#4. Chef, entrepreneur, activist and author Reem Assil details how she started restaurants, building culture, poker, parenting, and Arab hospitality.
Reem Assil is the founder of Reem's California, an Arab Street food restaurant in the Bay Area, and the author of the recently published book, Arabiyya. In the episode, Reem reveals that she got into poker during a transitional period in her life, which allowed her to develop confidence. The game also taught her how to not get caught up with the ups and downs and play the long game.
They also discuss Reem's upbringing as a Palestinian Syrian and how it has informed her work as an activist and entrepreneur. She shares her experiences as a former labor and community organizer and the challenges of navigating the food industry as a woman of color. They also talk about her book, Arabiyya, which showcases her passion for preserving the culinary traditions of her culture while also pushing the boundaries and experimenting with new flavors.
In addition, they touch on the importance of building a strong culture within a restaurant, the challenges of parenting and running a business simultaneously, and the concept of Arab hospitality, which involves the sweet torture of excessive generosity and kindness. Overall, this episode offers valuable insights into the mind of a successful entrepreneur and activist and how her experiences have shaped her approach to decision-making, leadership, and culture building.
Where to find Reem Assil:
Where to find host Josh Sharkey:
In this episode, we cover:
(2:38) How poker impacts business decisions
(7:22) What does it mean to be a chef?
(11:14) How Reem operationalizes her kitchens
(14:04) The Traction model
(15:37) How Reem is building her legacy
(17:18) How to hire the right people
(19:12) Investing in language justice
(20:29) What is Arab hospitality?
(23:05) Balancing preserving traditions and evolving
(26:02) Colonialism and the language of cuisine
(27:57) The future of Reem’s California
(32:16) The joy of publishing Arabiyya
(34:45) The parallels of Arab and Mexican traditions
(37:24) Reem on reclaiming her identity
(40:55) Lessons learned from motherhood
(44:43) Reem on television shows and social justice
Josh Sharkey [00:00:00]:
Welcome to the meez podcast. I'm your host, Josh Sharkey, the founder and CEO of meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. On the show, I'll be interviewing world class entrepreneurs in the food space that are shifting the paradigm of how we innovate and operate in our industry. Thanks for listening, and I hope you enjoy the show.
My guest today is the badass entrepreneur, activist, author, public speaker, former labor and community organizer, and to top it off, after my own heart, a damn good poker player, Reem Assill. Her upbringing as a Palestinian Syrian has informed so much of what she does today.
She's the founder of Reem's California, a restaurant in the Bay Area. She's the author of the recently published book, Arabiyya. She's been nominated for a James Beard Award and won countless other awards, including Rising Star Chef and Top 10 new restaurants in America from food and wine. We had such a blast.
We talked about starting restaurants, building culture, how poker influences decision making, what we learned from parenting, and why Arab hospitality is akin to sweet torture in the best way imaginable. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
This podcast is brought to you by meez, the culinary operating system for food professionals. As a chef and restaurant owner for the past 20 years, I was frustrated that the only technology that we had in the kitchen was financial or inventory software. Those are important, but they don't address the actual process of cooking, training, collaboration, and consistent execution.
So I decided if it didn't exist, I'd do my best to get it built. So the current and next generation of culinary pros have a digital tool dedicated to their craft. If you're a chef, mixologist operator, or generally if you manage recipes intended for professional kitchens, meez is built just for you.
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Reem, welcome to the podcast.
Reem Assil [00:02:22] :
Thanks for having me.
Josh Sharkey [00:02:23]
I am so freaking excited to have you here. There is a lot we can talk about, but we were just talking about this, so I'm going to jump in with something not food related, b poker because we both share a love of poker, which I didn't know until recently.
Reem Assil [00:02:38]:
Yes you do.
Josh Sharkey [00:02:38]:
You know, I've always been fascinated with the decision making of poker and I feel like there's this microcosm between making decisions at the poker table and the way that people perceive how we make decisions in business and they just see like, yes, no, I did this or I spent this much or this little, or I decided to do this thing at this time.
And we know that there's so much more that goes into that and that's why I love poker so much, you know? What's your position? What's your chip stack? What are the implied odds? What's the expected value? How are the behavior, the people around you, how do you feel today? All that stuff goes into the decision that you make. And I'm curious, one, why do you love the game and how does poker impact the way that you make decisions in your business?
Reem Assil [00:03:11]:
Yeah. Well, I guess I got into the game during a transition moment in my life where I was having an existential crisis of who I was, and I think poker really levels the playing field between everybody, right? Like it's a game of wits, and if whoever does the studying can master the game, it's like one of those games that are easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master, which is my approach to life. I just love being a student. So I just became really obsessed. And I think being at the poker table, I was able to be someone who I wasn't in real life.
