Imad Alarnab looks like the king of Carnaby Street. He waves at white-jacketed cooks on their smoke break. He weaves expertly through the crowd of shoppers. He stops to chat with customers who are waiting in a queue at his pop-up falafel stall, eager to try the Syrian chef’s fabled pita wraps.
But this is nothing, he tells me – I should’ve seen him in his hometown. “Damascus was my city,” he says. “Every time I walked down the street, I never put my hand down – I was always waving at someone.”
Imad is a magnetic presence wherever he is. At his supper clubs around London, he’s become just as much a draw as the food. You’ll often spot him milling about after the meal, chatting to besotted guests who each come away with a story about how unbelievably lovely he is.
The chef began holding supper clubs that showcase the food from his home country after he arrived in the UK in 2015. His difficult journey from Damascus to London has been well documented. Just search his name, and you’ll find a legion of articles detailing his transition from restaurateur to refugee – his businesses were bombed. He fled Syria without his wife and children. He travelled from Lebanon to France, where he spent time in Calais. When he finally arrived in the UK, he washed cars until his family could join him.
But these are happier times. On May 17, he’ll finally open his first permanent restaurant – Imad’s Syrian Kitchen – after six months of covid-related delays. It’ll be in Kingly Court, just off Carnaby Street, and down the road from the pop-up he’s been holding on and off since the pandemic began, which is where I meet him. Part of the opening costs came from a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign that mobilised Imad’s many fans. “This is why London is the capital of the world,” he says. “People are so willing to give up part of themselves. It’s a beautiful community.”
He takes me to the restaurant site and shows me around. It’s a beautiful but simple space – eggshell-blue tiled floors, matching blue window panes and bright white walls studded with photos of supper club customers and staff members. “Five years ago, I couldn’t imagine being able to afford a meal in a restaurant like this,” he says. “Now, I own it.”
The decor is inspired by his grandparents’ garden in Damascus. Imad has fond memories of it from his childhood – he remembers how it was filled with jasmine and sweet, ripe lemons, ingredients his mother would bring back to their family’s kitchen. “My mother taught me everything I know,” he tells me. “How to cook, how to speak English – she was an amazing woman.”
Imad’s shoulders fall and his voice goes soft when he speaks of his mother. A full-time homemaker and part-time artist with a penchant for the works of Shakespeare, she was an absolute whiz in the kitchen. “She’d pull out one of our kitchen drawers for me to stand on when I was a boy so that I could reach the counter,” he recalls. “At first, I would just play with the pastry cutters because I wasn’t allowed to use the knives. But eventually we started making our own recipes together.
She was a major inspiration when Imad was crafting his new menu. Though she died from flu-related complications soon after Imad arrived in the UK, she’s often on his mind. “I think about her all the time,” he says. “She was always encouraging us to be more creative, to do more.”
I wonder, then, which dish he thinks would be her favourite? “Of course she’d like the most complicated one,” he jokes. He thinks she’d love the fattet macdous – baby aubergines stuffed with minced lamb and all sorts of spice, cooked in a garlicky tomato paste, and topped with tahini yogurt.
Laborious or ingredient-heavy dishes are not the norm here, however. The rest of the menu is made up of simple Syrian classics with an Imad update – baba ghanoj with black tahini, say, or za’atar salad with halloumi noodles. Of course, his famous falafel wrap will also feature. I order one at his pop-up, and it’s perfect – crispy chickpea balls stripped down to their component parts: chickpeas, onions, garlic, salt, coriander. You won’t find any kind of soft cheese or root vegetables minced in (“A beetroot falafel is not a falafel,” Imad says).
Imad’s food is the kind that’s increasingly hard to find in London’s overdeveloped restaurant scene, where hype often comes at the expense of quality. “I prefer to make a dish taste good rather than look good,” says Imad. “We’re not meant to take photos of food, we’re meant to eat it.”
Imad is just as committed to good food as he is to largesse – much of the revenue from his pop-ups have been redistributed to migrant and refugee charities, including the London-based Choose Love. Over the years, he's managed to funnel £453,000 back into the community. He's now pledged to donate £1 from every bill at his restaurant to Choose Love.
Though he doesn’t have any family left in Syria, and hasn’t been back since he left for the UK, he tells me that he feels a duty towards his home country. “It will always be my responsibility,” he says. “But not just in Syria – people everywhere are my responsibility.”Book flights to London Book holidays to London