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José and the World Central Kitchen Team Activate in Beirut

August 2020

World Central Kitchen arrived in Beirut just 48 hours after a massive explosion rocked the city’s port, killing hundreds of people, wounding thousands, and displacing hundreds of thousands. Within hours, the Relief Team connected with chefs and restaurateurs on the ground, including 
Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of Souk el Tayeb, Beirut’s first organic farmers’ market. They made quick plans to coordinate the production and distribution of thousands of meals to feed first responders, volunteers cleaning the streets, and families whose homes were destroyed by the blast. On the first day, the team at Kamal’s restaurant, Tawlet, made Molokhia — a comforting stew of meat, garlic, and the leafy green jute.

José arrived on the scene, flying in from Southern Spain, where he has been spending the summer with his family. The city was buzzing with activity, as Beirutis – young and old, from all walks of life – worked together to clean up the city, which was covered in broken glass and rubble from the blast. José and the team, working with 9 restaurants and a 10th WCK kitchen, started distributing meals to 45 different locations throughout the city’s most damaged neighborhoods. They visited St. George Hospital, which was severely damaged by the blast, and have been delivering 200 meals a day to support hospital staff who have been cleaning up and starting to rebuild.

José met up with Chef Aline Kamakian, who runs two legendary Armenian restaurants in Beirut, Batchig and Mayrig. Aline is a force of nature — not unlike José himself — and was at Mayrig when the explosion occurred 500 meters away, at the city’s port. She was knocked unconscious and broke several ribs, along with losing hearing in her right ear. Still, within minutes she was up and giving CPR to a member of her team. Aline carried five of her employees to safety before she even realized she herself had been injured.. In total, more than 20 of Aline’s employees ended up in the hospital. Her team at Mayrig has since relocated to Batchig to begin cooking meals for families in need and volunteers cleaning up the port.

The WCK team also set up their own kitchen headquarters at Amar Seaside to supplement meals coming from the 9 local restaurants. The explosion affected neighborhoods throughout the city, so the team is partnering with restaurants across Beirut to cover as much of the need as possible. To date, over 130,000 meals have been distributed, and WCK will continue to work with local restaurants as long as the major cleanup operation is ongoing.

During his time in Beirut, José was able to absorb some Lebanese food culture, learning from Kamal, Aline, and his driver Cherbel. Kamal brought José to the stall of legendary baker Oum Ali to learn about Saj — a whole wheat sourdough flatbread that can be topped with za’atar, an herb blend featuring local wild thyme. Cherbel took José to two competing falafel shops that were the site of peaceful conversation during the deadly internecine war in the 1980s. And Aline, with her deep Armenian roots, took José on a tour of the city’s Armenian street food, including a 100-year old stall that makes spiced meat flatbreads known as lahmacun, as well as a famous spice shop where José tasted dried fruit leather.

The path ahead for Beirut is long and challenging. José and the team were honored to be able to cook alongside the city’s chefs  and to meet the frontline emergency personnel and volunteers working tirelessly to heal and clean up their beloved Beirut.