My first encounter with Kamal Mouzawak occurred seven years ago; my cousin Isabelle had taken me to meet the top fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz, in his Gemmayzé showroom (Beirut); Kamal stopped by, casually announcing that he was on his way to Yemen, to teach classes in macrobiotic cuisine. I remember being jolted by his words; the association of Yemen, cooking classes and macrobiotic struck me as surreal.
Over subsequent trips to Beirut, I heard more stories about Kamal Mouzawak:
- He created a concept new in Lebanon; a farmer’s market called Souk el-Tayeb ( tayeb means” tasting good” in Lebanese) where producers from the most remote villages could (for a nominal fee) present and sell the fruits of their labor. The products are organic and free-range; the pastries are made with whole-grain flour. You will find there mouneh products. (mouneh is the larder that comprises foodstuff preserved in the ancient tradition for the winter season). The souk is located in Saifi village, a stylish and renovated area in downtown Beirut and has started hosting wine tastings.
Nobody in Lebanon up until then had paid any attention to small farmers who were basically left to fend for themselves, trying to survive without any governmental assistance; usually forced to leave their villages and either immigrate or move to the big city and abandon their land.
I remember hopping on a cab one Saturday morning and asking the driver to take me to Souk el Tayeb; Taxi drivers in Beirut are opinionated, and his comment was ” you know if you buy your cucumbers there, you will pay more but they will smell of cucumber for kilometers around!” I was filled with trepidation as I disembarked in front of the canopied area buzzing with people; rows and rows of jam and other preserves lined up on makeshift tables, people drinking fresh jellab and lemonade, people ordering flatbreads from a saaj maker, buying country cheese,sheesh barak, maamool, mujaddara hamra, stuffed grape and chard leaves, kibbe balls, zaatar, makdous; people greeting each other with hugs and laughter, I mean that place was happening!
- Kamal Mouzawak continued to carve a trailblazing path through the Lebanese culinary scene and took the concept to the next level: This time, in addition to a marketplace, he would provide a kitchen for the forgotten small farmers and producers of Lebanon: Tawlet was born. Set in a stylishly renovated garage, Tawlét (tr: Table, in Arabic) is a place where from 1 to 4PM every day, people can come, serve themselves buffet-style and sample dishes cooked by producers from all corners of the country, every day. The menu varies daily and is based on the regional specialties. Every dish presented is meticulously tested and fine-tuned by Kamal. Dishes that jaded Beirutis are unfamiliar with, such as lentil kibbés or goat-meat laban ummo. Reservations are required (01) 448-129. Location is in the Mar Mikhael district and cost is US $25, all-you-can-eat.
I was invited there by the talented artist Mona Dabaji; All four of us refilled our plates at least once, eating heartily yet we did not feel stuffed; three desserts including fresh fruit are also offered.Tawlet also organizes children workshops, to teach them about traditions such as St. Barbara’s day.
- Kamal Mouzawak also founded and contributes to a newsletter, El Tayeb, (English/Arabic); the free newsletter is filled with information on local food producers, villages to visit, any interesting news emanating from Lebanon (non-political).
- Kamal and his team founded Beit Loubnan, a project aiming at keeping the farmer in his environment and reviving and perpetuating his local traditions; it also seeks to create jobs in the rural communities.
- Kamal and his team run a kitchen workshop out of his home in Batroun, teaching ancient Lebanese culinary traditions.
- Kamal and his team developed a Farmers Exchange Program which puts Lebanese farmers in touch with other farmers throughout the world and focuses on how both sides can learn from the other and improve their operation.
- Kamal and his team organized Food & Feast, a series of festivals throughout Lebanon which aims at promoting local traditions and food specialties.
- Kamal and his team developed a Seeds for Peace project, a Bala Nylon program, a Souk @ School program (raising awareness at schools for organic, sustainable agriculture and teaching food traditions).
- Kamal created Dekenet Souk el Tayeb in order to support small producers, to discover and perpetuate culinary traditions.
- Kamal contributed to an excellent guidebook A Complete Insider’s Guide to Lebanon (Souk el-Tayeb Press 2008)
About food in general, Kamal says, full of passion and feelings: “Food is our identity. Taste is the only thing that we will take with us to the grave“.
About his accomplishments, Kamal refuses any credit: ” It is not me, it is all these producers out there who need credit: I only give them a voice and support them”.
Listen to Larry Kent, an expert in market management from North Carolina State University, who came to Lebanon to provide help and guidance to Souk el-Tayeb’s producers: ” The whole concept which Kamal has created (all the projects listed above) …Kamal is way ahead of us in the US… this is a leader project that can be a boost for peace, and can be duplicated in other countries.”
As Lebanese expatriates whose nostalgia and longing for the taste of our motherland and whose love for our country of origin is ever so vibrant, here’s what we would like Kamal Mouzawak to know:
Kamal, we root for you and we are proud of you.
We are proud that you are helping the small farmers and producers and giving them a chance to make it.
We are proud that you are reviving our ancient traditions through all these forgotten dishes, through your classes, events, media, and through the souk.
We are proud that you are helping put a stop to the decay and neglect of farm land throughout Lebanon.
We give you our steady support and wish you continued success.
Tel/fax: +961 1 448 129