Before Abdallah El Chami was born, his parents were forced to flee their home of Lebanon due to a civil war outbreak. They relocated to Saudi Arabia, where El Chami entered the world, but it was not long—less than two years—before the Gulf War forced them to seek refuge in Canada. El Chami and his family eventually found their way to Vancouver, where they stayed for eight years.
El Chami’s youth continued on this path of back and forth, dividing long periods of time between Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Lebanon. Everywhere he went, though, delicious homemade food was a constant. With a mother full of knowledge passed down from generations and determination to keep her kids away from processed fast foods and empty activities, El Chami’s time in the kitchen and around the dinner table was joyful and plentiful. “After learning a lot from my mum and sort of being pulled away from video games to help her in the kitchen, I started cooking for my friends,” he says, now based in Vancouver full-time. “There was always something about community and family with food. When I started cooking more, I realized what I really enjoyed was having people together in the same room.” He started helping his friend, chef Juno Kim, put on pop-up dinners, which helped El Chami build the confidence to serve not just his buddies, but strangers, too. “It was just a matter of coincidence that Juno decided to go to Mexico one week and he needed someone to take over his Monday night at 33 Acres,” El Chami recalls. He took the reins for the night and decided to try something Lebanese, turning traditional street food into tacos. “It was such an easy thing to have at a brewery—it went really well with beer, it’s really accessible to try those kinds of flavours,” he says. “That sort of sparked the idea that this is something I should really dig my hands into.”
Since then El Chami has continued cooking for others through pop-ups under his catering name The Dallah Menu, recently raising almost $1,600 for refugees during a dinner held at Gastown cafe The Birds and The Beets, as well as tackling the vegetable-heavy nature of Lebanese food in a vegan brunch at the brick-and-mortar location of The Juice Truck. Both of these meals were modern takes on traditional Lebanese dishes; still, when putting a twist on his childhood favorites, El Chami proceeds with awareness and caution. “You don’t want to make it modern and lose the soul,” he explains. “A lot of times I try to understand what the purpose of the dish is.” When creating a wheat berry recipe for Vancouver dry good purveyor Grain, he was taken back to his childhood summers in the Middle East, when wheat berry harvest takes place. “There are big witch cauldrons in the street with fires going on beneath them boiling the wheat berries: they boil them, dry them out, and crush them, so just as they’re boiled you can actually go up to these cauldrons and buy a bowl, and they just put sugar on top,” he explains. “It’s like the most basic version of sugary cereal you can think of. So when [Grain] asked me to come up with a recipe for wheat berries, I tried to think of the same concept. I took the flavours you would find in baklava and put them into the wheat berries as they come out of the boil. It’s supposed to be a sugary treat, but we modernize it with the flavours we have now.” El Chami’s approach to this recipe exemplifies his style of cooking. Rather than placing an emphasis on fusing two opposite unlikely dishes together, he subtly forms plates from within the canon of Lebanese recipes, creating something modern yet familiar. Taking advantage of the Pacific Northwest’s bounty of produce, El Chami plays with vibrant colours and fresh tastes. A tahini carrot dip, for example, offers a light and dynamic take on hummus using vegetables as a substitute for chickpeas. Combining the flavours found in raw carrot salad (a dish often used as a side in Lebanese meals) with the creamy consistency of tahini, the dip balances the sweetness of the root vegetable with the citrusy bite of a traditional hummus.
Though a chef’s apron seems to fit him like a glove, cooking is by no means El Chami’s main pursuit. A marketing adviser in the technology world and co-owner of the greeting card company Lost Boys, El Chami is not spending all of his time tossing fattoush salad. And in a way, he is happy with his fingers in many different pies—it gives him the opportunity to maintain cooking as a passion project, a labour of love. El Chami explains that when it comes to a career in food, he is happy approaching it with no end game. “If I just let it do its thing, it’s growing, and it’s figuring itself out,” he says. His main focus is bringing a piece of home to Vancouver, establishing community, and filling bellies the way it was done at the long table dinners he attended at his grandparents’ house in Southern Lebanon. “There was never any fuss to the food—the food was always fantastic and the tables were always full,” El Chami recalls. “The thing that really resonated was that everybody was together and everybody was talking. Those are the kinds memories that keep me close to food.”
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