The Seeds of Passion, Integrity and Tradition.
Chef Sawsan Da’na is a Palestinian chef who was born and raised in Kuwait. Nine years ago, she established a catering business which serves goodness through original Palestinian dishes, or let us say that she tells her own story through the successful business she established, which we will get to know about in this exciting interview!
“I defend identity full heartedly.”
-Chef Sawasn Da’na
You are passionate when it comes to cooking, can you tell us how you found that passion?
I fell in love with cooking at around 9 years-old; In our home, I used to add my touch to whatever my mother cooked, and I felt excited whenever we had home economics class. After class, I used to rush back home to apply what learned. My dad gave me unconditional support, but my mom, God rest her soul, was worried that I would wreak havoc in the kitchen. Even though I was little, it was really evident that I had a passion for cooking and good food; I was a foodie person, and I still fall for fish anytime, and Chicken Molokhia, that is my stuff, and then you have pea stew with beef and carrots, I would always seize the chance to ask mom to cook it so we could enjoy what a colorful and delicious dish it is.
I remember sending my neighbors some of my favorite home cooked meals. Moreover, and briefly after I got married, I threw banquets to our friends and relatives and they were always amazed by the food I made. Whenever a friend wanted to come by and have a cup of coffee, she would get surprised by the feast I threw her.
Your folks originate from the Palestinian city of Hebron. Could you describe for us the food culture there?
The people of my city are well known for their love for food, and my family were eager to come to my mom’s banquets to enjoy her tasty dishes. You could feel how she put her passion even into everything; even the simple things like tea or samosa. In addition to my mother, I can say that cooking well runs deep in the family, my aunts from both sides are brilliant cooks. On the other hand, my father was quite a fussy connoisseur and he would give a harsh judgement if food didn’t meet his standards.
Generally speaking, my family had this thing for fatty meals; preparing tripe, mumbar, grape leaf rolls, garlic and cilantro-stuffed spleen, Hebron clay pot cooked meals. As for light and mild meals, it had no place in our dictionary!
Establishing a catering business: How did this idea occur to you?
Becoming a professional chef came by chance, although I have always considered opening a restaurant. Whenever I made a feasibility study, I came to the conclusion that the start-up costs were extravagant, which made me reconsider this option.
The idea of establishing a catering kitchen came to mind during an art gallery opening, there was a café near the gallery and they suggested adding salad and pasta. I didn’t mind helping out since my kids were grown by then. Then time went by and my acquaintances started asking me to cook them banquets as they believed that my “food is priceless” according to them. So, I started my catering business at home. I’ve got to tell you, I didn’t think my business would grow this fast, my house became full of cutlery which made me consider having a kitchen dedicated to my business. That idea met my husband and children’s liking and they supported me fully. After all, everyone knows what a good cook I am!
Where did you learn to cook?
I did not receive any academic education from anywhere, I’m a natural. Still, I went to many culinary schools to receive specialized cooking courses in Italy, France, the USA and other countries. Whenever I visit a country, I seize the opportunity to increase my knowledge and come with newly acquired experiences, but most importantly, many little details were behind shaping my cooking identity; how to pick the right rice to cook, how to stir fry garlic for okra stew, making sure that meat broth is not thin, etc. All the above impacted me and helped me become who I am today. All this contributed to giving me the knowledge and experience to cook well and be able to impress my customers.
What is the Palestinian Cuisines’ status compared to other cuisines?
It hurts me deeply to witness the vicious attempts to appropriate our cuisine by the occupation; the love for Palestine lives inside of me, and this love was passed to me from my mother who got it from her mother. As a Palestinian woman, this leaves a tremendous responsibility upon my shoulders to put more effort to get our cuisine back and to introduce it to the whole world as it is. Moreover, it was ingrained in me that western people like our food. My father used to work as a foods wholesaler and sometimes he invited foreigners to our house who loved my mom’s cooking.
On the other hand, I believe that the Palestinian cuisine isn’t appreciated enough compared to other cuisines, with all due respect, the Lebanese cuisine got hyped up, while a deep-rooted cuisine like ours does not get the credit it deserves, even though it has some delicious and extraordinary dishes.
As a first step, and since I am married to a Kuwaiti man, I had the opportunity to integrate more with the Kuwaiti community. I’ve lived here since my childhood, and it is not strange that I have established strong relationships with my Kuwaiti customers on the basis of mutual love and respect. I’m very happy to see my success in introducing Palestinian dishes to Kuwaiti nationals; they now know the Gaza Daqqa, Qedra (clay-pot cooked meat and rice) and Kishik. There are also other recipes that my Kuwaiti clients request frequently like mansaf and grape leaf rolls. Due to my experience with the Kuwaiti people, I’m eager to see our cuisine introduced to the rest of the Arab world and beyond.
When you look back in time, how do you evaluate your first year in the business?
In my first year, precisely 9 years ago, my first steps were simple and relaxed. At that time, my kids started relying on themselves and that promoted me to start working towards making myself a name. However, when the project got bigger, tougher challenges started to emerge. In my first year, I used to spend around 14 to 16 hours working, but now I rely on professional chefs to do the job. On a busy day, we work for 10 hours, and we work for 6 hours on regular days.
