Lebanese chef brings lifetime of experience to private kitchen in Aberdeen
A Lebanese chef's spirit of adventure produces a sophisticated menu reflecting her life as a global nomad, writesCharley Lanyon
Maria Bizri likes to stay busy. She says so repeatedly during our conversation at her private kitchen, Pomegranate, in Aberdeen.
Although her husband's job has come first, resulting in many relocations for the couple and their two children, Bizri has had no shortage of career options - she worked in advertising in Dubai, became a journalist in Jordan and a news presenter in Pakistan.
Her career in Pakistani television came to an end when she was reporting a story on the Taliban. Her husband told her: "If you want to be Christiane Amanpour I will support you, but if you are just doing this to stay busy, remember you have a family." She went home and now, for the first time, works as a chef in Hong Kong.
Now in its third year, Pomegranate is certainly busy. "In the past week we've had 10 events … it's a lot," Bizri says, briefly interrupting a conversation with clients to bring a light lunch of spicy fennel salad, cold roast lamb, broad bean purée and a bowl of sunny orzo pasta salad.
The space in a converted warehouse is big, bright and airy. It consists of a large dining area, an open kitchen, long white bar, and an expansive rooftop where cocktails are often served before dinner.
Bizri is before everything else a host and she prides herself on decorating the space to meet each client's taste and requirement. No two visits to her restaurant are the same.
Although Pomegranate is undoubtedly her vision, Bizri would be the first to tell you she can't do it alone: among other staff members are two chefs with diverse culinary backgrounds, running the gamut from continental European to Japanese, to Mexican.
Her oldest chef, Michael Brian Foehn, got his start in Switzerland, where he spent three years before moving to Hong Kong and working for Socialito.
His experience at Pomegranate is wholly unlike the other kitchens he's been in, he says. "We're a very chill team. We take things as they come … we come in and we don't know our plans for the day. Organisationally, it is very different from a regular kitchen, but the rush is an awesome feeling."
Along with the distinctive vibe in the kitchen, he has also had to learn a new culinary tradition. "Lebanese is more slow-cooking, and you have more spices and herbs, many of which I'd never heard of in my life and suddenly I'm using them," he says.
The newest member of the team is chef Victor Kong Tsz-wai. A Hongkonger, Kong has been working in kitchens since he was 22, starting with a Japanese restaurant in London before returning home for a job at Zuma in Central.
Kong has also noticed the different attitude in the kitchen: "For me, I can open my mind much more here."
Pomegranate is an open kitchen figuratively as well as literally. It has a love of new spices, flavours and techniques, and these are united in the spirit of experimentation. "I've always seen this as my lab a little bit," Bizri says, gesturing to the gleaming kitchen appliances.
Her adventurous approach to cooking has resulted in cuisine is which can be difficult to pin down. Bizri grew up mainly in Lebanon and Syria, and learned to cook from her mother and grandfather. But she is adamant that her food should not be labelled as Lebanese although her comfort with Levantine ingredients is apparent: lamb is her meat of choice, pomegranate seeds sparkle in nearly every dish, and the pungent, tart smell of sumac pervades the kitchen. But she borrows ingredients freely - "Fennel, for example, is never used in Lebanon" - and her food is more heavily spiced than typical Middle Eastern fare: bracingly hot from handfuls of chillies, and splashed with citrus.
In a culinary climate where fusion is often synonymous with muddled flavours, Bizri's food is razor sharp and finely realised. Her signature shredded lamb, served with flatbread and pickles, is clearly a riff on the kebab but it is sophisticated, and elevated far above its street-stall antecedents.
Perhaps Bizri's fusion is palatable because she came by it so honestly. After an early childhood in London, her family moved to follow the postings of her academic father.
They also moved to dodge conflict in Lebanon, Sudan, and finally to Syria; her mother is still active assisting Syrian refugees in Lebanon. What provided the continuity in her life was the food. "Food is the way you transport culture, how you keep it," she says.
Bizri's mother, her greatest culinary influence, refers to her daughter's cooking as takhbees an Arabic word Bizri defines as a "rubbishy mishmash." While "rubbishy" is ridiculous, surely modesty on the part of the chef, or a joke on the part of the mother, "mishmash" is apt.
A mishmash of places, and cultures, of steadfast family and constant displacement, of a life richly lived. The products of that life are served up every evening in Pomegranate and, mishmash though it may be, the results are often astounding.