Posted by Guest on June 27, 2018 in Blog
By Allison Ulven
“My work as a food activist is cultural work.”
Reem Assil uses her expert cooking skills as a way to unite her community, scrapping prejudice whenever possible.
Growing up in Boston, there were times when Reem’s Arab heritage made her different from her fellow students, like bringing Arabic food when everyone else was eating peanut butter and jelly. Her mother would react with open arms and invite the children to learn how to make baklawa, “food was a way to connect.”
Before she became a culinary queen, she served as a community and labor organizer. Assil has also worked with Grace Street catering, Local Flavors and a popular bakery in the San Francisco Bay Area, Arizmendi Bakery & Pizzeria. She also participated in the “competitive food business incubator program, La Cocina” in 2014.
Coming back from a trip to the Middle East, Reem was inspired by the different foods and cultures of eating and wanted to bring the flavors and techniques to California along with the “sense of something to celebrate.”
Reem’s California began as a small food stand before it transformed into an “Arab Street Corner Bakery.” The menu offers freshly baked breads, salads, wraps, and desserts inspired by traditional Arabic ingredients. Reem was nominated for a James Bear Award for Best Chef West, with the bakery recognized by Food & Wine’s Best Restaurants of the Year. er focus, however, is on more than just her food. Through her business, she aspires to unify the community, providing employment opportunities with good wages and being environmentally conscious by using locally grown products.
She recently opened a new restaurant, named Dyafa, with chef Daniel Patterson’s Alta Group. The two met while Reem was serving as an advisor to the non-profit organization, Restaurant Opportunities Center United, which advocates for fair wages and healthy work environments for restaurant employees. The name comes from an Arabic phrase for hospitality. “My people are masters at hospitality, I mean every culture says they’re the master at hospitality, but I think we’re, like, the shit.”
The lunch menu offers small, light meals that can be eaten quickly like salads, flatbread wraps, grain bowls, and signature breads from Reem’s. Dinner is designed to feel like a traditional Arab-style meal starting with different types of mezze plates and then transitioning to large, family-style dishes. “The idea is that your table is never empty. It’s a great for those who might not be as familiar with the cuisine.”
Reem wants to change the predisposed opinions of Middle Eastern food. “I’m trying to take away the homogenizing terms,” Assil said, “often times people feel vilified or victimized...I want people from my culture to feel proud of it.”
Allison Ulven is a summer 2018 intern at the Arab American Institute.