I was really timid. I was afraid of taking chances. I was afraid of being assertive, knowing my value and you get to be this alter ego where you can kind of go for it at the poker table. And so as I played more poker in my real life, I became more confident. So I think there was something about that sort of meta psychological piece.
It's kinda like meditation because you have to make hard decisions all the time. So how do you do that from a grounded space and not be emotional or as we like to call it the poker world? Go on tilt, which I've done many times. But yeah, I think that it really does translate a lot to the way that I approach life, but particularly the enterprise of Reem's because it's like practicing the muscle of controlling emotion.
And that just takes practice. You're not gonna have it right off the bat. But I think the biggest lesson that I learned from poker is how not to get caught up with the upswings or the downswings. You know, it's the long term that life has variants. There are inevitable ups and downs in circumstances you can't control.
You have to make decisions with imperfect information. You're never going to have all the information unless of course you're cheating . You can't really cheat at life, right?And yeah, you have to not get too attached to the ups and not get too attached to the downs and kinda play the long game. That's always how I've viewed my business.
When I'm getting accolades and all these things, I don't attach my value to that cuz I know that, that there's gonna be a downswing there, right? So I have to stay. What is my goal, right? My goal is to win all the chips, whatever the goal is, right? My goal for Reems is to create an enterprise that is long lasting, where workers are happy.
So I go back to that center and you know, I try when the downswings happen, not to get too caught up in it being something that I did right? That's just short-term variance. And in the long run, if I'm making good optimal decisions with all the information I have, then it should work itself out. It's just longevity.
And I always joke poker folks would really appreciate this, that I'm really good at being a short stacked ninja. I actually thrive in playing in the short stack with the limited resources because you have more grit, you have leverage there. You know where sometimes people with the abundance of chips kind of blow them. Yeah. I'm really good at playing that long game, even when I dwindle down to a short stack, sometimes even better.
Josh Sharkey [00:06:34]:
Those are the hardest decisions to make, are the right ones, you know, in the short term. I’m the opposite, I'd much prefer playing big stack poker.
Reem Assil [00:06:45]:
Well, that's where your skill comes in, right? Like I think that I built the grit and now as I'm kind of amassing my chips, I’m trying to figure out what's the utility of them. Right?
Josh Sharkey [00:06:54]:
Yep. We're gonna weave that in a little bit today with your chip stack, and we're going to talk about fundraising, but we'll jump around a little bit because I mean, I was just so fascinated to dig into learning more about you, and we've met a couple times at a couple events, like in these chef events, but just so fascinated honestly, like Reem, like generally inspired to hear how have gone about building your business and also just having the courage to do what you're doing. We're going to talk a little about that.
In digging. I read somewhere, it seems like the word chef is almost like a dirty word to you. You know, it's interesting. My background is in fine dining and I think we have this cognitive bias as chefs of what it means to be a chef.
And you know, ultimately our job as a chef is to make people happy and to give them respite. And sometimes I feel like, you know, all the techniques in the world. And all the experience, how many restaurants you've worked at come second to your ability and the courage to tell a story through your food that makes people feel something.
And that's what I think of when I think of you. And I feel like that is sort of redefining what a chef is today. Because obviously now you're seeing chefs that aren't coming from spending 15 years in the brigade and then working their way up. And maybe you don't have to do that. So how do you view the notion of being a chef and do you think that the paradigm is shifting?
Reem Assil [00:08:11]:
Yeah, I always joke that some of the most famous chefs out there now are TikTok chefs, and that's cool too. You know, there's a space for everybody. It's funny because I had written this piece, I think early last year, and it was after a lot of these exposés came out on chefs that are brown and looked like me and probably weren't afforded the same opportunities, and yet they were still abusing their power.
I went down the rabbit hole of like, why? And even when they were kind of approached for accountability, they didn't know they did anything wrong. And I said, well, there's something seriously wrong with that if you're in denial. So it doesn't matter who the chef is, the very setup of the chef being central to everything.
The one that is the magic creator where everybody else is invisibilized around them, is the problem in and of itself. I don't have a problem with the word in and of itself. I call myself a chef, just objectively speaking, right? That's the profession. Anybody who is cooking for a living and creating things, I don't know what else you would call it, right?
But this idea of, you know, chef as where everything stops, that's the problem that I have because it creates this false paradigm that people are aspiring to, where they're falling into these same abuses of power, myself included, right? Like nobody is immune from that. So, you know, the point that I was making in that article, which became so polarizing, I mean, people feel very, very, you know, sensitive about this title.
