Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1316, (20 - 26 October 2016)

Ahram Weekly

A taste of love

Nesmahar Sayed talks to entrepreneur Joe Barza about his mission to spread quality Lebanese cuisine

Al-Ahram Weekly

An invitation to attend the opening of a Lebanese restaurant in a five-star hotel in Cairo sounded delicious to me. As the event started, I asked who the Lebanese chef was. Joe Barza came the answer. A man in black wearing a cowboy hat with a serious look smiled at me.

With much generosity he offered me many items, giving me the opportunity to taste the restaurant’s famed Lebanese food. Lebanese cuisine is very tasty and has become famous around the world, Barza said, partly because it is also very healthy and uses lots of vegetables among its ingredients.

“It reflects the Lebanese people who love hospitality and love people. It is also famous because there are 20 million Lebanese, and they live throughout the world. There is also the fact that it is simple to cook,” Barza said.

“Yesterday, I was in Greece attending a meeting of world chefs. Before that I was in Serbia, and after visiting my family in Lebanon I am going to New York to improve the quality of a Lebanese restaurant there. I travel all over the world bringing good taste and Lebanese cuisine,” he added.

Joe Barza is a culinary consultant and international master chef as well as someone who feels himself to be a kind of ambassador for his homeland. During our interview, a waiter stops by to offer three kinds of shawerma, with chicken, meat and fish. I was surprised as it was the first time I had seen fish shawerma.

Barza laughed, telling me that he started his career as a bodyguard during the civil war in Lebanon. Then at the age of 23 in 1986 he decided to move to South Africa with a friend. Before that, he had spent one year in Lebanon learning the basics of Lebanese cuisine. “At that time, I did not like to work in cooking, but I still knew the basics,” he explained.

In South Africa, Barza worked in a friend’s restaurant where he proved his ability to learn better and faster than others. “I was among 14 people of different nationalities in one place, and I wanted to learn more and more about cooking. I was able to learn in two hours what the others would learn in five days,” Barza said.

At that time he was thinking about helping his family and his loved ones. After five years in South Africa, he decided to return to Lebanon and “flip the tables,” as he puts it. In 1994, when he returned to Lebanon, the job of chef was sometimes not seen as a respectable career.

“Someone might be reluctant to say he worked as a chef, but I wanted to know everything about it to further my belief that it was something a man could do,” Barza said.

He started to organise competitions among chefs in Lebanon and abroad, culminating in Horeca Lebanon, an exhibition of Lebanese cuisine. “Horeca Lebanon started with 80 square metres of exhibition space, and today it has reached 500 square metres. Since 1995, it has received 11 national and international awards and represented Lebanon at international festivals,” he added.

 In 2000 he decided to work on Lebanese cuisine more in depth, being the start of the artistic side that characterises his work. “We worked on the history of Lebanese cuisine, because I did not want to imitate other cuisines,” he explained. In Barza’s view, it is his experience, passion and desire to develop Lebanese cuisine that has led to his superiority in the field.

“I decided to put Lebanese cuisine in the front of my life, to explore it my way, and to go all over the world,” he said. Barza has succeeded in emphasising the development of Arab chefs and their artistic side. “Each one has hidden talents,” he said.

Being a chef is now considered to be more respectable in Lebanon, partly as a result of Barza’s work. “Good chefs are now considered to be artists, and many of them broadcast cooking programmes,” he explained. Now he has reached his goal of being a consultant who opens Lebanese restaurants around the world, set the menus, decides the recipes, trains the chefs, and presents television programmes as well.  

The star of the recent event in Cairo, Barza kept being dragged away to meet people, but each time he would return for the interview, at one point introducing his assistant Nora, saying that she had the same name as his daughter. Barza also has a son, Kareem, who had the honour of being a chef at the presidential palace in Paris. Nora is the producer of an on-line cooking site, and Kareem also works in hotel management.  

Barza explained how Lebanese women in the past had used many ingredients to entertain themselves when cooking. “It was all about need and availability. People wanted to feed their families, so they cooked with what was available according to the seasons, with meat being kept for special occasions,” he said. Barza today is a celebrity chef for some brands and the owner of a 6,000 square metre bio-farm in Lebanon for organic food.  

As Barza was born in a coastal city, Tyre in the south of Lebanon, he also loves to eat fish. Egyptian stuffed pigeons with fereek are among his favourite dishes when he is in Egypt.

Commenting on his cowboy hat, he said he felt this made him “balanced.” He added that it reminded him of life in the past in Lebanon “when you used to wear a cap that gave you a feeling of safety and security.”

What makes some cooking delicious and some not? “Cooking food is a reflection of the soul,” Barza said. In his view, food is a blessing, and it can unite people. Food has no religion, and it is always better to eat in company.  

“Each person in the world loves his or her mother’s cooking the best, because it is done with love. This is the secret of delicious cooking,” Barza concluded.

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