Chef Reem Assil
Being able to travel to the Bay Area and work is always special to me. The food culture here is extremely diverse and continuously shines. I first met Reem Assil while working on season 3 of the Migrant Kitchen. I knew then she would be someone I would want to interview for my series. We finally managed to sit down and talk. Below is part of our conversation.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
“I am a daughter of a Syrian and a Palestinian. My mom is from Palestine by way of Lebanon. She was a refugee and grew up in Lebanon. She met my father and they moved to the States in the early 80’s. I grew up in Boston and moved to the Bay Area in 2005. I moved here for two reasons really. I was really sick in my late teens during college and I moved here to recover. The Bay Area is where I re learned how to eat food again but through the lens of California cuisine. Another reason I moved out to the Bay Area was the social justice movement. At the time my aunt and uncle took me in and they were very into anti-war activism. And that was my first taste into what I could do to affect change. So I spent 10 years in the non profit world, everything from policy development on how cities were built to organizing workers.”
How did you end up in the food world?
“Well in 2010 my dad was going back to Syria and I decided to go with him. We traveled up the coast of Syria. We visited all these places where people were taken me in as if I was their own and I really fell in love with that. All this helped me re-discover all these parts of myself that I was estranged from. While in Lebanon I went into all these bakeries were I saw the life the people had in there!You wouldn’t have even known all the political turmoil that was going on. It was then that I realized that people in my home in Oakland didn’t have that. They didn’t feel grounded. So after that trip I quit my job and enrolled into a baking and pastry program.”
What inspires you?
“Community. All sorts of communities, particularly communities that have been through some sort of struggle and are still able to celebrate life. That is so inspiring to me. The ability to build community through music, through food, through art and culture.”
How do you describe your food and your approach?
“ My food is definitely something where I want people to know that it came from my heart. When I think about my food I think about how I want people to feel. It’s very warm and it’s very thoughtful. It’s food but with a story.”
What kind of advice would you give to a young person wanting to be a chef?
“Find the places you like, think about what you like about them and go find the people who cook that food and work with them.”
Does the term “female” chef strike any kind emotion with you?
“When I hear the term chef and it’s association to masculinity is interesting to me. For example when I cut my hair short people looked tame differently and that’s interesting to me. But I started to think that “chef” is associated to patriarchy and that’s why I don’t like it. It’s not so much masculinity because we all have both those energies. It’s just that when I think chef I think power over, that chef has to power over someone. The way I command power in my kitchen is through respect. I build the relationship through trust and I feel like that goes a longer way. People want to work for me and believe in my vision. They believe in my mission and that’s not something I do from fear.”
If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
“I’d be a change maker of some sort. Maybe I would have found my way as a director of an organization. It’s funny though growing up I was always scared to be a leader but ironically now I am. I’ve found my platform, voice through all of this.”
What would your last dish be?
“It’s between a perfect bowl of hummus and bread or a bowl of cereal.” (What kind of cereal?) “ooh the hippy side of me would say Puffins and the junky side of me would say Cinnamon Toast Crunch”
I definitely feel a kind of kindred with Reem. Aside from the part we both basically grew up outside of Boston. For both of us cooking came in a late part of our lives after going through first careers. What’s striking about her is her passion for her fellow human beings. She has this sense of connecting with people, this sense of positive energy that’s infectious. I can see why people in her life adore her. She is genuine, kind, funny and passionate about what she believes in. I think she would be successful in anything she does. I’m just glad she does it through food! The people of Oakland are lucky to have her in their community.