As I sat in Imad’s. a Syrian restaurant in the heart of the West End, I wondered how many of my fellow diners knew just what it had taken for Imad, the owner, to get here. It was a Wednesday lunchtime and it was packed. The atmosphere was alive with the buzz of conversation and adulation for the fabulous food. I felt sure that this very vision must have kept Imad going through the darker days. It is an inspirational story of someone who kept the faith and turned devastation into triumph; a story of love, hope and humanity.
Imagine a situation where overnight, pretty much everything you own is destroyed. In Imad’s case, this included the chain of restaurants and coffee shops he had put his life’s work into creating. With no option but to leave, he set off with nothing on the long and dangerous journey across Europe, smuggled away in lorries and living in refugee camps. His love of cooking never left him and he would spend his days putting his skills to use feeding other refugees.
Six years ago, Imad claimed asylum in the UK. He didn’t come to access the benefits system. He simply came to work hard, give back and do whatever it took to rebuild his family’s life. He soon found his way back to the kitchen, running pop ups around London and raising money for the charity Choose Love whose mission it is to support displaced people like him around the world. They were a raging success. Not surprising if the food I ate that day is anything to go by.
I am proof that if you try to do something good for people, something good will happen to you. This is a fact.
Imad started to allow himself to dream bigger. He set his sights on a permanent restaurant. His vision became a reality in 2020 as he took over the lease on a beautiful space in Kingly Court, just off Carnaby Street. Life, of course, is never straightforward and just as he was about to open last December, lockdown was re-imposed. Imad’s finally opened its doors in May of this year.
Living with an Algerian, I am well used to the flavours of North Africa and the Middle East but this was truly exceptional. Although the choice of mains was enticing, we decided to stick to a selection of starters and create our own mezze. Five dishes, all amazing. As I was with a vegan, they were all plant based and all equally good. My favourite was a mixed pepper dish with pomegranate molasses, topped with pomegranate seeds that popped in your mouth! We ate it with soft, fluffy flatbread that was still warm from the oven – heaven.
From the minute I walked in to Imad’s I got a sense of the incredible hospitality and kindness for which his culture is (or at least should be) known. The lady running the floor was a warm, welcoming and ready to chat yet at the same time, knew exactly what was going on. The waiters were knowledgeable, super smiley and eager to please…. I wasn’t going to say no when she offered me a taste of two wines so I could choose the one I preferred! As the service drew to a close, Imad came out from the kitchen and mingled with guests. He has a gentle, calm demeanour and seemed genuinely interested in our experience. His pride in what he has created shone through.
Imad has never forgotten those who helped him. He has so far raised nearly a quarter of a million pounds for Choose Love. £1 from every bill in the restaurant goes to the charity.
Imad’s story has lessons for us all. It shows that there is always a way forward, however tough times get, With belief, strength, grit and determination, amazing things can be accomplished. What he has created in Kingly Court is incredibly special and goes way beyond the kitchen. It is a place which embraces you as you enter and wraps you up in warmth and love. Love of food yes but more than that, a love of humanity. A fitting conclusion to an incredible journey.