In the summer of 2022, influential Franco-Palestinian chef Fadi Kattan is admiring the display of vegetables at a market in Bethlehem like a kid in a sweet shop. “I begin here,” he says of a produce stall run by a woman called Umm Nabil, who he visits frequently. “What she has makes the menu of the day.”
There are perfectly ripe fakus, an enticingly sweet, cucumber-like vegetable; three types of plums; powdery-white figs, the first of the season; and bakra, or purslane. He purchases some figs to roast later with beef shanks and purslane to put in a raw salad with labneh, a departure from the standard preparation in which it is traditionally cooked down and mixed with yogurt until silken.
Kattan has followed this routine since he opened his Bethlehem restaurant Fawda in 2016, developing a distinctive version of Palestinian cooking through the relationships with his network of market vendors. There were three central components to the food served there. First, a deep respect for the core traditional dishes of Palestinian cuisine, and the skills of the women who cook them on a daily basis. Kattan calls these women “the guardians of the local cuisine.” Second, deriving menus after visiting Umm Nabil, as well as his butcher, baker, spice wholesaler, and dairy and pickles wholesaler. Ideas would transpire from the available ingredients on any given day. Third, using techniques adopted from the French kitchen to transform these sketches into modern dishes. Having trained in France, Kattan is a child of the Escoffier school of thought, and his cooking is focused on enhancing flavour without overprocessing ingredients or engaging in superfluous decoration. The restaurant attracted global attention and in August 2018, it was selected as a destination restaurant by Alice Waters in Truth, Love and Clean Cutlery, a guide to local cuisine around the world. Fawda closed temporarily during the pandemic, though plans are in place to re-open it.
Emerging out of Fawda, this seasonally driven cuisine steeped in Palestinian culinary heritage is at the heart of what Kattan wants to display at Akub, the restaurant he will open in January on Uxbridge Street, a charming area lined with pastel-coloured buildings in Notting Hill, West London. The restaurant’s design features a modern aesthetic representation of Palestinian symbolism, with hospitality designer Annie Harrison decorating the walls with antique-looking keys that pay homage to the tragic loss of homes suffered by Palestinians over generations due to Israeli occupation, as well as using olive green, sand, and orange tones to represent the Palestinian landscape. The tableware from Jaffa-based Palestinian ceramicist Nur Minawi focuses on similarly earthy hues.
Given Kattan’s strong personal connections to France, choosing London as the base for a new restaurant might come as a surprise to fans of the cooking they’ve come to expect from him. But Kattan isn’t trying to recreate Fawda: He’s aiming for a new direction.
Kattan’s co-founders and backers Rasha Khouri Bruzzo is London-based, and there is a strong network of institutional support for the Palestinian cause in the city — as evidenced by organizations like the Palestine Foundation, the Palestinian Return Centre, and the Centre for Palestine Studies at SOAS. But for Kattan, the answer lies beyond logistics and marketability, and rather in the city’s culinary zeitgeist.
“I am a Franco-Palestinian chef, so naturally I considered Paris, but the London food scene is more dynamic right now.” Kattan says. “We are trying to preserve the ethos in Bethlehem in terms of sourcing, and London has so many fantastic small producers. Everything we’re working with, whether dairy, meat, fish, eggs, herbs, are all local British produce.” Whilst fresh products will be sourced in Britain, dry goods will come from the West Bank, such as freekeh from Jenin, and maftoul from a women’s cooperative in the villages around Nablus.
Kattan’s familial history echoes the sense of openness, multiplicity, and cultural adaptation that he believes makes London the ideal city for modern Palestinian food to be developed. Pointing to a picture of one of his great aunts in Tel A-Rish, Jaffa, displayed in Bethlehem Museum, Kattan says, “We had 120,000 square meters of orchard groves there, but we were mainly traders. Kattan means ‘cotton maker’ in Arabic. This is the typical Bethlehemite Palestinian story.”
In the 1920s, many of the Christian trade families of Bethlehem and Ramallah had summer houses in Palestine but lived in Paris. Kattan’s grandfather on his mother’s side grew up in Paris, and all of his extended family were in trading. On his father’s side, trading in textiles took them to many cities, including Manchester, Santiago de Chile, Khartoum, Kobe, and Bombay, where his father was born. These influences all inform Kattan’s cooking style — the modernist pragmatism he applies to edited dishes, the careful sourcing and toasting of spices, and even his penchant for drawing on whatever sources of inspiration he might find in his surroundings or during his trips to visit Umm Nabil at the market.
The idea of Palestinian food as a haptic cuisine — driven by embodied knowledge and a close relationship to agriculture — even where modernised and evolving in a new context, will remain core to Akub. Head chef Mathilde Papazian has already spent weeks in Bethlehem gaining a deeper understanding of traditional Palestinian cooking, and staff will continue to take trips there as the restaurant progresses.
