Abdullah Alawayed, aka ‘The Damascus Chef’ was born in a small village in north-east Syria.
These days you’ll find the 36-year-old running pop-up restaurants in the aptly named Good Hope cafés in Hither Green and Lewisham High Street. Customers can choose from a menu of delicious dishes, but probably don’t realise that the food Abdullah prepares and serves represents an incredible journey.
In an interview with Eastlondonlines, he explained one of his first experiences of good food was in the house where he grew up. He lived there with his family and an array of “sheep, goats, chickens and turkeys” which provided a food source for practically all their meals.
He said one of many strong influences on his relationship with food was watching his mother create delicious meals for the family from the simplest, freshest ingredients. Rather poetically, he explained that his mother created these dishes for him to be “happy and satisfied”, and he wanted to provide this for other people. However, it wasn’t that simple.
Alawayed studied in his village until he was 18, when he was sent to do his military service, although he ended up serving in the police force, in Aleppo. After this was finished, he made his first trip to Damascus.
As he had moved from a very small village to a huge city, Alawayed explained he felt as though he had to learn a “hidden code” to be accepted. This was to be a running theme in our conversation as he had to learn a different “code” for each city he lived in. That said, he eventually learned it and soon fell “in love” with Damascus.
Despite his new-found infatuation with the city, he moved backwards and forwards between the small village and Damascus, working on a farm outside the city (he stopped when the season was over as “it started being weird after all the colour was gone”), in hotels, on the police force and in a restaurant.
In a strange way, all of these jobs played a part in him becoming the Damascus Chef, and he explained: “I bring different stages of my life together to create my food.” Every morning he would take 10 Syrian pounds, around 10 per cent of his daily wage, to get his meals, beginning to explore the local shops and stalls and experimenting with “ handmade and great quality food”. He also taught himself English in this time.
Although he had developed many skills he felt he needed to find something new, as he wanted to work with food. He told himself “If you don’t leave now, you will never leave, never find something new.”
The next important step in his journey was his time in Jordan – on the way to England to be with his wife, who is from Cambridge.
He described this part of his journey as being stuck between his home in Syria and his new home (with his wife and first child) in England, when he was applying for his visa.
“I remember I was stuck for exactly one year and one month. The embassy is there to make money- they are not bothered about families,” he recalls.
Although this sounds very difficult, he says he began to learn another “code” to this city, again trying to dig around for the cheap local produce in Jordan.
He asked his first friend where people got their food from, and he answered “don’t you go to the pharmacy to get your vegetables?” Alawayed’s first thought was “are you making fun of me?!” but he then realised this was the name of a market stall by the mosque, where all the best food was from. It was so named because all the produce was imported from around the world, so seemed artificial.
He notes Jordan as an enormous landmark in his career, as he began practicing with food he had never cooked before and from then on was “able to cook anything”.
Finally, he arrived in England, describing it as “a dream”.
After a while his family started living in the capital, he says it was difficult to learn the ‘code’ to London – although speaking English was the first step.
He began to make friends in the playground of his son’s school, describing his son as a “sparkling and outgoing boy”.
He then picked up various jobs to save enough money to get a loan to start his restaurant, but it wasn’t until he had a few friends over for dinner that they asked him to cook their Boxing Day lunch, and soon he was being booked to cater for private parties.
Finally, he had earned enough to set up his business, and he was fantasizing about getting a stall on Borough market – “that will be my place!”- however, the process was long and expensive and his wife suggested that he set up a pop-up restaurant. He liked this idea, and now has two, but wanted to have his name on the sign, which he now gets through promotion on social media.
The pop-ups opened in Hither Green and on Lewisham High Street in September 2016. On the first night, 37 people showed up with many of them never having tried Syrian food before.
This, Alawayed says, is the whole reason he wanted to do this. Going back to when he was younger and his mother gave him food to make him happy, with the reactions he gains from customers in the restaurant, he knows he has achieved this for others.
His plans for the future of the pop up is to have them open for more days, as he is currently only open Friday and Saturday evenings, and get a few more branches to “cover the south-east area”.