Cooking is about connections. It is what binds us to our culture, helps us build stronger relationships, reminds us of our past and at its core, connects us as humans. Spending time in the kitchen with another person is a quick reminder that we are not that different after all. Organizer of the Refugee Food Festival in NYC and professional cook Céline Karout learned this during her childhood in Beirut, spending time with her father’s family.
“The fact is that we didn’t speak any common languages, so the main way to communicate was through cooking,” says Karout. So she went to the kitchen and passed the days with her aunts and grandma, using taste as language. She describes her grandmother, “Teta,” as a great cook whose face would light up as she brought a mountain of zucchini stuffed with rice and meat to the table.
“I remember an afternoon spent with her. We couldn’t speak together, but we cooked the whole time and we shared many things through that,” says Karout.
Since she hails from France, her path to food seems inevitable, growing up with influences of Mediterranean and classic French cuisine in everyday life. However, Karout originally worked in advertising for seven years before making the switch to cooking, hoping to make her professional life more meaningful.
“...cooking and food were a passion, so I decided to attend cooking school and in 2016 I had the chance to do my cooking studies at Cuisine Mode d’Emplois, the cooking school of the 2-star Michelin Chef, Thierry Marx.” Now she works as a personal chef, creating French-Mediterranean menus for clients in New York and France, as well as offering her expertise in food as a recipe developer for Real Eats and an events manager for Eat Offbeat. Karout notes that food was a passion way before this, most definitely due to the influence of her grandmother and her time spent in Lebanon. When she creates a dish she lets what she has available inspire her, those ingredients acting as a guide for what the meal will become.
“In France we call that cuisine du marché. It means that you cook with the products you picked at the farmer’s market in an instinctive way,” says Karout. Vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables, smells of fragrant herbs and curiosities about an unfamiliar piece of produce guide you in the kitchen. “It’s all about the relationship you have with the products you choose and how you respect it once you are cooking it, and how you highlight it in a recipe.”
Her appreciation for food from other cultures and helping refugees led her to organize the Refugee Food Festival in New York City. She had heard about the festival in France, so in 2017 when she saw that it had been organized in other countries, she offered to lay the groundwork in New York. She’s now led the Refugee Food Festival for the past two years. It allows refugees to get in restaurants kitchens and share their cuisine, while also changing the perceptions of refugees and welcoming them into society.
Experience with chefs from other cultures is also a big learning opportunity for Karout. When developing recipes for Eat Offbeat, a catering company that only works with refugee chefs, she cooked with chefs from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Syria and Iran. “I realized how each cuisine has its process, and traditions you can’t change. It’s like cooking a French omelet with coconut oil instead of butter, that wouldn’t be possible for many French chefs!” says Karout.
Ultimately, it’s love that connects us through food, and the message Karout hopes her food conveys. “Love for the products you are cooking with. Love of your heritage or culinary discoveries you want to share. And love for the people you are cooking for.”
You can learn more about Céline Karout on her website