Beirut called. We answered.
“I feel duty-bound to two countries, Malta and Lebanon. This time Lebanon was calling me and this is the reason why I decided to head over there and lend a helping hand in the ways I can. I cook as a profession, but this has evolved into something much bigger.”
At least 200 people were killed and over 6,500 injured in a massive explosion that shook Beirut on Tuesday, August 4th 2020. More than 300,000 families have been rendered homeless and authorities declared Beirut a ‘disaster city’. The 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, a highly combustible material that had been poorly stored in a depot at the port for more than six years, caught fire and exploded. The port area, where 85% of all Lebanon’s food imports pass through, was flattened.
When the explosion happened I was at Ali Baba cooking in the kitchen when suddenly my phone was inundated with text messages, calls, whatsapp, messenger…any means of communication and literally hundreds if not more people all reaching out to ask if my family in Lebanon were ok and saying they were sorry for what had just happened. All the support and messages just took me by surprise and I can never express how grateful and emotional I felt at that moment.
It actually took us some time to make contact with our family in Lebanon and to make sure everyone was safe and sound. One of my cousins actually works in the port area but was luckily not on shift when it happened and was safe and sound at home.
I could not stop thinking about what had happened and just felt the urge and need to go to Lebanon to help in any way possible – Lebanon is my home country even if I have not been there for many years. I spoke to my wife Claudienne, who has always been my rock in all of this and she encouraged me to go too. At that point I started getting in touch with some other Lebanese and international chefs to see if I could go help and how and immediately international chef Joe Barza called me back and said: “We just need your hands…come here and cook with us”. They had set up kitchens to cook for all the families that are now homeless.
When the word was out that I intended going to Beirut to help, I was immediately contacted by Jean Galea Souchet who said he was joining me and later in the day also by Rafel Sammut and Zack De Marco together with my team at Ali Baba Robert Bonello and Marko Pavlovic.
With Claudienne’s help we started making appeals for help so as to collect money to take up with us to Beirut so as to buy the supplies and goods needed for the people there. In one week, thanks to the generosity of the Maltese community, we managed to collect over €50,000.
When we arrived in Lebanon, the situation was a sad and desperate one and a very far cry from what was once the jewel of the Middle East. The country was already practically a bankrupt one before this tragedy hit it.
The Lebanese people and colleagues welcomed us with open arms and high spirits. We met Chef Joe Barza, Chef Fadi Younes and Ms. Mirvat Sarkisz who helped us and took care of us on the ground there and managed all the operations.
In the first couple of days we were placed in one of the World Central Kitchens where we cooked, packed and dispatched over 15k meals a day. We also visited the place where the tragedy took the lives of many. It was heartbreaking to witness the devastation of their homes but also gratifying to be able to do so much to help others.
On our last day we purchased and delivered over 600kg of food. Unfortunately we had to go against out initial plan of heading out to the street ourselves due to the limited time and sudden spike in COVID numbers. However, we left everything in the hands of Blessed Food: a young and energy driven NGO.
Our work there is not over and Beirut will need help for many more months to come before it can start being rebuilt.
The severe damage to Lebanon’s largest port is pushing up food prices in a country that imports nearly 85% of its food. Prices of most basic needs had already more than doubled this year because of the economic crisis.
It is for this reason that we are already planning our second trip which will take place by the end of September. We would still like to appeal to the Maltese community for your kind donations, whether monetary or food, and you can contact me directly about this so that I will give you all the necessary details and information.