When Lebanese chef Alan Geaam arrived in Paris two decades ago he found himself sleeping on the streets, lost and penniless, and unable to speak any French.
This week Geaam, who began working as a dishwasher while he was sleeping rough in a Paris park, received his first Michelin star from the French gastronomic bible for his acclaimed new AG Les Halles restaurant, within a stone’s throw of the Arc de Triomphe.
“I never thought the Michelin would be interested in someone like me, who was self-taught, who had to sleep in the street at 19 and who began as a dishwasher,” he said.
“I thought the guide was about chefs in big fancy hotels or those trained by the great masters. But it turned out to be the opposite. It’s a wonderful surprise,” said the 43-year-old, who was born to Lebanese parents in Liberia, before they exchanged one war zone for another by returning to Beirut.
Geaam’s fascination with food was clear by then, watching cookery shows on television after school rather than cartoons.
He started cooking while doing his national service in Lebanon, and the colonel of his regiment was so impressed he made him his personal chef.
Geaam only got his break in France when the chef of the restaurant, where he was washing the dishes, slashed his hand with a knife and had to be rushed to hospital.
“I worked during the day as a construction worker and at night delivering pizzas and washing dishes. One night the cook cut his hand and had to go to hospital. No one asked me, but I just took over. There were 14 tables and so I just feed the customers and at the end of the night they were delighted.
“The owner said to me, ‘But you can cook!’ and I said, ‘Yes’.”
“The reason I cook is to make people happy,” Geaam said. He has spread joy among restaurant critics with Michelin’s rival Gault-Millau guide raving about his langoustines and chard and its dark chocolate-coloured sauce tinged with Vietnamese cardamom.
Alexander Lobrano, author of Hungry for Paris, was even more effusive, declaring this “gentle, shrewd, self-taught chef as one of quiet men of Paris gastronomy … who has a brilliant future ahead of him.”
Although Geaam delights in bringing the very best of French produce to his table, Lobrano said he also brings the “tender buds of his very personal cooking that makes references to the lost world of a little boy born to a foreign family living in tropical Africa.”
The influence of his Lebanese roots is never far away either.
One of Geaam’s favourite dishes at the moment is “an escalope of foie gras lacquered with pomegranate molasses served with a tartlette of beetroot and pomegranate.
“I ate a lot of pomegranates when I was a kid,” he said. “I made juice with them, I made lots of reductions with them, and I loved putting this very Lebanese touch with something so French as foie gras.”
Geaam’s restaurant’s phone has not stopped ringing since he got his Michelin star.
His said his small, tight team of highly-talented chefs - whose CVs, he admits, look more impressive than his own - “really feel that something has happened in our lives.
“You can criticise the Michelin guide but I can tell you the effect, a star massively boosts a restaurant.”
Within hours the restaurant was booked up for three weeks. “It is quite something,” he said.
Geaam, who told how his son boasted to his friends at school that his father got a Michelin star, put his success down to his own parents, who “lost everything” in Liberia only to have to struggle again in Lebanon during the civil war.
He said working with his father in his grocery shop from the age of 10 gave him a taste for business while his mother “taught me how to love people and how to cook”.