He enjoys today a great reputation, that of a very recent Michelin-starred chef, with the recognition of the public and his peers. And it is so much deserved for this talented cook who learned his job with books, and worked tirelessly to integrate and undertake in France. Alan Geaam stays humble, with an insatiable curiosity. As a boxer, his other passion, he knows the price of his fights to follow his own star and find his identity. A return to himself and a reconciliation that allow him to sign on its behalf a personal cuisine, elegant and creative, that combines the French gastronomy he cherishes, with sweet notes of his beautiful Lebanon.
Alan Geaam was born in Liberia in 1975, where his parents had been living for 30 years. When he was only four years old, a coup d’état forced his family to leave everything in a few days, to take refuge in the country of his ancestors, Lebanon. This exodus was added to an agitated childhood, because it was the beginning of the civil war in the land of cedars. “We lived half in the house and half-holed in the cellar, which was used as shelter during the bombing.” They will also take refuge in the countryside, in the village next to Syr El Denieh, where his father has his roots. He is the middle child in a family of five, and the most sensitive, gifted in sports, and always on the front line when it comes to tasting or preparing dishes. It is his mother who will initiate him, as she was an extremely generous person, absolutely dedicated to her family. “In the morning, at dawn, I used to hear her waking up, and then there rose the sounds of the kitchen and the smell of meals.” The Chef remembers these typically Lebanese traditional dishes, as he grew up in a modest family where the meat was reserved only for Feastdays. However, he lacked nothing because his mother displayed so much love and creativity in her recipes: chicken cabbage confit with chilli ; a sauteed potato with mushrooms and ground meat, with cumin and rice pilaf, accompanied by yoghurt; Halawés deserts with sesame cream or Mohalabieh, a dessert with cream of milk and orange blossom. “I was very picky with food, and I loved to enjoy what was nice to eat, such as the crispy skin of a pan-fried chicken or the crusts of the pan bottoms.” At a very young age, Alan will take care of scout meals and become the gourmet of the family. He will also make his first milk bread at age 8, because he was fascinated by French cuisine, discovered on TV shows and in magazines. “This is where I promised myself to become a cook in France because I literally fell in love with this cuisine.”
The young boy will also be influenced by his father who ran a grocery store in Tripoli, and this learning of life will be very demanding and painful for him. “He showed little affection, quite the opposite of my mother, and was a ‘calculating’ individual, in permanent restraint, including his money, because he was traumatized by all the lost all his worldly possession in Africa.” From the age of 10, Alan will have to work in his shop and will be treated hardly. “I had to carry gas cylinders than were heavier than me, and count the cashbox like an adult, with no compassion for my young age. He taught me also to always put aside the half of my salary and all those things that I hated at the time.” At 18, he will rebel against his father and break ties with him. It will take him ten long years to reconnect, when he will finally realize that this man was a master for him, teaching him to become an outstanding negotiator and a wise manager.
Alan will become a cook during his military service in Lebanon, and in March 1999, he will embark for France with a 7-day tourist visa. “I arrived at the Champ de Mars, with a simple backpack. And I wanted to try my luck in this beautiful country by counting on my own merits.” Hard-worker with a combative and ambitious temperament, he will cumulate the odd jobs with oriental bosses. “I was hoisted on a scaffolding to swallow a facade at 5 o’clock in the morning and missioned to the plunge in a restaurant of the 16th arrondissement of Paris, from 5 o’clock of the afternoon.” This will last fifteen months, until his situation will be regulated. His passion and determination will make the difference. “At one point, the Chef there had a health concern and I was asked to replace him.” With this experience, at the age of 25, Alan Geaam will now be able to apply in other establishments to practice cooking. In the evenings, he will go through books of French to master the language and read other kitchen manuels with the tricks of great Chefs that he admires like Guy Savoy, Pierre Gagnaire and Alain Ducasse. And he will scrupulously set aside half of all he earns, as he learned from his father. There, he will discover unexpected skills of negotiator and outstanding manager. All the ingredients were gathered to open his restaurant one day!
