Around a large picnic table at Ground Control, I meet Haitham Karajay, a smiling Syrian thirty-year-old. He tells me about his journey with disconcerting chronological precision. He was born in Damascus, only son and fatherless, Haitham is very close to his mother. Before being behind the stove, he worked for 15 years as a cartoon purchasing manager for a Syrian TV channel. “I had the opportunity to dub in Arabic and I even learned a little Japanese. When I arrived in France in 2015, I wanted to continue in this sector but I obviously did not have the network or the facilities and I quickly had to think about a reconversion. So I went through all my interests and asked myself the right questions.” Haitham has his head on his shoulders and his entrepreneurial spirit is pushing him towards autonomy. In Syria, Haitham was very fond of television programmes related to cooking, which is part of the reason why he’s on the path to reconversion. However, there was no reason to believe that Haitham would one day start cooking. “It’s funny, when I was in Damascus, I never helped my mother because I always had better things to do. Now I prepare all the meals for her and I enjoy it.” Thanks to a very good level of French – thanks to Marion, her teacher from the InFLEchir association! – and a good dose of determination, Haitham joins the Cuisine Mode d’emploi school, a real professional springboard.
“For me, cooking is a language.”
Haitham has always been creative and finds in cooking the art and experimentation necessary for his balance. He keeps a notebook of inspirations with him, which is a bit like his personal lab and a notebook where traditional Syrian recipes are meticulously transcribed . “My mother comes from Aleppo and Damascus, her culinary repertoire is rich and varied and she has passed it on to me. With this family background, Haitham wishes to share about his origins and introduce the Syrian cuisine. “In life, you need to be able to convey a message, the vehicle of mine will be – among other things – my cuisine.”
In 2018, Haitham participated in the Refugee Food Festival and organized a brunch and four-hands dinner with the young chef Charles Neyers. In the neobistro La Traversée, the guests then tasted a generous menu: mezzé plate with hummus, eggplant caviar and muhammara, a pepper caviar with red pepper paste from Aleppo, nuts and a little cumin. Followed by a Levantine salad, from kefta to the shoulder of lamb with tarator sauce, shish Taouk divinely marinated and to finish in beauty a mamouniyé : a fine semolina cream, sweet and perfumed with cinnamon and roasted pistachios. Haitham’s cuisine is emotional and friendly and this meeting proved it.
Haitham has made his mark alongside chef Bruno Doucet, ambassador of authenticity and generosity. At the restaurant La Régalade, Haitham discovered what bistronomy is and it was a revelation. He deepened his knowledge of French cuisine, perfected his cooking technique and even devoted himself to pastry making.
For this young refugee in a “Back to the Future” t-shirt, bistronomy
seems to be a bridge to tell his story, to pay tribute to childhood recipes and sublimate – through the choice of products, precision and presentation – two gastronomies that are dear to him: his own and that of his host country.
In June 2019, Haitham participated again in the Refugee Food Festival, this time at L’Ami Jean, alongside chef Stéphane Jégo. From 1 July 2019, Haitham Karajay will take up residence for six months at La Residence, RFF’s springboard restaurant, at Ground Control. “I could finally test some recipes, refine my choices, continue to train me and above all, enjoy yourself”. We can’t wait !
Chloé Vasselin – Boui Boui