From hobby cook to chef in the course of only a year. The story of Hadi Nsreeny at first sounds too good to be true. The beginning of this quick career was, however, due to a dramatic start: the young Syrian is one of the many refugees who had to leave their home because of the war taking place there.
He tells Companion the story of how he made his passion into a career thanks to the initiative Über den Tellerrand (meaning to “broaden one’s horizons”) and a lucky chain of events. As he does so, he prepares a meal from his native country.
Hands full of shopping bags from a Turkish supermarket, Hadi arrives at the Kitchen Hub, part of the initiative Über den Tellerrand in Berlin-Schöneberg. Today, he doesn’t just want to talk about his new beginning in Germany, but also wants to make Keapea, a type of Syrian meat dish with lamb, nuts, and cinnamon. A good mise en place is important to Hadi: he puts his purchases into various white bowls before he starts working the lamb mincemeat into a creamy mass with an immersion blender. The 26-year-old looks like he’s been active as a cook in Berlin for years although he only arrived here in June 2015 from Syria.
“Every day all you hear about is war, but Syria is much more than that.”
The journey from Aleppo, Hadi’s native city, to Falkensee in Berlin, where he lives today, took 26 days. First he went through Turkey—in the truest sense of the word: he was on foot until he crossed the Mediterranean to Greece in a small boat with 44 other refugees. “It was the best moment of my life,” he says—and he really means it. Of course he had heard how dangerous the journey over the Mediterranean was, but in the boat surrounded by nothing but water, he felt relieved and thought, “Now you’ve really done it!” When he arrived in Greece, he continued on foot to Budapest, always following the train tracks. For the last stage of the journey to Germany, Hadi finally took the train. Having arrived in Berlin-Falkensee and soon after moving into a home for asylum seekers there, he met Sabine Waldner, a supporter of the initiative Über den Tellerrand. She invited the amateur cook on to the project.
The idea for Über den Tellerrand began in 2013 during a start-up contest at the Freie Universität Berlin. Together with fellow students, Ninon Demuth and Gerrit Kürschner wanted to publish a cookbook of recipes from refugees. As a result of taking part in the competition, a successful start-up came to life to support the integration of refugees with impressive results: two cookbooks, multiple cooking courses in which refugees introduce participants to their native cuisine, cooperations with restaurants, hotels and markets, as well as the Kitchen Hub in Berlin-Schöneberg. And that’s not to mention the expansion of the project to 17 other German cities and Amsterdam.
In the course of a year, Hadi has given several cooking workshops at Über den Tellerrand, and loves the fact that he can explain not only Syrian cuisine, but also the culture of the country to participants. “Every day all you hear about is war, but Syria is much more than that. We have a one thousand-year-old culture.” For Hadi, food is a part of that. Nevertheless, he has never had training as a chef: “I’m actually a web designer and worked at a big IT firm in Aleppo for seven years,” he explains as he stands at the cooking island in the big room of Kitchen Hub and grinds a handful of walnuts in a mortar. But in his native country, he enjoyed cooking even as a child and regularly prepared meals for his family and friends. In his cooking workshops, he realized that he would also enjoy a career in gastronomy. A lucky chance helped him on his way. In fall 2015, 25hours Hotel Bikini Berlin contacted the founders of Über den Tellerrand—they wanted to invite a chef to cook a dish from their native country in their restaurant Neni. The profits would be donated to the project.
Shortly afterwards, Hadi spent two days in Neni’s large kitchen to prepare Keapea, which he is also preparing today for the team at Über den Tellerrand, and Kapseh, an Arabic rice dish. “It was my first time in a restaurant kitchen. I came in and saw the loud cooks, who looked at me expectantly. I was incredibly nervous,” says the 26-year-old. Former kitchen chef Michél Engling quickly put him at ease. “To say goodbye, he gave me the Neni cookbook ‘Lust auf fremde Küche’ (A Passion for Foreign Cuisine). On the inside he had written: ‘If you ever want to work professionally as a chef, let me know,’” says Hadi. And that was how he ended up doing a one-month internship there in January 2016.
Hadi had just told his friends in the project that he wanted to pursue a career as a chef after his internship at Neni, when the team at Über den Tellerrand received a job offer. The publisher Robert Eberhardt wanted to open a new restaurant and was looking for a cook. Since the beginning of March, Hadi has been a chef in the new restaurant Wolff & Eber in Charlottenburg, Berlin, where he conjures up Brandenburg-Syrian dishes like saddle of venison with Arabic spices and garnish—and all of this just a year after his escape from Syria.
“I, along with many others, had to start our lives completely from scratch. I was luckily able to make fast progress,” says Hadi. He knows that he had a unique chance and is very grateful for it. Luck in misfortune, one could say. One thing in this fortuitous turn of events is clear to him: “It is all down to Über den Tellerrand. I will never leave this place, I have made great friends here.” And that’s what cooking is all about: spending happy hours together with your favorite people and eating some delicious food. It’s something we experience on the day—in the meantime, the ingredients in Hadi’s shopping bags have been turned into a team lunch with the wonderfully fragrant Keapea.
Thank you Hadi, for speaking with us and serving such a memorable meal. If you’re interested in supporting Über den Tellerrand, find more information on their website and if you’d like to eat a meal cooked by Hadi, stop by Wolff & Eber.
This article is taken from Companion Magazine, a collaboration between FvF’s mother agency, Moresleep and 25hours Hotels.