Palestinian chef Kamel Hashlamon’s life has been filled with challenges, starting with his birthplace: East Jerusalem. Yet his culinary career has been defined by his ability to bridge differences between Palestinians and Israelis with his food.
“In Jerusalem, everything is politicised. There’s a spark, and everything explodes. In just a few minutes, the East is cut off from the West, and it can last for months. And it happens every year! Every year,” Hashlamon told FRANCE 24.
The 39-year-old chef knows what he’s talking about. He was born in East Jerusalem. Yet in a city where even food divides rather than unites, Hashlamon is the so-called exception that proves the rule.
“I’m aware that I am privileged,” he said. Considered one of the best chefs in the region, the rave reviews in the Israeli and Palestinian press barely do justice to Hashlamon’s kitchen: his colleagues’ trembling hands as they present the day’s menu, their foreheads beaded with sweat, their eyes searching for approval.
It’s an incredible feat for a Palestinian. His childhood was spent on the Mount of Olives – which overlooks the Old City – in the family kitchen, to be precise. While his brothers and sisters enjoyed eating, Hashlamon liked nothing more than helping his mother and aunts in the kitchen.
“As a child, I spent my time asking questions. My first memories in the kitchen are of my grandmother’s Lebanese food. It’s also the kind of food that I’ve dedicated myself to,” he said.
Hashlamon remembered his grandmother as an “artist” in the kitchen, recalling her homemade hummus. “The taste will never leave me,” he said. It is a taste he has spent his career trying to reproduce.
A ‘Lebanese paradise’
His efforts have been successful. Hashlamon – who has devoted his life to “real Lebanese cuisine”, which he learned from his grandmother and the Lebanese convent where he trained – is possibly one of the only things people on both sides of the border agree on.
“When I was a chef at the Turquoise restaurant, which is perched atop the St George Hotel, a client insisted I come to her table at the end of the meal. I agreed, we talked and it was only that evening that I learned she was the most influential critic in the Israeli media,” he said.
The ensuing article, which appeared in a 2013 issue of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, was a rave review. The journalist, Ronit Vered – who had a reputation as a “killer” – hailed the restaurant as a “Lebanese paradise”. The lyrical text of “One Thousand and One Nights” paled in comparison with her description of Hashlamon’s dishes. She praised the “marvellous” meze, including the “muhammara(from the Arabic word for red), a divine, rich spread of bulgur, almonds and smoky-red pepper paste”.
The next day, new diners began flocking to the restaurant. “You had to wait months to get a table,” Hashlamon recalled.
But Jerusalem is Jerusalem. At the end of 2016, a wave of violence dubbed the “Knife Intifada” by the international media marked the end of Hashlamon’s career at the restaurant. The owners asked him to leave, blaming his nationality for a decline in Israeli clients.
“Four years of success, and with the snap of a finger, it was over,” Hashlamon said.
‘Jerusalem, mixed but not integrated’
The challenges Hashlamon has faced over his career are not uncommon. Many Palestinians born in Jerusalem have met with the same. Without a passport, he doesn’t have “the same rights” as Israelis in the city.
“It’s painful to feel unwelcome in your own home,” he explained at a checkpoint in the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. “My life as a chef in Jerusalem is very hard. It’s not like other cities.”
Despite being “very lucky”, Hashlamon said he is tired of always having to explain himself, recalling how difficult it was to rent an apartment “on the other side” of the border.
“You have to live here to see what’s hidden beneath the icing on the cake,” he said. “Jerusalem is mixed, but very divided. It’s mixed, but not integrated. Even the falafels are different!”
After reaching the heights of his success at Turquoise after 20 years in the kitchen, Hashlamon had had enough. Then his mother died. He stopped everything.
“I took time for myself. I thought about what I could do, still cooking, but not in a restaurant,” he said.
Although peace is still a long way off for Hashlamon, he has always believed in food’s ability to bridge differences. He decided to focus on what Israelis and Palestinians have the most in common: tahini. The sesame paste, which is a staple of both populations, was a veritable goldmine.
“I decided to produce tahini for several reasons: there is high demand [Israel alone consumes 50,000 tonnes per year], there is a wide variety of tahinis and it’s a new challenge in my career,” he explained.
In early 2017, Hashlamon travelled to the city of Nablus in the West Bank, where much of the region’s tahini is produced. There, he learned to make the white paste. But he soon became frustrated with how industrial the process was. After hearing of an ancestral method popular in Aleppo, he tracked down a Syrian refugee in Turkey whose father and grandfather had both been masters of the technique. “He taught me everything I know,” he said.
His boutique, Al Yasmin – a name that is used in both Hebrew and Arabic – opened in December 2017 in Abu Ghosh. The Arab-Israeli town is situated 20 minutes to the west of Jerusalem, but is “thousands of years away from political conflict”, according to Hashlamon, who could no longer imagine working in his hometown.
“The smallest event and everything goes. You can see businesses are deserting the Old City, it’s not a good location for them. Too much stress and deserted streets whenever there’s the smallest problem,” he explained.
It is in Abu Ghosh – halfway between Jerusalem, the Holy City, and secular Tel Aviv – that Hashlamon has finally been able to breathe freely. The smell of sesame envelopes the street. In the centre of his store, sesame imported from Ethiopia is slowly pressed on a large black stone brought from Syria. Customers, both Israeli and Palestinian, file through the door. Chefs, both Israeli and Palestinian, place their orders. In a few weeks, Hashlamon will win a prize for making the best tahini in the Middle East. The press will again unanimously sing his praises. The industry as well. This time, Hashlamon has found some common ground.