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.
- 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.
- 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….
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
- 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
- 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.