Pastry chef pushing flavor boundaries at Selden Standard in Detroit, Michigan.

By Khushbu Shah
May 12, 2020
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Catherine Sareini

There is nothing Lena Sareini loves more than a clean plate. “I know a lot of times when people go out for dessert, it’s just an indulgence,” she says. Some might take just one or two bites before being overwhelmed with sugar. “I want to see empty plates come back.” To do this, Sareini, the pastry chef at Detroit’s Selden Standard, works savory elements—often unexpected ones—into each of her recipes. Sareini houses a floral honey-lavender tart in a foundation built from a gently salty kalamata olive dough. She dresses thick slices of brown-butter banana bread with a pleasantly bitter scoop of chicory root ice cream and grains of puffed barley.

These ingredients are pulled from her Lebanese-American heritage, something she displays proudly by wearing a hijab in the kitchen and making dishes like kanafeh and baklava a regular part of the kitchen lexicon.  But when she first landed her job at Selden Standard at age 22, she shied away from using her identity as inspiration in the kitchen. “I didn’t want to be predictable, like, ‘Oh, the Lebanese girl is going to make Lebanese dessert.’”

In the past few years—Sareini is now 27—has reversed that opinion. “As the years go by, I’m like, ‘If anyone’s going to do it, it should be me,’” she says. On a recent menu she topped tender slices of olive oil cake with a thick layer of punchy za’atar. Another night, diners were treated to plates of chocolate-coated halva, a sweet, tahini-based fudge, with scoops of earthy, creamy sesame ice cream.

While traditional Arab desserts have long been popular in her hometown of Detroit (the city’s suburb of Dearborn has the largest proportion of Arab Americans in the country), Sareini’s elevated, boldly reimagined versions are something new. Her inspirations include her food-obsessed family: her mother is a food photographer, and her father runs one of the most popular food Instagram accounts in Detroit. Her grandfather—who the family calls “the original foodie”—has long made his own olive oil and apricot jam before it became cool to do so. Even as a child, being in the kitchen was her happy place. She knew from an early age that she wanted to cook professionally, skipping college to go straight to culinary school.

Sareini hopes that her success working in a professional kitchen, paying homage to her heritage, is just the beginning, and that it will help inspire a generation of Arab Americans to embrace a culinary career path. “In the past few years, I have been taking a lot of pride in my roots, and I feel like it’s made me happier,” she says. “I’ve grown as a chef because of that.”

Tara Donne