Lamees Dahbour is one of many immigrant women cooks who are finding a voice and space of their own through the wonderful non-profit kitchen incubator organization, La Cocina, in San Francisco. Lamees worked for many years with the United National Relief and Works Agency, as well as the embassy of Yemen at the consulate in San Francisco, before deciding to follow her life's passion of cooking. Francis Lam recently spoke with her in the kitchen of La Cocina to learn more about the hardships she overcame to build a business that nurtures her ambitions. Try her recipe for her Maqluba | Upside Down Layered Rice Cake with Vegetables.
Francis Lam: How did you decide that food was the thing you wanted to do professionally?
Lamees Dahbour: It never came to my mind that I’m going to run a food business. Due to the situation that I went through here in the United State after I immigrated with my family, I ended up as a domestic violence victim, getting divorced from my ex-husband, which made the situation worse – to be a single mom with three kids. By asking for one of my rights I got punished from the community. I got punished from my ex-husband that we will not give you any support because divorce is not an acceptable thing in our culture. So, when I end up single mom in the beginning, financially I struggled a lot.
My three kids were – two were little, the other was four years. One was in first grade and one was in third grade. All of them failed in school. I can’t say what all I went through. I had to go to court. I had to fight for my rights. I had to work 24/7 to get the money for my kids. I had to focus on my kids, like make sure they succeed. Unfortunately, the first two years was miserable for me.
I started looking for help, especially for my kids, putting fliers all over San Francisco – libraries, private schools, colleges – saying I need help for my kids. A lot of people volunteered to tutor them one-on-one, and after one year my kids started getting 4.0 [GPA] and getting honor certificates. My son graduated with chemistry/biology award from high school, and he’s now got a full ride scholarship to a private college studying pre-med.
LD: My daughter, I signed her up in San Francisco Police Academy. She became a cadet and after that she started working at the Mission police station for almost one year. After she graduates from high school she decided to study biology/chemistry/forensics, so she’s going to graduate next week.
LD: I have one in high school, and he’s addicted to sports. He’s way different than his siblings, but he’s smart. He got two jobs with the UCFF, at the research department, since he was in tenth grade. That wasn’t easy on a single mom, to be running here and there.
The food business started when they graduated, and they said, “Mama, we need gift cards for the principal and the assistant and the teacher.” I said, “What?” Because that’s really tough on me financially. So, the idea came like, okay, I’ll make them a feast and serve them with our traditional food – very authentic Palestinian dishes. Everyone outside the school stared at me like, “You’re crazy sitting behind a computer at a desk and working for a consulate. You could make a million over this food!” I told them I never thought I’d be a chef or running a food business.
The same thing from the manager – I live in a lower income housing, and the manager tried my food many times, and she started encouraging me also at the same thing. She said, “Lamees, you’re wasting your time. I think it’s about time to open your food business.” So, I am not the one who looked for La Cocina; she’s the one who helped me over. And I was lucky to know that a few blocks away from my house that there is La Cocina. I ride my bike there. I met the first one, Leticia Landa, and she said, “Okay, first of all, you have to do your business plan. You have to attend an orientation. After that we have to try your food.” When she said the business plan I was like, hell no. I don't know – what is that? My English language at that time doesn’t help me. I was lucky one of my sisters has a master’s degree in business, and I went to her and asked her if she could help me over this. Honestly, in the beginning I thought it’s a lot of work and why do we have to do this? But now I understand. It was the right thing to do in the beginning before starting any business.
FL: That’s one of the amazing things about La Cocina. It’s not just, here’s a kitchen, come cook, sell your food and good luck. No. It’s like, here’s how to set yourself up so that when you go out and make your food you’ll be successful.
LD: Exactly. They connect you. They work with you in many different areas – marketing, financing, and even how to adopt from a residential kitchen to a commercial kitchen. That was, for me, the hard part: how to start producing a huge quantity in a short time. Also, they help us how to build up our brand, our logo, how to design our business cards, how to open a website. They were also able to help me with the legal stuff, just to make sure that I picked the right identity for my company, and how to protect myself and my family as a mom from being an owner of a business.
FL: I love that you say you learned so much from La Cocina, but I think you also taught them a lot as well. I think one of the things you taught them is how to have their operation and accommodate a Halal kitchen, which you keep.
