Q&A With Lebanese Chef Lara Ariss

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While I was in Lebanon (where I grew up) for the holidays, I met with an old family friend Lara Ariss. She just released a new cookbook, Levantine Harvest, and I wanted to get her perspective on work-life balance in Beirut, where she lives.

Make sure to scroll down for one of her delicious recipes, following the Q&A.

  • How did you decide what you wanted to do? What made you want to become a chef?

I always used to go into my mom’s kitchen and play and try recipes, and she used to let me. It was always something that I enjoyed doing. Especially when we moved to Lebanon, there was no place to play outdoors. We lived in an apartment in Beirut. There was nothing to do as a child. [Lara’s family moved to Lebanon soon after the long nearly 30-year Civil War ended. The country was devastated in all aspects]. The summer we moved to Lebanon, my mom enrolled me in a baking class for kids. I was 9 or 10. That was my first experience in the kitchen.

Later, I found Le Cordon Bleu online, and my heart was set on going there. I wanted to finish high school and go. My dad said, get your Bachelor’s degree, you never know what happens. When I finished college, he said, work a bit first. I worked in advertising— Then I couldn’t do it anymore. So I dropped everything and went to London, the summer I was 26 years old.

It was a 9-month program. While I was studying, I was also working in a kitchen in London… There was a lot of me being confused. When I moved back to Lebanon, I wanted to open something, but at the time the situation was much worse than it is now in the country. I also couldn’t get a job in a kitchen. When people saw I had a college degree, they said I was overqualified to work in a kitchen. So I went back to advertising for one year, to keep myself busy, and I had my food blog as well, Keys to My Kitchen.

After a year, I was like, “No, what am I doing here?” So I went to New York and took writing courses, and by then my blog was getting recognition. So I returned to Beirut and decided to to do this cookbook, with recipes simplified for the new generation.  I pitched it to publishers in Cyrus, Dubai and Beirut, chose one, and that’s when I started with this book.

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  • What does work-life balance mean to you?

I’m kind of struggling with it, and I have been struggling with it. Sometimes it feels like people don’t realize how much time it takes to test my recipes, to research my recipes. I was testing my cheesecake for 2 years. Sometimes people don’t realize being in the kitchen is tiring. (You know, in the past, women weren’t chefs because it’s considered labor work, like a plumber or carpenter). So sometimes, when I’ve been in the kitchen 10-12 hours, and I’m tired, people don’t get it, so it’s a bit frustrating.

Do you think work-life balance is possible?

It is possible when you are very organized, and that’s what I’m trying to do. With my cookbook, that’s what I tried to do, but sometimes it’s out of your control. During the editing phase, I shut myself off from everyone, 10 hours a day.

I do think it’s possible, but I’m still single. Honestly, some people are moms. They’re married and have kids. I don’t know how they do it.

  • What’s your biggest challenge to having a balanced life?

The strong support system that I have is living abroad. That’s the hardest part.

  • What’s one thing you wish you did differently in how you manage your time?

I cycle a lot, mostly on the weekends, and I wish I could ride my bike in the city. I wish we had bike lanes, because I think I could get from place to place much more quickly. I tried biking in Beirut twice, and I don’t know how I’m still alive. Because it’s the errands that I have to do that really slow me down, so I end up spending less time in the place I want to be, which is the kitchen.

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  • What’s your advice for someone starting a new endeavor?

It’s a bit cheesy, but you know that quote… “Get up. Dress up. Show up.” It’s really that.

Just don’t give up. You’re going to be scared, which is normal, but just do it. You end up learning and evolving so much on a personal level that it’s satisfying. Especially when you have a passion, you want to do something with it. The fear is there, but don’t give up, no matter how long it takes.

  • What are some of your favorite recipes from your book?

Do I have to pick one? [Laughs] I like my cheesecake recipe because I’m just so proud of it. I like the Rose Loukoum ice cream recipe. The cheese rolls are really good. The rocket and date salad as well. Cauliflower and chickpea soup. Kafta with tahini. Lamb shanks with bulghur and chickpeas. Kafta crumble. Pumpkin kebbeh. Falafel. Makloubeh….

recipe-wild-mushrooms-on-toast

When I was flipping through Lara’s cookbook for the first time, so many recipes stood out to me. One of them I knew I had to try as soon as I returned to Los Angeles was the Seasoned Wild Mushrooms on Toast. She gave me permission to share it on this blog:

Seasoned Wild Mushrooms on Toast, from Levantine Harvest

The combination of rosemary, cinnamon and sumac gives a wonderful sweet and tangy kick to the dense flavors of wild mushrooms. You can make the mushrooms ahead of time and reheat them just before serving.

Preparation time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 15 minutes

Serves: 4 to 6 levantine-harvest-lara-ariss

  • 2 tbsp vegetable oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 300g mixed wild mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, stems removed, coarsely chopped
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1⁄2 tsp sumac
  • Olive oil, to taste
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

To serve

  • Butter, to taste
  • Sliced brown bread

Heat the vegetable oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and garlic, and sauté until translucent.

Add the mushrooms and toss. When the mushrooms have softened slightly, add the rosemary, cinnamon and sumac. Toss for 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and drizzle with olive oil. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Line a baking tray with parchment paper.

Butter one side of each slice of the bread. Place buttered side up on a baking tray and toast for 5 to 6 minutes, or until lightly toasted.

Divide the mushroom medley over the bread slices. Serve immediately.

 


Photographs by Natalie Naccache

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Q&A With Senior Editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, Journalist & Filmmaker Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn

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Janice Rhoshalle Littlejohn is currently working on the feature film Lovers in Their Right Mind, the documentary film …But Can She Play? Blowin’ the Roof off Women Horn Players and Jazz (about contemporary women horn players in jazz that arose from work she did as a USC graduate student inspired by an unsung female jazz trumpeter in the 1940s), and is a senior editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books. She’s the co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate, and Relate Mixing Race, Culture, and Creed, is a former columnist for the Associated Press, and has been a journalist for over 30 years covering entertainment.