He will be rewarded for all these years of effort in December 2006. By chance, he passes in front of the Auberge Nicolas Flamel, rue Montmorency in Paris, and he is captivated by the place. “A building dating from 1407, classified as an historic monument. I just had that feeling about it. I put my head through the window and could not take my eyes off.” The story of the owner was also fascinating. Ha was a Parisian nobleman who would have discovered the secret of the philosopher’s stone, but he was also a generous and altruistic alchemist. The Chef Alan Geaam will become the guardian of the place by proposing a classical gastronomic cuisine, with the perfect control of the cooking and an impeccable quality of the products and the mixtures. That’s why he will be called by the name of the Alchemist of the flavors. He will also introduce a well thought out and diversified offering with special lunch menus, wedding banquets and business meals. After two years, his business starts to be profitable. The Chef was still setting aside to invest. “But I was still hiding myself with a lack of confidence because I didn’t have any job experience with starred Chefs in my career.” And he was serving a story that was not his, that of Nicolas Flamel, “and moreover the customers came for that”.
In 2012, family problems lead him to a real challenge. He even wanted to leave everything, but the boxing he was practicing diligently taught him to get up, as in his heavyweight fights, because it is at that price that he will find his way to his own identity. He decided to invest in Bristonomy with the opening of the AG Saint Germain. “Obviously, AG meant Atelier Gourmand, Art of Gastronomy … everyone could interpret it as he sees fit, because I still did not assume my initials.” He prepared there a gourmet bistro cuisine, with an Italian or Japanese influence. And success was just around the corner! The Chef took confidence, and opened another restaurant: AG Les Halles, and there, for the first time, he prepared a brioche with zaatar, summac and olive oil to accompany the dishes of his guests, and “this was a nod to my childhood”. Immediately, he could see the huge amount of enthusiasm amongst the public and the media, and a real turning point took place in his career. “Everyone wanted to know my story, with my 18 years of self-taught work and my passion for French cuisine. And the more I talked about it, the more I had the desire to finally make my own personal cuisine that looks like me, and that reconciles me with my past and my origins.”
“Chef Akrame Benallal was a long-time friend and I came here to eat in his starred restaurant, near Place de l’Etoile in Paris.” Also, when he decided to move, Alan Geaam will make an offer to buy the restaurant. And this announcement will generate a total buzz, thanks to the very Media personality of the Algerian Chef. “Everyone wanted to discover the cuisine of the new Chef who bought Akrame’s restaurant.” Alan will then listen to his heart, and finally provide a very personal cuisine that tells his story: that of his love of French gastronomy, with savoury touches of Lebanese influence, “in tribute to my tender mother who gave me the passion for this job”. The restaurant will open in March 2017, and everyone will come running. A touching table, between two cultures, with a constant creativity and audacity to revisit traditional recipes and create new flavors. Last February, it is also the consecration when his restaurant will win a Michelin star. “A beautiful dream that comes true and encourages me to do even better every day, while remaining the same, ambitious with my feet firmly on the ground!”
Courage and determination, talent and humility, consistency and authenticity, these are the qualities of Chef Alan Geaam who creates pleasure from the light of day. Like an alchemist boxer, he mixes today in his cuisine the best of all his history, in a bold and serene match. The generosity and the romanticism of his mother, the coolness and the agility of his father, then the culinary wealth of Lebanon, the country of milk and honey, which he associates so well with his very beloved French gastronomy. A marriage of love that gives an authentic cuisine that looks like him: endearing, generous and all finesse.
