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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A Working Life: Q&A With YA Author Maurene Goo

This week I met with YA author Maurene Goo at a coffee shop in Eagle Rock, where she does some of her writing every week, to pick her brain about work-life balance. 

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After-hours office: Maurene working at a bar with other writers.

How did you identify your passions and follow your dreams?

It’s interesting. I wasn’t a kid that always wanted to write novels. When I was growing up, I never knew that I could. I loved reading, and I read a ton of books, but it never occurred to me that my passion for reading could translate to writing novels.

I knew I liked writing and was good at it, so I pursued a career in journalism. But then I realized I didn’t really like current events [laughs]. I wasn’t interested in writing based on facts.

So I pursued a career in publishing and applied to grad schools. I was interested in being a children’s book editor, so I applied for a MA program in publishing and writing at Emerson College.

Maurene Goo
Writing partner

I also applied for a MFA writing program at the New School, and part of the application was to submit a writing sample. I didn’t know what I wanted to write about at first. Then I came across the book The Princess Diaries, and I knew right away that teen fiction was what I wanted to write for the sample. It was the right tone, the right voice. I wrote the sample, but rather than pursuing that degree, I thought I had to be practical and think about jobs, so I went for the MA program instead.

I did finish writing the book, and after grad school I showed it to a friend who was a graphic novelist. She loved it and asked if she could show it to her agent.

I lucked out and so many things aligned for me. I may not have pursued it on my own. I didn’t see it is a viable job, and honestly I’ve always had a network of support, so that’s why it’s even been possible for me.

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

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Taking a break by a lake.

Very early on I realized I love what I do, and I’m so lucky, but it’s not my life. I value spending time with friends. I value spending time with family. I value traveling. I’m not someone who’d be happy 100% working all the time, but I’m not someone who’d be happy not working enough. I really believe in balance, for myself. I definitely need both in my life. I definitely need to give both equal attention.

Also, I need to not be in the creative headspace all the time. I don’t think it’s healthy. You need to actually live your life so you can have the experiences to talk about.

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

I wish that I could be more disciplined with my time. I’ve gotten better at it, because I’ve been a freelancer for 5 years. But my attention span is… ekh.[Laughs] I think it’s because of the Internet and social media.

I feel I could output so much more of my potential.

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

I wish I had more time for exercise because I really don’t prioritize it enough. When I have free time– I’m a very social person. I want to see my friends. I want to clean my house. I want to spend time with my husband and my cats. I want to watch movies. I want to read books. So I don’t exercise enough, even though I kneow I feel better when I do.

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 so they can find their “balance” (whatever their definition may be)?

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Backyard office when the weather is nice.

My advice would be to try to get a routine and try to figure out where you’re most productive. As a writer, I’m much more productive in a coffee shop. For my day job, I do better at home because I need to make phone calls and have my big desktop screen there.

I would also say, it’s hard not to procrastinate, but you will not want to procrastinate for too long. At the end of the day, you won’t feel proud. You’ll learn to self-regulate in a way. But some people are just not capable, and if so, you should recognize it and maybe rent out a workspace.

You really do need a level of self-discipline.

How do you think we need to approach “work-life balance” as a society?

I think it’s interesting that this question often only gets asked to women. It doesn’t get asked to men. I don’t see men worrying about work-life balance. I don’t know what that means. Maybe it’s because women are expected to do everything. Maybe it’s because women spend so much time helping others, caring for family…  and they don’t get to pursue their passions or self-care.

Balance is different for everyone. You have to find what it is that makes you happy, but just know you can’t be happy all the time. You have to work at it.

And it’s OK to be off-balance. When I’m in a deadline mode, I don’t leave the house. I order pizza. The Chinese food delivery guy knows me. But I can’t do that for more than a couple of weeks. So know it’s OK to be under pressure and stress sometimes, and learn how to deal with it.

 

Maurene Goo is the YA author of Since You Asked and the forthcoming I Believe in a Thing Called Love (2017). You can find her on Twitter and her website.

Read more from this series here.

 


*Edited for length and clarity.