I met her this past summer when we were both on a panel about avoiding burnout in a mobile-connected world. I wanted to hear more about her thoughts on work-life balance, especially since she is a writer working on so many different projects. We met at Cafe Brazil in Culver City to chat over fresh passionfruit juice and herbal tea.

  • How did you identify your passions and follow your dreams?

Essentially, when I was in college, I was studying fashion merchandising in hopes of becoming the president of Nordstrom. That’s the trajectory I was on. That’s what I thought I wanted to do. About my second year in school, I realized that I hated my accounting and marketing classes, and I took a fashion writing class with the fashion editor of the LA Herald Examiner, back when we had 2 papers in this city. She was black, she was smart, she was funny, she dressed well… she was who I wanted to be.

I had always written, but I never thought of it is a field. She encouraged my writing and felt my work was viable. And she helped me get an internship at Women’s Wear Daily. That internship changed my life because they let their interns write.

I loved the work. I loved that I could tell people things and introduce them to things they didn’t know. I felt smart [laughs]. And it piqued my curiosity: I always want to know about things that are happening.

So that’s where my writing career began… When I got out of school, one of the first jobs I got was at a syndicated radio show that covered urban enternmaint news. That’s when I  started covering junkets and going to the Oscars…  I was in my 20s, and feeling very special, because there were few, if any, young black people, and no women. It was great. I got to tell people about the films and TV shows and books that were coming out. And I had won a couple of awards about reports that I had done about black voting and adoptions. I felt like I was accomplishing something and contributing to this world.

  • What does the term “work-life balance” mean to you?

I think it’s a funny term for me, because my work is my life. My brother often teases me and says, “Do you ever shut it down? Everything you look at is a story.” We’ll be having a conversation and I’ll be like, “That would make a really good story.”

I have a writing life. But I enjoy what I do. I love sitting down, fiddling with words, trying to find the best words and trying to find the right angle for a story. It’s who I am.

For me, balance is making sure I take myself out of the minutiae of the business part of that writing life, to make time for walking in the morning and getting a good night’s sleep, taking time off even if I’m not going anywhere, and being cognizant to spend time with my friends and family.

My writing life includes time for self-care: To do those things that I need to do to make the work better… I set those things in place, and I’m a very serious list person. I try to adhere to my lists and make time.

At this fall's AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.
At this fall’s AIDS Walk: Los Angeles with Team APLA Health where Janice serves as a board member.

Janice and I met just before election, and she discussed wanting to make time to volunteer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, which inspired me to ask her about how people being perpetually overworked affects communities and the country as a whole:

Do you feel that we’ve become as a nation overworked and overstressed, to a point that we don’t participate in our country, communities and politics like we should? Does that have a negative effect? 

I don’t know if I can answer that. I think we prioritize what’s important to us. And for some, government and activisim is only important once every few years.

I grew up in an environment of service. The church I attended growing up was all about service. I serve on several boards, because I feel that is a part of what I do. Because it’s a priority for me. It’s not a priority for everybody else. And maybe if we made it a priority and a part of our lives, things could be different.

It’s about what we prioritize…. Find what works for you. Everybody doesn’t have to do the same thing. But there is something we all can do.

What do you wish you do differently in how you manage your day and time?

Facebook is my greatest time suck, and Netflix is as well. But I do put a timer on now. I set my alarm. I give myself whatever I feel I reasonably can and stick to the time I should stop.

I think I am good at balancing because I work for myself. I learned that distractions are detrimental to my bottom line.

What do you feel you don’t have enough time for, or wish you could tackle better?

Cleaning. I mean my house isn’t dirty, but my office needs to be reorganized. I don’t even work in my office that much anymore because it’s like, “I’ll come back to this later.”

And the other thing I wish I had more time for, which is both a product of their schedule and mine, is to spend more time with my nieces and nephews.

I remember, my neice told me, “You know, we didn’t go to the beach this year.”

Awww…

That’s exactly what I thought! Because I was working on a rewrite. So I wish I had a schedule that was a bit more flexible to make it more conducive to hang out with them more.

After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.
After an hour-long yoga practice at Santa Monica Pier this summer.

Do you have advice for someone starting a new endeavor and grappling with issues of following their passions, doing meaningful work and making a difference, while managing their time to so they can find their “balance”?

1. Figure out who you want to be when you grow up.

I think one of the greatest thing I did in the past couple of years was to go to a goal-orienting work shop that the Journalism and Women Symposium put on. And I think beyond setting goals, it’s about getting a picture of what I want my life to look like. That includes my personal goals as much as my professional goals. I want to be the kind of person who is engaged with her community and friends and family. I want to be the kind of person who works passionately on her craft. It’s up to each person… Look at who you want to be in 5 years. Who do you want to be by the end of this year? What would you like your bio for the year to say about you, the things you have accomplished? The lives you have touched?

One of the exercises in setting goals is writing a bio. If I get hit by a bus tomorrow, what do I want my bio to have said, and what from that have I accomplished?

The short answer is: Figure out who you want to be, and start working towards that and what is required for that.

2. Embrace the Shifts

The one thing that I will add is to understand that work-life balance shifts. My work-life balance is very different today than it was last year, or 5 years ago. And if we recognize that that shift may happen when we get married, when we have children, or even if it’s just year-to-year when we get a new job, we should embrace the change, and be flexible with ourselves and with it, and work within the shift.

 


Connect with Janice on Twitter and Instagram.

Edited for length and clarity.