LD: Yes. Honestly, in the beginning it was kind of like a struggle and a challenge to deal with because they provide us with a space where a lot of the businesses from different countries, from different religions, are working to produce their foods in the same spot. I went to Caleb and I told him, “Caleb, I’m Muslim. I can’t cook with whatever has been cooked with pork or bacon or that stuff.” And he was right away like, “Lamees, I know that there is Halal food and kosher food and we respect all the religions.” So, he had the idea of letting me bring my stuff – the pots and utensils – and also making sure every time we use a sink or anything that is in common between other businesses, that they are washed again and sanitized just to make sure that we are providing Halal.
FL: Thank you so much for having us during Ramadan. You have absolutely covered this table with food. How did you cook all this food without tasting it?
LD: I know I’m fasting, but I’m sure definitely all the seasoning and all the salt parts here in my food is 100 percent right – like the perfect taste. I think the experience when I came to La Cocina and they connect me with the restaurant experts who focus on writing the ingredients and the recipe for each dish. In the beginning he saw me just rubbing the spices and sprinkling how my mom used to do it, and he said, “No, this is not right. You have to have measuring spoons and cups, measuring everything.” I was like, I’m not that patient to do that stuff. I just want to do this. I want to add the flavor that I want.
FL: By sight, by taste.
LD: Yeah. So, putting me on the right track – how to write the recipe and the ingredients for each dish, that was very helpful.
FL: How did you learn to cook?
LD: My mom. When I was little, I was addicted to the kitchen. I love to be in the kitchen. If you leave me in the kitchen 24/7, I don’t say no.
FL: I can tell, looking at the “light snack” you made.
LD: I’m really happy that we’re getting continuous catering orders. That keeps me busy inside the kitchen.
FL: Right now you’re doing catering, but you’re also working toward your next step as a businessperson, right?
LD: Yeah. That’s also one of the good parts about La Cocina. In the beginning they keep asking you what’s your dream, what are you looking for, what’s your future? They connected me already with a small kiosk in Public Market Emeryville, where I’m going to start as a Palestinian food vendor there. I explained to La Cocina that my goal is to open my own commercial kitchen rather than opening a restaurant, so I can spend more time having a big catering business that does service from A to Z rather than opening a restaurant and part of your time has to go to the customers and being outside the kitchen. Hopefully we become a big catering company from A to Z. We already did some weddings and we were happy that we got amazing reviews from the guests. The bride and the groom loved the food. They were also amazed with the presentation and the taste.
FL: I love it that you said you don’t want to have a restaurant because you don’t have to deal with guests. You just love cooking. You want to have a business – just to have the kitchen.
LD: Yeah. I love cooking and I love to be in the kitchen, so I’m doing something I really love.
FL: I know you can’t eat with us, but I’m going to eat. Tell us what I’m going to eat.
LD: For the appetizer part we are serving today the mutabal. It’s a roasted and puréed eggplant mixed with tahini, labaneh, garlic and fresh lemon juice. We serve it usually with homemade pita bread. We also have a finger food called ejja, and this is like the most running item on our menu – everyone likes it. For example, I have a catering tomorrow; they asked for 600 pieces. It is a fritter of cabbage, cauliflower, carrots, onions and garlic. We got the honor certificate from the mayor here in San Francisco for this dish specifically. It’s also vegan and gluten-free. We season it also with olive oil, oregano – we use a lot of oregano in Palestine. And, a mix of vegetables where we add our own garbanzo beans to it from scratch so we can give an option for the people who are vegan to get a different type of protein besides the beef.
On this plate we have two types of chicken. We have a roasted chicken that we usually go through a lot of steps before we cook it. We have to soak it in vinegar, lemon juice, salt for a while, and then we marinate it for two days with chopped onion, olive oil and our spices. After that we grill it and then we roast it inside the oven. The chicken skewers, also the same thing. We marinate it for at least – like the more you marinate, like two or three days, the more the flavor gets into the chicken. We focus to have it juicy. Hopefully, we’re getting it juicy; I didn’t try it. And we usually garnish it with sliced almond, bell pepper, and sumac. We use sumac a lot in our dishes; we got the sumac from Palestine.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.