Hello Haitham, thank you for responding to our questions. Can you tell us about your career path prior to your arrival in France? What field were you working in?
I came to France in 2015. I was a Syrian refugee, and before coming to France, I worked for long time in the field of communications, for a children’s television channel. I was in charge of content purchasing. Notably, I managed legal rights issues for the voiceovers in animated cartoons for the Middle East, North Africa, and other Arab- speaking countries. I worked at there for 15 years, but had to flee the country because of the war.
You are now the Head chef how did this career come about?
Since my arrival in France, I pursued my dream of achieving my professional goals. I did not know the direction I wanted to take, but France was a fresh start for me. I kept a small part of my work in communications consulting as a freelancer, which allowed me to choose the volume of work. I thought about it a lot, and I realized that I always loved Syrian food, and that I would like to create something around that. Unfortunately, I did not have a lot of experience, in fact, I never cooked! I just had a passion, a desire to taste the dishes and cuisines of the world, to experiment.
I started to look for a training program and I was able to take part in a course taught by Chef Thierry Marx called “Cuisine Mode d’Emploi”, “How to Cook”. I finished the training course at his school in the 20th arrondissement. It was superb! I did my internship at a restaurant called "La Régalade Saint Honoré", just next to the Louvre. After this internship, I was hired at the restaurant, and I worked there for a year, which allowed me to evolve via several other positions (apprentice chef, managing the cold appetizers, then the hot appetizers, etc.).
You could have chosen to stay in steady, paid employment. Why did you follow the path of an entrepreneur?
I knew working at the restaurant was just a step. I was able to take advantage of this past year to learn the culinary techniques in Paris, the capital of gastronomy. However, I still had the desire to mix the traditional recipes of my childhood with the technical knowledge I gained; the French way of presentation.
Then, I met Marine and Louis, the founders of Refugee Food Festival. I was able to participate twice in the festival, in 2018 and this year. They then proposed that I become a chef here at "La Résidence". The concept of the residence is really great: you work for 6 months in order to gain experience on how to run a small restaurant: contacting suppliers every day, working on the menu, testing recipes, managing the register and the teams. All while enjoying their support on the communication and the back-office aspects. So, I will be here until December and, like the other chefs who have come here before me, I hope to take the next step and work towards my career objective.
That’s right! What is your Career objective?
I hope to find financing, and a location, in order to be able to launch a solid project. I don’t want to start a project that’s too big, which involves too many risks. I am hesitating between three different projects: a small restaurant like here at the Residence, sharing a common space with other restaurants.
I am also thinking of a catering business for companies. Or, as a final option, I have always dreamed of having a small food truck.
I am very open: I can do something by myself, or with a partner! I’m still deciding on the concept, but I know for sure that I want to mix Syrian cuisine with French touches.
Little is known about Syrian cuisine in France. If you had to recommend a Syrian dish for us to discover the cuisine of this country, what would you recommend?
For me, it's "muhammara", which means "roasted pepper caviar". In France, everyone knows eggplant caviar, but there is a recipe from the city of Aleppo, in northern Syria. The red pepper is roasted in the oven and becomes like a mousse ... it is so delicious!
You have also been part of MEnt, makesense’s incubator program for refugee entrepreneurs: what have your learned from their mentorship?
This program was so helpful for me! I was able to test the concept of being a home chef, including an experience allowing intercultural exchange. I proposed a cooking project, as well as a writing workshop on how to write in Arabic, and the chance to discover the music, the culture, and the current situation in Syria.
makesense helped me create my project prototype and about business: they taught me how to go about thinking through one’s project, the customers, the possibilities of growing one’s company.
If you had some advice to give to other refugees that dream of becoming entrepreneurs, what would that be?
The First thing: The language! You absolutely have to improve your French. If not, you won’t understand the society, the business culture…everything! Most importantly, I believe that you should not hold off learning the language and should profit from the long waiting period before getting your papers, in order to learn and practice. Find some French friends, and just speak as much as possible!
The Second thing: You must think carefully about the path that you want to take: employee or entrepreneur. And that choice depends on the person, on their type of character, on their need for stability.
If you choose to be an entrepreneur, then I would suggest finding an organization such as makesense, that could help you put your project together.
What can we wish for you in your future endeavors?
Professionally, I would love to be able to launch my project in 2020, with the potential to expand and grow.
On a personal level, I want to travel, to continue my discovery of other cultures, in France, in Europe, and throughout the world. I am curious and love to learn!