There are now many London restaurants that interpret global cuisines with British ingredients, with restaurants like Shuko Oda’s Koya with Japanese traditions; Ben Chapman’s Kiln, which is rooted in culinary traditions from Northern Thailand; and Kol, the Michelin-starred Mexican restaurant from Santiago Lastra. Kattan hopes that Akub’s approach can help Londoners begin to understand what dishes may constitute Palestinian food in general.
“London’s diversity creates this curiosity about food. I want the average Londoner to go on a culinary journey of flavours and textures that are Palestinian,” Kattan says. “For them to see there’s good food, and then say, ‘Oh, this is the food of Palestine.’”
London has grown from being a city with a homogenous idea of Italian food into a place with a growing number of new restaurants to explore the country’s regional cooking culture, and Kattan sees Akub as the beginning of a similar process, hoping that “Londoners may even begin learning that Bethlehem is famous for figs, olives, and meat, Nablus for cheese and knafeh, Jaffa for fish, and Gaza for heat.”
These aspirations emerge from Kattan’s own experiences. “I lived in London in the late ’90s and the food scene was awful. People would massacre products. There’s really been a food revolution in the U.K. People are very much in the spirit of discovery.” At a pop-up at Carousel in May, Kattan served a make-your-own-hummus starter, asking diners to crush the chickpeas themselves. Given his horror at the adulteration of hummus in products like chocolate dessert hummus and Marmite hummus, “the purpose,” he says, “was for people to understand that hummus is about chickpeas. It got people to engage with the produce.” While those attending such an event might be expected to know that hummus is made from chickpeas, the tactile experience of hand-grinding them — how hummus has traditionally been made across Palestine and still is in Jerusalem — was intended to guide diners’s imaginations of the product away from supermarket tubs and toward the artisanal processes behind Palestinian cuisine.
Kattan has made no secret of his mission to preserve the identity of a cuisine he feels is under existential threat, arguing in a recent New York Times article that some Israeli cooks are laying ownership claims to many of the foundations of Palestinian food, from tabbouleh and fattoush to hummus, falafel, and shawarma. In the context of London, where Israeli restaurants serving versions of modern cuisine from the region are widespread and thriving, Akub is, at least implicitly, driven by the political goal of reclaiming the Palestinian identity of certain dishes and ingredients. Yet Kattan is more focused on the project of expanding positive perceptions of what Palestinian cuisine has to offer.
“We also want people to think beyond hummus and falafel, and also to change the perception of Palestinian cuisine as meat-based,” he says. “I want vegans to understand how many dishes there are for them. There’s okra, chard, purslane, khobeizah.”
“Overall, the primary aim at Akub is to stay true to the ingredients and give respect to the product, wherever it comes from. When I lived and worked in France, I was made more aware of how important provenance is. It is also because of my French culture that I was taken to the question of how to transform Palestinian food, which is a home-based, communal type of cooking, into a restaurant setting, still preserving the sense of hospitality and senses of flavours while working on the shape, textures, and portions. For example, by putting mansaf, a massive dish with shrak (flatbread), rice, lamb, and laban jameed (dried yogurt), into a crunchy ball, we will be showing diners the intensified flavour of Palestine.”
He is nonetheless excited to observe how a new urban context will generate an evolution of the cuisine he developed at Fawda. “I’m not someone that thinks, ‘This is the holy text.’ It’s my menu, but we will tweak it to make it flexible. The idea of Akub is to have my modern take on Palestinian traditional food, but with lots of variety for Londoners to experience.”
As Akub’s January opening date approaches, Kattan says he’s already thinking beyond the restaurant’s original concept. “I already have dreams of the next menu, and part of it is from working with a very cosmopolitan team and hearing all their feedback. The head chef is French and Armenian. We have a few staff from England, but also people from Singapore, Denmark, Poland, Saudi, Iraq, Liberia, the Dominican Republic, and Portugal. They are all already pushing certain ideas. Being here and working with the excellent British suppliers will definitely influence the next menu.”
In a May 2021 essay for the London Review of Books, Adam Shatz argues that Edward Said’s intellectual journey in his later life led him towards a distinctly Palestinian cosmopolitanism, writing, “the insistence on secular humanism, worldliness, and universality — can all, indirectly, be traced to Palestine. Not to the land itself, or to the people, but to the metaphor, the region of the mind, that he fashioned out of them.” “Palestinianism,” as Shatz coins it, cuts to the heart of the image Kattan imagines for Akub; proudly Palestinian in aesthetic and culinary design, yet poised to develop its own London identity. As Kattan puts it, “The way culinary cultures evolve and morph in London makes Akub even more exciting.”