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Anissa Helou Leaves Her Mark In The Food Industry

For someone who became a cook by accident, Anissa Helou, is a bit of a food diva. Her journey to becoming a food writer on Middle Eastern cuisine, a renowned chef and food consultant took a long winding road that began with her rebellion against convention in Lebanon where she grew up after finishing school. After studying at a French convent school Helou, born to a Lebanese mother and a Syrian father, had her heart set on studying abroad away from the social confines of Lebanese society and the conformity of marriage and children. Good in languages she initially wanted to attend interpreters school in Switzerland. “After I finished school my father wouldn’t let me go,” Helou recalls. “Me being very stubborn I said to him good if you don’t let me go and study abroad I’m not going to study. So I refused to go to the American University of Beirut (AUB) which was foolish. My obsession at that time was to leave Beirut, I didn’t want to stay.” While her father was away on a business trip Helou convinced her mother to sign papers that would allow her to sign up as a hostess on Middle East Airlines (MEA). That allowed Helou some independence. She was able to travel freely now and earn her keep. “I was trying to find ways of breaking that barrier with my father but I didn’t have money so I couldn’t go against him,” she says. “Two weeks later I realised I was a maid on those planes so I wasn’t really happy to do that job but at the same time it was a question of pride after having made such a fuss. So I stayed in the job.” In 1973, at the age of 21 and two years before the outbreak of Lebanon’s fifteen year civil war, Helou left to the UK. At first she completed an interior design course but her heart wasn’t in it. It was later at a dinner in London that Zaha Hadid (the acclaimed Iraqi-British architect), who Helou would later become good friends with, suggested she consider attending an art course at Sotheby’s auction house. “I applied and got accepted and I did the course and they hired me because it was the beginning of the oil money and everybody wanted to do business with the Middle East and I was their Middle Eastern lady,” says Helou. “I travelled for them except that they never invested enough in promoting themselves in the Middle East whereas Christie’s did.” Helou’s parents were quite supportive and her father helped her financially, but Helou struggled in the art world. Being a woman wasn’t easy, she says. Her three years at Sotheby’s however would change as a consequence of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Helou’s client base, mostly Kuwaiti at the time, including members of the ruling Al Sabah family, was more concerned with survival and getting their homeland back than art. The war in Kuwait would, as fate had it, mark the transition of Helou from the world of art to food. “The Gulf War came more or less at the right time because I was getting bored and wanting something new,” says Helou.At 24 with the help of her father she opened a shop in Paris that sold nineteenth century antiques, objects and furniture. The business didn’t take off so she closed the shop and became a freelance art consultant, buying and selling on her own account. With little progress against a well-entrenched network of dealers and agents in the art world, Helou called it a day. “I always wanted to be a writer because when I was a teenager I read a lot. I was influenced by French existentialism and the idea of me leaving Beirut was to have a kind of intellectual life abroad,” says Helou. “I never lost the idea of becoming a writer, so I started to get bored with art dealing and when the market started changing and no way could I be a dealer because I didn’t have the money and started thinking about what to do next.” As she considered writing Helou got a literary agent who would introduce her to the niece of famous British-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani. It was at dinner with the Houranis that Helou would come away with the idea of cookery writing for the Lebanese diaspora living all over the world as the civil war raged on. “We were having dinner and they started talking about cookery books,” she recalls. “As I listened to them I thought I could write a book on Lebanese food. There wasn’t anything that was user friendly for people who didn’t know the cuisine but at the same time I didn’t know anything about cookery writing. I didn’t consider cook books as serious literature then and there were old fashioned cookbooks heavy on the use of butter and old recipes. The only person who encouraged me was Albert Hourani.” By chance Helou’s agents happened to have a publisher who was looking for an author to write a book on Lebanese food. As part of her feminist outlook Helou didn’t like the idea of cooking. She refused to cook for her companions. “I refused to cook because I considered it being domesticated,” she says smiling. “I knew a lot about food and I liked food but I just didn’t want to cook. It was not my world at all.” Helou went to the annual Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery where she met cookery writers and chose a few mentors that would help provide the foundations for a book on Lebanese cuisine. “I didn’t realise writing a cookery book was serious work,” says Helou, adding that she had to bring her mother, whose recipes she recorded growing up, to come to London and help her. “It took me six months to do the proposal for what was a miniature book,” she says. “It got accepted then it took another two years to write the book. I brought my mother to London. The purpose of the book was to do a Lebanese cookbook that was user friendly not only for foreigners but for all those young Lebanese people that were displaced by the civil war and didn’t have the chance I had of growing up in Lebanon around my grandmother, mother, aunts in Syria.”The influence of the Syrian kitchen on Helou’s cooking is pronounced as a result of the time she spent with her aunt where everything was done at home from the butter to the bread to milking the cows. Helou’s book did well when it finally came out and was the first of six books that Helou published. Writing the book helped Helou build contacts within the food world which she describes as convivial rather than glamorous. A cookbook on Moroccan street food followed and HarperCollins Publishers would then publish a book on Mediterranean food by Helou. “I was interested in food as a hobby and certainly not as a profession,” Helou says. “But once a chance presents itself then you make in a way your luck and you grab it and turn into something very positive.”

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