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Meet the Man Championing Lebanon’s Culinary Traditions

Ever since the Lebanese social entrepreneur Kamal Mouzawak began championing his country’s culinary heritage and empowering the people who keep it alive, he dreamed of extending his reach abroad. But he never expected it to happen under such trying circumstances.

Souk El Tayeb, the first farmer’s market in Lebanon that he opened in Beirut in 2004, put the 52-year-old humanitarian on the global food map. That inspired other projects across the country, from community outreach and guesthouses to a series of restaurants called Tawlet, where women from different regions of Lebanon came each day to cook dishes from their villages. In total, Mr. Mouzawak estimates that more than 500 women, including refugees, have been trained and employed across his organization’s projects and programs.

But the deadly explosion in Beirut’s port in August 2020 upended everything. While his partner, the Paris-based fashion designer Rabih Kayrouz, was being treated in the hospital for a brain hemorrhage caused by the blast, Mr. Mouzawak faced the devastation to their home, their city and the business he spent nearly two decades growing.

Almost overnight, he and his team created an emergency community kitchen, in partnership with the Spanish-American chef José Andrés’s nonprofit World Central Kitchen, to feed the residents who lost everything, the hospital staff caring for thousands of injured people and rescue workers searching for survivors. While all locations of Tawlet closed (and all but one guesthouse), he was able to rebuild a space across from the port thanks to $200,000 in donations. Today, it’s where his team of nearly 100 workers run Souk el Tayeb, and one outpost of Tawlet, as well as a grocery and a permanent community kitchen that serves 2,000 meals per day.

As this operation carries on under the leadership of Mr. Mouzawak’s business partner, Christine Codsi, Mr. Mouzawak is building anew in France, with Tawlet Paris, a canteen and grocer which opened this month in the 11th arrondissement.

During the restaurant’s opening week, Mr. Mouzawak talked about his journey from one market to many, his feelings about leaving Lebanon — a former French mandate— and how food can unite.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your goal when you started Souk el Tayeb?

I was trying to change the world. I still want to change the world! It’s not that I decided to do it, I just followed a stream. Nothing I’ve done in my life has been with long term planning. During the war, Lebanon was divided into small parts, each unreachable from the others. But when the war ended, the whole country opened. I traveled for more than a year to write a guidebook about Lebanon and discovered this country I heard about, but could never visit. I was not only amazed by its natural beauty but by the link between the people I met. Whether Christian, Muslim or Druze, we were all the same. I went to meet people with open arms, and they had even wider arms. Then, I wrote about travel and food, learned about macrobiotics and slow food, joined the board of the Slow Food organization for several years, and knew food was the way to unite.

Why a farmer’s market?

I always dreamed of a farmer’s market for Lebanon like the one I visited in Trabzon, Turkey, with only women farmers. They bring whatever they have in their garden or have foraged. It’s very simple. Wherever I go, I visit farmer’s markets because that’s where you discover the people. The products wouldn’t exist without the people who grow them. It was the same idea with Tawlet. What’s behind a restaurant? Humans who grew the ingredients, who brought them to you, who cleaned, cooked and served them. Everything I do is about inclusive human development and betterment.

Why do you think it took off?

Perhaps because we spoke to something that people missed: Simplicity, authenticity and truth. It was food, without all the storytelling and marketing. It’s a person selling their food and that’s it. Also we’ve never stopped running Souk el Tayeb, not even during conflicts. For us, resistance wasn’t fighting, resistance was holding the farmer’s market no matter what. Because if the producers didn’t sell on Saturday, they didn’t have money for the week to come.

How has recent turmoil changed your operation?

It’s been drastic. We were dealing with an entirely new context due to the explosion, the pandemic and economic collapse. Minimum wage went from $450 a month — not a lot, but something — to $20 a month. We lost a lot during this time. Our new space, which we hadn’t even officially signed for at the time of the blast, is where we run everything now, including the community kitchen. By October 2020, the work was complete and people saw this shiny new place in the midst of chaos as a glimmer of hope. But it’s hard, every day.

How has this experience changed your relationship to home?

Lebanon made me — it’s my roots, it’s what I smell, it’s the taste on my tongue, it’s my parents, it’s my soul. But it’s also been like living with an abusive parent or partner: you tell them once, twice, 72 times to stop and when they don’t, you know you need to get away. So that’s what I did.

Your work has been a form of activism. Can food still bring about change?

I think everything should be activism. Every act should be done with an intention to make the world a better place. Food is the common ground. What do you do most? You eat. It’s what we do most that can have the most impact. And I’ve seen firsthand how it can bring people of opposing beliefs and backgrounds together. The differences don’t matter in the kitchen.

You have bounced between Beirut and Paris for many years. What does Paris offer you?

I’ve always come to Paris as a therapy. Not only for its beauty, which is healing, but its sense of order. I come from a jungle, where everything is a fight. Over time, that wears you down. But I’ve also always wanted to extend the model of Tawlet outside of Lebanon. At first, I thought about a space focused on French regional cuisines, but the original Tawlet is what I know best. We had a duty to do more for Lebanon, and it was obvious to me to do it in Paris.

When you’re not working, where do you go in Paris?

I like to have a nap, with my feet up on the central fountain in the gardens of the Palais Royal. But no matter where I go, the beauty of this city nurtures me. Beauty is important, especially today. It nurtures the soul.

Lindsey Tramuta is the author of “The New Paris” and “The New Parisienne”

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