From Reem’s California to Dyafa: a Palestinian cultural culinary experience that nourishes both body and soul
It’s such a pleasure to encounter a project done so well that it fulfils its potential on both a craftsmanship and a human level. For me, one of the measures of excellence is when I hear the creators of a project speak, and the founder of this project, Reem Assil spoke with such informed eloquence. I wish I could have brought you what she said verbatim so you could enjoy the beauty of her words and thoughts as I did.
Reem started by sharing how she came from a social work background which brought her to the point of burnout as she felt she was continually fighting. She wanted to be part of building a community and to give back to her own Arab one.
Around that time, her father invited her to join him on a trip to Lebanon and Syria. She joined him and her experiences during that trip confirmed her future course. The street corner bakeries and the vibrancy of the food culture in the Arab world brought her back to life and she felt an instant kinship with the way welcoming community sanctuaries are an integral part of the Arab culture of hospitality. This was a culture she had to share with the Californians!
Returning from her trip, Reem immediately got to work making her vision a reality and bringing the tastes and aromas of a Middle Eastern bakery to the Bay. She enrolled in a baking and pastry program, then worked in different establishments for 5 years where she learned about both the kitchen and front of house sides of running a successful restaurant business. I loved the grit, dedication, and heart that I heard in Reem’s story.
She followed this fast-track learning with applying to development programs and was accepted by the very competitive La Cocina program whose whole mission is to help women of colour and women from immigrant communities gain skills through their incubator program. They provide a kitchen space that removes the economic and physical barriers to success and allows women to really figure out how to run their own business. More importantly they also provide a holistic support that assists these entrepreneurial women with all aspects of setting up a restaurant, from technical assistance to building a strong brand.
Reem joined the La Cocina program in 2014 and graduated in 2017. She began to build a following by catering small scale events, pop-up spaces and eventually a farmers market. By 2017 she was at 5 farmers markets and the company had become too big to be at La Cocina. So, they started Reem’s California.
A year later, Daniel Patterson, a Michelin star chef, approached Reem as his restaurant group’s mission included partnering with communities of color to elevate their voices. Aww, I love the Patterson’s of this world! And this is how the restaurant, Dyafa/Arabic for hospitality, came about.
Every touch point of dining at Dyafa is a celebration of the Arab world and its culture of hospitality, which is intrinsically connected to food. Bread in particular is central to their theme and can be made to order. Reem wanted people to catch a glimpse of the Arab world and to weave in greater cultural understanding in a fun and accessible way. One of the ways they did this was by giving different dishes their traditional Arabic names and their history.
The art on the walls was also intentional. In Reem’s California there is a mural which was a collaboration to represent community with the names of the people who gave to their kickstarter as part of the calligraphy. Reem chose a strong, older woman to be the center piece, or figure head on her wall to remind her to have courage and to be invested in a just life for all. The artist, Chris Ghazaleh who is so talented and so Palestinian in his work was able to perfectly capture Palestinian life, which for Reem represents a pan-Arab way of life.
Every aspect of the restaurant was chosen to convey a message. The seafood on the menu, for example, is a message. Reem’s mother is from Gaza where fish is hard to access because Israelis control the waters. So, just keeping the dishes alive that can’t be prepared in their country of origin is an act of resistance.
I think you are starting to get the picture of a vibrant space where each detail carries beauty, craftsmanship and meaning. The sense of solidarity is also present with Reem’s deep appreciation for local community and teamwork. She recognizes the importance of the community for keeping her accountable to her values.
Bringing her journey full circle to how she first developed her brand, Reem’s California and Dyafa both offer a platform for pop ups from visiting upcoming chefs, in addition to providing a space for community events and meetings. I am so touched, warmed and inspired.
I saw something in Dyafa I have never seen. I looked over at some point and saw the manager kneeling on the floor cleaning something off of the floor and bottom of the counter. If a place has the culture where the manager would do that himself and lead in this way, something so right is being done. I wish Reem and her team a joy and ease in purpose that is truly and deeply fulfilled.
LEARN more about Reem’s California
Reem’s offers the warmth of Arab hospitality through the discovery of flavors, aromas, and techniques of the modern Arab street corner bakery. They create the experience of home through fresh baked bread, using traditional Arab flavors and local ingredients, all prepared with California love
DINE at Dyafa
Dyafa, Arabic for hospitality, is an Arabic restaurant in Oakland, California. Part of the Alta Restaurant Group, a love-driven collection of restaurants created with the purpose of fostering innovation, community and equity, their wish is to bring you into their home and treat you like family.
STUDY with La Cocina
La Cocina was born out of a belief that a community of talented natural entrepreneurs, given the right resources, can create self-sufficient businesses that benefit themselves, their families, their community, and the whole city. The food that has come out of their kitchen since 2005 reflects that aspiration and, quite simply, tastes amazing.
ADMIRE Chris Gazaleh’s art
Gazaleh is a artist, educator and activist dedicated to promoting cultural, political, and social awareness from a Palestinian-American perspective that is rooted in social justice. Gazaleh uses many mediums to create and spread his art to the world. From murals to illustrations and from graffiti style pieces to clothing designs, Gazaleh’s art is meant to come from all angles. Born in San Francisco and full blooded Palestinian C. Gazaleh is a cross cultural anomaly. Like the poet Mahmoud Darwish said “Ana min huna, ana min hounak” I am from here, I am from there.
COME TOGETHER at Coi, Daniel Patterson’s restaurant
Coi’s Michelin Guide Review: Warm, neutral tones and a soft, diffused glow from rice-paper panels welcome diners to this jewel. Over in the kitchen, Chef Erik Anderson is kicking things up with his very own culinary style. He has steered away from seafood, and as a result one is more likely to find a panoply of game birds on the menu now. Changes aside, meals remain a well-executed show. Settle in to this admired retreat for an intimate parade of elegantly prepared and thoughtfully composed dishes. Topped with oxalis and matchsticks of radish, the citrus-infused “marshmallow” accompanied by curd is delicate and impressive. Thin slices of geoduck with tremulous clam-juice jelly is luscious, while Dungeness crab kissed by crab mayo and lemongrass-panna cotta is on point. Then relish a tourte of duck and sweetbreads, enriched by Armagnac prunes and black truffles. It’s hit after haute hit, where even the humble blood orange sorbet dances on the tongue and seals the deal. The experience doesn't end there. Flip to the last page of the leather-bound wine list to discover a unique tea pairing, as well as a sweet-and-savory souvenir to enjoy tomorrow-if indeed you can wait that long.