Being a chef and a mother means constant caretaking, for others and yourself
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Reem Assil
Credit: Alanna Hale

Reem Assil likes to say she found a career in food not through her love of food, per se, but rather her love of nurturing community and people. But this work has made the community organizer turned activist chef and owner of Arab bakery Reem's California in Oakland, California, acutely aware that always being the person who provides hospitality comes with a cost. In a conversation about her just-published cookbook/memoir, Arabiyya: Recipes From the Life of An Arab in Diaspora, she spoke of this paradox that is inherent in the life of a chef/restaurateur and a mother, and why one must often give something up in order to nourish others.—Maggie Hennessy

The Arab table, for me, is a place of contradiction. The table I create in my adulthood resists patriarchy and concedes to a maternal impulse. It can feel good, generous, even spiritual to cook for others. At the same time, it can feel oppressive when it's expected of me.

Everybody wants to be taken care of, you know? As a woman in my family, I am the breadwinner but also the caretaker, which can be a really weird contradiction. I had a complicated relationship with my father—he wanted to come home from work to a home-cooked meal. Then, as I got to that position, I wanted to come home to a home-cooked meal, too! But who wins and who loses in that situation? I may feel what my dad felt, but I don't identify with that because of gender roles. I would want nothing more than for someone to care for me wholeheartedly, but I wouldn't expect someone to care for me at their own expense. As a woman, I've witnessed how it feels to be on the other side. I want care, but I never expect it.

Cooking for people is such a joyful thing, but when you have to do it, it can feel quite oppressive. How do we create communal tables where it's a joy on our own terms, under the right conditions? My grandmother did that. Hospitality was her domain, and it gave her so much joy. She just took that joy, and it was joyous for us to be at the table as a result. On the other hand, my mom had to work and go to school, and we were all so busy and all over the place. I wanted time to stop, and time couldn't stop. Having these memories of my mother [for whom] cooking wasn't joyful because of her circumstances feels so sad. 

Yet, when things were simpler and we went back to visit family in Lebanon and Syria, time felt like it stopped—sometimes literally. There was an hour's siesta each day, which was a joyous occasion. You're there and you're present over a spread of salty cheeses and makdous and warm bread. I longed for that feeling and wanted to recreate that in my own places. 

But the reality is that there are always contradictions, especially in a restaurant setting. Take something as simple as us being short-staffed. We do everything we can so diners still have this feeling of hospitality and abundance, but somebody loses because of that. Being a working mom, I think it's important to talk about that fact. It doesn't take away from the fact that we are resilient and find a way to create those spaces, whether for our customers or for our families. But I always think about who is creating those spaces; I can't help but go there. 

I know what it feels like to be on the other side and to want to be taken care of, to want to sit at the table and feel hospitality. I feel it much more powerfully when it doesn't take away from the person offering it. That's exactly the feeling I had being in my aunt and uncles' kitchen, where it's such a spiritual, meditative act to cook, where you find joy in knowing someone else is going to be eating what you've made. 

For me, I rarely think about cooking for myself; I think about cooking for others. I found similar joy planning and preparing even very small dinner parties pre-Covid. Now that I'm a mother, I'm always cooking and bringing something to share. My son Zain is at an age when he's figuring out what he needs; he's only eating chocolate and sweets right now, but I cook and make other things and I always offer them to him. I don't pressure him, but I offer him. I sit down at the table with him, take care of my own needs, and allow him to witness that. 

I want to be a present mom. I think about Zain closing my laptop during Zoom meetings when he decides when I'm done (ha ha!) I've intentionally mapped out my days to be focused on work during the morning and early afternoon and at night after he goes to bed. That allows me to be present with him during the day. I get work done, but in a different way. I really try to be present with Zain after school on Mondays and Tuesdays. One of those days is usually a special excursion somewhere. The other day is more routine, playing and hanging around the house. There's comfort in that.  

I also try to find peace through my morning rituals, like making my Arabic coffee and sitting for half an hour drinking it. Sometimes I wake up before my child to do that for myself, that act of being mindful and being present. [It's ironic that] when I finally found my way to the kitchen, I confronted an industry dominated by white men. Like my mother, I made it my mission to set my own terms. But it hasn't been easy. Still, I'm excited to raise a feminist child and to demonstrate that family, to me, is larger than just my household; it's my co-workers, community, friends, and comrades, who are struggling just like me. Zain knows he's part of a village. He can walk into the bakery and everyone says hi; he knows that he's taken care of. That he has more than just his mama. That's important, and I make sure he sees that—that no one person can take care of all his needs. It takes a community.