After I introduce myself as being a volunteer with the Refugee Food Festival, Diaa smiles and says “You, are welcome.” I ask him if he has a moment to talk, and as he comes around from his prep station, I go to shake his hand. Diaa pulls his hand back bashfully, because he’s been prepping food and he doesn’t want to make my hands dirty, so he offers his elbow and we substitute a handshake with linking elbows, which makes us both laugh. We find our spot in a booth by the window at Porsena, the Italian restaurant near Cooper Square, in which Diaa is cooking for the festival. He is smiling, but nervous, due to his faltering English. I tell him not to worry, he communicates it all with his eyes. They have a sparkle to them, a youthful excitement.
I ask where he’s from. “Damascus.” he beams. I ask if that’s where he began to cook and he says yes, he had his first job in a restaurant when he was fifteen. I tell him my first job was also in a restaurant when I was fifteen, but as a dishwasher, so not as cool as a cook. “Why cooking? Why did you start so young?” I ask. “I like it. I like, you know, making something taste good for someone. Figuring out how to get the best flavor, and then sharing that. I give someone food, that I made, and they’re happy. It makes them happy.” Again, he’s beaming. He’s saying this about his cooking without boasting, without being prideful. It’s a gift he has to give, and it’s obvious that he loves to give it.
I ask him where he likes to eat in the city, and he says he mostly eats the food he cooks, but he also enjoys going to the beer garden in his neighborhood. We scroll through photos on his phone so he can show me pictures of the beautiful dishes he’s in the process of making for the event tomorrow. One of the dishes he’s making is my favorite, yalanji, grape leaves stuffed with rice and vegetables. As we search through the photos of the restaurant he works at in Brooklyn, Ruzana, and the shawarma he prepares daily, he shows me photos of his beautiful family. Smiling the biggest he’s smiled since we sat down, he shows me a photo of his son with dark, curly hair, and his younger daughter with sandy brown hair.
After he shows me photos of the dishes he’s been mastering his whole life, I ask him if I can taste one of the dishes he is prepping for tomorrow. Regretfully, none of the dishes are ready to be eaten yet, and he asks if instead I would like to help him make the yalanji. I’m touched by the offer, but as I have to leave in a few minutes, I decline. We wrap up the interview, and before I leave I follow him back to his prep station to snap a couple of photos of him in his element. I watch him place the stuffing on top of the leaves, roll them, place them one by one, stacking them into a pot, and letting them boil. It’s all so swift.
As I say goodbye, he apologizes again for not knowing much English, and I apologize for being one of those Americans who knows only English and nothing else. “I know Russian, too.” He says. I ask him why, and he tells me that as a young man, at 23 years old, he lived in a town just outside of Moscow. He opened a restaurant there, that specialized in Syrian and Italian food. He served shawarma, seared scallops, baba ganoush, pasta, falafel, and fish. All these items on one menu. It’s time for me to leave, and I promise to visit Ruzana. Diaa smiles and says, “You, are welcome.” I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet Diaa, and learn some tips from a life-long experienced chef. Once again, I go to shake his hand, and he pulls his hand back, since it’s being used in prepping food. I go for the elbow lock, and he goes for a hug. We can’t help but burst into laughter once more. After we hug goodbye, he smiles, and goes back to the food, and I leave, beaming.
Diaa works as one of the head chefs with the amazing company Eat Offbeat, catering for many events. He is working on his English simultaneously, although his eyes still communicate everything he wants to express, almost as much as his cooking!