restaurant, so he crowdfunded £50,000 in the space of a month and eventually opened Imad’s Syrian Kitchen with the help of a charity he had partnered up with.
The restaurant offers a diverse menu of traditional Syrian dishes, including lamb shawarma, chicken shish taouk, falafel, and hummus, all made using fresh and locally sourced ingredients.
One of the most popular dishes on the menu is Imad's signature dish, the Aleppo kebab, a tender and juicy lamb dish that is slow-cooked for hours with aromatic spices and served with saffron rice.
His menu reflects the diversity of Syrian cuisine, with influences from various cultures, including Turkish, Persian, and Lebanese.
Another standout dishes is Saroja, Alarnab’s own creation, named after a neighbourhood in Damascus. The dish consists of breaded and roasted aubergines with crumbled feta and halloumi, dressed with sour cherries and date molasses.
In an effort to give back to the community and raise money for refugee charities, Alarnab has hosted cooking clubs, fundraisers and partnered with Unicef to bring awareness of the plight of asylum seekers across the world.
“I wanted to create a space where people could experience the warmth, hospitality, and rich culinary traditions of my homeland,” he says.
His menu borrows influences from various Middle Eastern cuisines, and one pound from every bill is donated to the Choose Love charity, which supports refugees and displaced people across Europe.
Since the Russian invasion last year, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen has donated £1 from each bill to the charity's #CookForUkraine programme.
The chef is also involved with an initiative called #CookForIran, where he has added Iranian dishes to his menu to raise awareness about the country and to support its people’s call for freedom.
In an effort to honour his roots and support refugees, Alarnab hires his staff through Breaking Barriers, an organisation which successfully places refugee talent into businesses to meet their hiring needs while simultaneously fulfilling the aspirations of refugees keen to get back to work.
Hostile migrant policy
One of the most pressing issues for Alarnab is the growing anti-immigrant sentiment he says he sees regularly in the UK on the streets.
“We are not able to hire any asylum seekers, I am so angry that we can’t,” he says, explaining how asylum seekers waiting in UK hotels for decisions are not allowed to work.
'Everyone is looking for staff but we can’t use any asylum seekers because they haven’t got their decisions yet'
- Imad Alarnab
“I was angrier about it during Covid lockdown. We have a lot of doctors and nurses sitting there in hotels doing nothing when instead they could have been supporting the economy and health system in the UK,” he continues.
“Even now we are short of staff, everyone is looking for staff but we can’t use any asylum seekers because they haven’t got their decisions yet. Decisions can take years, affecting people’s mental health, health in general, and relationships with the community... this doesn’t make us a better society,” he added.
While he is sad to see hostility towards immigrants, he remains proud of the community he has built in the UK, highlighting how immigrants have contributed significantly to society.
“My daughter broke her ankle and we went to the emergency room… Finally, when she was seen, it was by a nurse who was an immigrant,” he laughs. “Can you point to an industry not run by immigrants - restaurants, energy companies?” he continues.
Expanding in the future
So far, the restaurant has been largely successful, something Alarnab says he is grateful for.
Alarnab had left Syria alone to come to the UK, leaving behind his wife and his three daughters. His family were later able to join him in July 2016 through the family reunion policy.
“In terms of achievement, serving my homeland’s food every day in my restaurant and, most importantly, being reunited with my family is for me the most successful thing I could be doing. And also continuing to help the community while moving forward,” he says.
Alarnab says he hopes to expand in the future and introduce even more people to Syrian food, through a friendly atmosphere and flavours that remind him of home.