Five questions with Clerkenwell Boy
1) How did the whole movement start? When, where, why?
My good friend Serena Guen, volunteers occasionally for Unicef (via Next Generation London). She asked me to help organise a one-off charity dinner in London, to help millions of displaced Syrian families affected by war.
But, after we talked it through, we decided to team up with the brilliant Gemma Bell PR. And the idea developed into a month-long campaign, not a one-off dinner.
The campaign needed to generate awareness and raise as many funds as possible. It would, for example, provide children with essentials such as clean water, food, medication and education.
The month included a large scale charity dinner, with an incredible line-up of chefs. Fergus Henderson, Angela Hartnett, Nuno Mendes, Jose Pizarro, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi were among these. We challenged each chef to cook their signature dish, but with a Syrian inspired twist.
50 top restaurants across London also got involved. Each added their dish as a special to their menu for the whole month of November, with a portion of the proceeds donated to charity.
We also collected recipes from Syrian families, friends and the chefs involved. We published some of the more traditional recipes on our website www.cookforsyria.com, alongside tips on how to host your own #CookForSyria charity supper club at home.
As the recipes flooded in, we decided to put these together into a not-for-profit recipe book. We self published this before Christmas, and sold out on pre-orders alone. The book was a best seller and we’ve had to re-print a few times!
All our #CookForSyria pop-ups and supper clubs are completely volunteer-led.
#CookForSyria provides a way to get involved and raise awareness and funds at the same time. You can buy a ticket to a pop-up, go to a restaurant to try their #CookForSyria special, buy the book, or host your own charity supper club or bake sale. You can also volunteer at an event or simply share a dish on social media with the hashtag.
2) Where does the money go to, and who does it help?
The funds raised are donated to our charity partner Unicef. They work round the clock to protect children in Syria and surrounding regions, such as refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
The funds raised go towards all sorts of things. For example, clean water and nutrition for children, helping to maintain their livelihoods in a safe environment, and developing infrastructures where they can continue their education.
3) How does it feel to see the movement expand overseas? Was this always a plan or did it happen organically? How did it first go abroad?
It feels amazing to see #CookForSyria charity supper clubs popping up around the world with top chefs involved across major cities.
We’ve seen the campaign go global with pop-ups in Amsterdam, Auckland, Barcelona, Berlin, Dubai, Dublin, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, London, Melbourne, New York, Paris, Perth, San Francisco, Sydney, Toronto and more!
The international roll-out has been very organic, an entirely volunteer-led. It’s shown us that many people really want to help.
Perhaps the main challenge has been that few chefs know about Syrian cuisine. But this is also one of the good things about the campaign, as we’ve encouraged top chefs to do some research to come up with a unique dish that connects their own cooking with the flavours of Syria and the Middle East.
We recently won Best Ethical Food Project via a public vote in the prestigious Observer Food Awards. And as we come up to our one year anniversary, we plan to roll out many more charity events in London. This will include a dinner at Petersham Nurseries in Richmond and a #BakeForSyria event in Old Spitalfields Market on the 18th November 2017, with some of the country’s best bakers.
4) What are the future plans for Cook for Syria?
The reception over the past 12 months has been super-positive.
The hashtag #CookForSyria was trending as soon as we launched with coverage in newspapers, TV, and across social media. We were also invited to join panel discussions on the power of creating social change via social media by Facebook and Instagram.
The book sold out as soon as it was released and we’ve had hundreds of people cooking from the recipes on our website, and the cookbook. This has raised hundreds of thousands of pounds via people simply cooking in their homes and attending our various charity pop-ups.
There’s definitely been an increase in the awareness of Syrian cuisine and culture, with many top chefs embracing the use of spices like Aleppo pepper in their cooking.
Currently we’re helping a Syrian refugee who left his restaurants and cafes in Damascus to open a restaurant in London.
There are more charity events all around the world scheduled for 2018. And, potentially, a #BakeForSyria recipe book in the making.
We’re also collaborating with brands such as Jude’s ice cream to create Syrian-inspired flavours, and raising additional awareness and funds through selected partnerships.
Sadly the crisis in Syria is still ongoing. We’re hoping #CookForSyria will continue to shine a spotlight on the beautiful cuisine and culture of the Syrian people.
5) How has social media helped?
I don’t think this campaign would have been as successful, in such a short space of time, without the help of social media. I’ve always wanted to use my influence to put a spotlight on important causes. And the #CookForSyria initiative would not have happened without the help of hundreds of like-minded individuals spreading the word, tagging their friends and local restaurants getting involved.
Having top chefs and cooks such as Jamie Oliver and Yotam Ottolenghi involved has definitely helped to spread the word and awareness too. I’m grateful for all the ongoing support that continues to come in from all around the world.
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