Fadi Kattan

Fadi Kattan Q&A: ‘I try to reflect the beauty of our food’

Fadi Kattan’s career mission has been to introduce Palestinian cuisine to the fine dining world. Photo by Elias Halabi

The French-Palestinian chef’s first book is dedicated to the culinary traditions of Bethlehem

Chef and hotelier Fadi Kattan, 46, was born and raised in Bethlehem. He grew up cobbling together local dishes such as fried eggs in samneh with sumac and taboon bread in his grandparents’ kitchen, and later studied the culinary arts in Paris. He returned to Palestine in 2000 to work at the Intercontinental Hotel, before it was closed during the second intifada between 2000 and 2005, and later opened the Kassa Boutique Hotel in Bethlehem’s Old City.

Since then, Kattan’s mission has been to introduce Palestinian food to the world of fine dining. In 2016, he opened Fawda, a high-end restaurant in Bethlehem with a menu he devises on the day. Now based between Bethlehem and London, Kattan has also run Akub, a restaurant with a modern take on Palestinian cuisine, in Notting Hill, west London, since 2023.

His first book, Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food, was published on 16 May and contains more than 60 recipes — some passed down from his grandparents and some of Kattan’s own making — including braised chard with tahini, and fragrant milk pudding.

He spoke with Hyphen about why food is so important to Palestinians both at home and in the diaspora.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe the food you cook?

We chop up a few vegetables and add a bit of heat or coal — that’s what we do. But I’d say my cooking is respectful of the produce, of the producer and the artisan. I don’t preserve Palestinian cuisine because the ones who are preserving it are the people who are cooking in their homes. I think chefs have to have humility — we are not heroes. The heroes are the Palestinians and non-Palestinians who cook Palestinian food, who acknowledge that the origin of food is very often being appropriated or stolen by Israel. 

As one of the first Palestinian restaurateurs in fine dining, why do you think there are so few high-end options for your national cuisine?

I think the occupation has made people lose trust in their own capacities and lose pride in their food. 

But also, historically, our cuisine is very much based at home. Ask a Palestinian what their best meal is and they’ll go, “Come home and I’ll show you.” So I took the communal dishes from the home into a restaurant setting and tried to think of how to reinterpret them, which had not been done before. I decided to create fine dining out of produce from the market and the local flavours.

How has the occupation impacted wider knowledge and access to Palestinian cuisine? 

The occupation has been changing the way we eat and the way we are linked to the land. To use a specific example, our Palestinian yoghurt got slowly replaced by a sour cream that is made industrially in Israel, called shamenet in Hebrew. After 75 years, if you go into a supermarket in occupied Palestine and ask the shop owner, “What yoghurt do you have for me to have with my maqluba [a baked lamb, vegetable and rice dish]?” they very often point to the Israeli product shamenet, instead of laban which is simply fresh yoghurt from Palestine. 

What challenges has your restaurant come across due to living under occupation?

Fawda was supposed to reopen after Covid, and then the Gaza attacks happened. Most of the farms that supply the market are separated from Bethlehem by either a bypass road — linking Israel to the settlements — or by the 12-metre-high wall on the north side of the city. So the accessibility of the farmers to deliver to the market is totally random because if the Israelis suddenly set up a checkpoint on that road, then you’re not getting your deliveries that day. That’s why I chose a model of cooking whatever we have access to that day — it allows you to adapt. 

We will always use the produce, even if it comes one or two days later. For instance, if I want to cook squash today and it doesn’t show up, then I’ll cook squash tomorrow. It’s fine. It’s not something new; that’s how our grandmothers used to cook. You went to the souk, and whatever was there was what you were cooking that day. You didn’t dream of the recipe you’re going to cook tomorrow, then run around all of Bethlehem trying to find three leaves of cress. 

How did you choose which recipes to include in Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food?

A lot of the recipes in the book are Bethlehem-based because I think it’s important to celebrate the locality of things. The book has some regional cuisines, but its main focus is on Bethlehem and the core of Palestinian cuisines in general. There are many differences between them. For instance, Gazans use a lot of chilli and dill in their dishes, which we do not have in other places in Palestine. In the desert, there is more use of dried and preserved yoghurt and lamb, whereas in the north they use fresh goat yoghurt. And in the east there is a high fish consumption.

But what I cook in London, at Akub for example, is my interpretation of flavours and recipes from all over Palestine. It is the beauty of our food that I try to reflect, so there are influences from Gaza, Bethlehem, Hebron, Jerusalem, Jaffa, Nazareth and Nablus. The recipes we use are influenced from across the board. 

Bethlehem: A Celebration of Palestinian Food, published by Hardie Grant, is available now.

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