What cooking style do you feel more related to?
I believe i am more of a traditional chef. My signature is cooking traditional dishes, and generally speaking, I’m more inclined towards cooking savory dishes than sweets. When it comes to traditional dishes from any origin, I am a total fanatic and I always stand against whatever nonsense people do through manipulating the original recipe, which leads to deforming the original dish and obscuring its native identity in an unspeakable way, especially when someone mixes inhomogeneous ingredients together. It totally irritates me to see people adding irrelevant ingredients, like adding caramelized onions or tahini or sumac to molokhia!
On the other hand, I totally support self-development and I really like to experiment; I do have what it takes to try new dishes and I never feel disgusted from trying any of it. Yet, I defend identity full heartedly.
This is an exhausting business as it is; are there any additional hardships that you face as a woman in this line of business?
Not necessarily. Every job in the world relies on the person’s abilities, whether that person was a man or a woman. While a man may have physical superiority in dealing with heavy equipment inside the kitchen, cooking still needs passion whether you are a man or a woman.
I have to be honest, the kitchen environment is very hostile, a chef must deal with high temperatures, sharp knives, hot steam, long standing hours, unlimited time, heavy cutlery and equipment, etc.
At the same time, a chef is also responsible for making a delicious meals with a subtle presentation. From my end, I have lived some harsh experiences, but that also honed me well to work under pressure and make dishes with high quality. Perhaps if I work in less tense environments, I wouldn’t make things at the same level of quality.
In my personal opinion, working professionally distances a chef from working moodily; it is not that I don’t’ feel annoyed by all that pressure, but once I sleep, I wake up eager to go to the kitchen more than ever. This is my reality, I love cooking from all my heart.
As for difficulties on my family’s level, sometimes I have to miss having a meal with them due to the workload, whether that meal was lunch, dinner or meals at special events like Ramadan or the Eids. Either way, I try my best to make time for everything.
Where do you get your inspiration from?
We all need a muse in our lives, I always say is that cooking is not rocket science, as all it takes is putting the right amount of fresh ingredients on the stove and having passion in it. Moreover, there are plenty of ideas and resources that are available for everyone to learn. It is just that we need to improve ourselves and try new things. I always like to learn from people far from my region and I like following international chefs from many different regions. Sometimes I’m amazed by a Japanese chef’s use of colors, and I may like using a technique done by a Danish or a German cook. No matter what skills we learn, it will certainly add to our experiences.
Above all else, what I really want is the inspiration to present and serve dishes in new ways. Why? Because it would be nice to serve a traditional dish in a modernized presentation since serving traditional dishes as it is may not be as attractive as it should be.
What are the ethics that some may not be totally aware of?
People must have intelligence, respectfulness and good manners. I believe I have those qualities, hence I cannot plagiarize a chef’s recipe and call it mine, although many of my recipes were appropriated with no regard to the effort I made.
What is a signature dish of yours that may have been stolen?
I am famous for my Carrot Maqlouba (maqloubet el Jazar), which became so famous and copied as well. Some people gave themselves credit for its recipe, and some other chefs cooked it on live television. In general, this maqlouba is much closer to kabsa than maqlouba, but I called it that because I flip it all the time.
If you had time and choice, what would you do?
I would get back to writing poetry. I published two poetry books a couple of years ago; I named the first “Ghurbat Samaka” (a fish’s diaspora) and “Ma ziltou imra’a” (I am still a woman). I must say that I suffer pangs of remorse since cooking has swept me away from my favorite hobby, even though I have enough stock to write two books. Additionally, when I have time, I will plan to write a book for Palestinian and Kuwaiti dishes.
What is the nicest compliment you have ever received?
One of my most loyal customers is a movie director from another country who once informed me that she was coming to Kuwait for a short time and she could not wait to have some of my food which she craved so much.
Is there a country that you wish to work in?
I love being everywhere. I’ve always been asked to open restaurants in the UAE and Jordan, and I would be happy to do so. However, if I had what it takes and to be more satisfied with accomplishments, I would eagerly look forward to the day I opened a restaurant in NYC. I went there once and I realized that our Palestinian dishes have a good fan base there.
Finally, what is your advice for a rookie?
Honestly, this job is very exhausting and needs a full-time commitment. You might find yourself forced to disconnect more from your family and social life. You will give away a great deal of your quality time, you will feel nervous all the time, and you will have to put in a huge amount of effort. Anyone who considers going into this line of work must think carefully before pursuing it. Cooking needs people who can stand it and appreciate it while following up whatever is new in this career, especially when it comes to how to serve or present a dish. Add to that having the courage and wisdom to innovate and experiment.
On the other hand, I must warn you that investing in the cooking industry is quite risky and requires careful and thorough feasibility studies because deciding to invest in this type of businesses is not a walk in the park. I find it preposterous how some people decide to open a restaurant just because they can make a dish or two or some sort of a cake very well.
Thank you Sawsan.
How did you start your career as a chef?
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