Interview held by Carine Mouradian on June 1, 2018, in Paris
Link to the website of the 1* Guide Michelin Alan Geaam Restaurant
“Authenticity is a permanent work on oneself when we are opened to what life presents to us. All our history, our encounters, our failures and our successes; they will find their convergence one day to unify us more and give us the strength to assert our identity to the world. I have 20 years of experience now in cooking, and I have always been consistent and faithful to myself and to my passion for French cuisine since childhood. But I lacked the confidence and my story remained hidden from the public because I couldn’t dare to unveil myself in with my name and signature, and with a cuisine that expressed who I am. This Michelin star award finally comes to crown this reconciliation which is a gift to the others; and it is in this restaurant that I felt right away that I would finally be myself, assuming my background and my past.
In reality, a good Chef is one who knows how to accommodate leftovers and recreate new tastes with simple products. It is also someone who updates the traditional and ordinary recipes, with seasonal ingredients, but especially who prepares them with a lot of love. That’s why, for me who comes from Lebanon, working the oriental products and spices are not the same as a talented chef who would introduce them to experimentation in his cuisine. It is my true story that I tell each time to make customers travel and find happiness in the plate. I compose for example with pomegranate molasses, cinnamon, cumin or zaatar (a variety of oregano), but also by revisiting all the tasty dishes and desserts that marked my childhood. These ingredients are not there for a fad, as were the spices and Japanese condiments like yuzu, miso or sake at a moment, but to express truly what I am. I also think that all the great cuisines of the world must be renewed to offer unexpected associations, because this diversity is the world we are living in. My cuisine is 90% French gastronomy, with the influences of Lebanon; I will therefore give myself up entirely and also put my curiosity, my need to learn and constantly create dishes that give emotions, pleasure and joy.
Lebanon is amazing! A small country, and despite the hard moments of its history, it remains a model of welcoming, with so much richness in its historical, natural and gastronomic heritage. Most of all, it has a human warmth which does not have any equal to fill the hearts, and that none of our material belongings can achieve in our Western countries. That’s why I have chills every time the plane lands at Beirut airport. Yes, I am attached to my roots, and to everything that has been transmitted to me. My mother especially, because she marked me by her great generosity and self-sacrifice, and I liked the cooking by watching her do: all these loving gestures and creative resources to offer tasty and good dishes, even in a modest home.
That’s why it’s important to change our perception of gastronomy. There is no need to deal with expensive products such as caviar or morels; on the contrary, you can sublimate a dish with very simple products, such as Parisian mushrooms, chickpeas or wheat. You just have to cook with passion and put love in what you do. The Lebanese Earth kitchen recipes abound of it! The lentils reworked with the bread of the day before, in a crispy texture, to give a subtle taste to the coriander soup, called Mujjadarrah. Or other treasures as Harra Bi Isbaou or Melazzet al Banat. I recently worked on Hajje, an omelette with parsley, or Fateh, a dish made from Laban, homemade Lebanese yoghurt, and I’ll soon be making a taboulé with cherry-lacquered grilled octopus and black garlic. So I have no signature dishes, but quality products re-invented, with a little Lebanese flavor, for a combination of taste. I do not hesitate to bring some products directly from there, like Bou Sfeir, a bitter orange, that I marinate with the flesh of crabs, Mahlab or Meské which are special aromatic spices, or the orange blossom and rose waters.
In the end, true luxury is this simplicity and exceptional diversity that is shared with people. But it is also above all the health, both physical and mental, for oneself and for the ones we love. Then it is being able to satisfy our basic needs, like drinking, eating and having a roof over your head. All the rest would be a plus, because the most important thing is to love and find pleasure in everything we do, and especially in the most ordinary things. I cultivate this philosophy of life. Every morning, I tell myself that I will do better today than the day before, in my work and my relationships, then I will look to move forward without turning around, remaining constant and always calm and serein. Authenticity is therefore an endless path and we do not know in advance where it will lead us. We just have to believe in ourselves and in our dreams, and open eyes and ears. Because chance always opens doors for us, but we must know how to welcome it and sometimes even make luck happen.”
Interview held by Carine Mouradian on June 1, 2018, in Paris
Link to the website of the 1* Guide Michelin Alan Geaam Restaurant