You know, if we got rid of that word, if we got rid of that as an aspiration, what else could become in our kitchens? And that's simply what I was grappling with. I don't think it's a dirty word, but when you say the word chef, you're mostly going to associate it with the main character and “The Menu,” you're not associating it with people like me, so why do I need to fit into that mold to prove myself to be like the very thing that I'm trying to get rid of?
Josh Sharkey [00:10:15]:
Right. Yeah. No, that makes total sense. It's almost like more about the connotation of the word than anything else.
Reem Assil [00:10:20]:
And the idea of a spear into it.
Josh Sharkey [00:10:22]:
Yeah, and it's sad actually. I think that it almost has a connotation of, to be a chef also means to have bad leadership skills in some way. You know, because like the old way of doing things is just yelling and saying this isn't the right way. And you know, and making people feel like shit sometimes. And yeah, and just that way of management, we didn't know any better, or maybe we did, we just didn't try. But, I think we have a similar outlook, like the onus is on us to set them up for success to, you know, be explicit and to make them feel like they're a part of it.
I learned this lesson really early on from the founders of Blue Ribbon Restaurants, Eric and Bruce, and I remember very early on, before I opened my first restaurant, they said the most important thing to be successful is to set your team up for success. And it's so counterintuitive. Then I went and worked for, you know, Bouley, where you're not told how to do anything and everything is wrong.
And it doesn't matter what happens. Yeah. So like, I'm curious, how do you operationalize that in your kitchens? Right? How do you set your team up for success and how do you maintain consistency?
Reem Assil [00:11:14]:
It's so funny, like when The Bear series came out and you know, the main character is like calling everyone chef like we do that. Reems has been doing that forever. The thing that we do, everybody's commanded with respect, so I think there's something about the way that just common everyday communication, seeing people as people pull people outside of the restaurant, I think gains that trust.
And honestly, there are people in my kitchen who've worked in the industry way longer than I have and have wisdom in technical areas that I don't have, and if I don't ask questions, my food isn't going to get better. So it really kind of benefited me. Like you said, it's like if you set everybody else up for success, you don't have to do much other than delegate and motivate and help support when there's troubleshooting needed.
So that's kind of always how I approach it, like if something happened wrong, then we work backwards to figure out what made it happen. And usually, almost a hundred percent of the time there's just a breakdown in communication, there's a tool that wasn't there, somebody is having a bad day and they just needed to take a break.
You know, there's always a reason that's not so personal. That's more systemic. And so the more that I do that with folks, the easier they're able to solve their problems on their own. Because they just developed those habits. Yeah, so asking a lot of questions about why they do things, and this happens all the time, right?
I'm not working on the line all the time, but like a line cook changes the setup. I'm like, why'd you do it? And then they feel like they're in trouble. I'm like, no, no, I'm not asking. I'm just curious what your thinking was. And sometimes it's like, okay, I need to push back, but at least it's a conversation.
I'm not telling you what to do or whatnot if this works for you, but you know, try this on. So it's a back and forth so people feel like their voices are heard. And then also I want people to see themselves reflected in my food. Even though we do Arab cuisine, we're very much in mixed neighborhoods in my restaurants, and we are in California and there are things in my culture that remind my cooks of their own culture. So they add their own little spin on that, and it's really fun. So I let them have pieces of themselves on the menu too, and I think that motivates them. Some people are motivated by creativity, some people are motivated by other things.
It's figuring out who is in your kitchen, what motivates them, and how to use that. Some people love structure, so we build structure. Some people want a little bit more wiggle room.
Josh Sharkey [00:13:58:]
As you're scaling, how are you sort of maintaining “here’s how we do things” as you grow? What systems are you using?
Reem Assil [00:14:04]:
It’s hard. I think for Reems we use something called the Traction model. I don’t know if you've heard of this. This is like when I was going from one to two locations. I asked the founder of Bi-Rite, Sam Logan. This is a very famous grocery store that's super sustainable here in San Francisco, and he's grown to like five locations and be able to keep his values.
Which I'm like, how do you do that? And this book was the book that he recommended. And one of the things that were really cool in there is that you decide on the five core values of your business and then everything that you do, even in your hiring process and your evaluating process, you evaluate and hire people against those five core values.
So I thought that that was really genius because it brings the people that you want into your organization so you don't have to do a lot of work on the front end. And then it reminds us when we all fall off of our guns, right? Like one of our core values, just for instance, get shit done.
It literally is G S D. There are days where we're not feeling that, you know? So we have to remind ourselves of things like, what do we need to do to be able to display that core value so it was really helpful. I think the pandemic helped. We were kind of operating really on the gerbil wheel and when the pandemic happened we were able to stop and invest our time in the people that had stayed with us for so long.
They had built up loyalty, but like that's not enough to keep people and to keep them invested while they're with you. So we explored this idea of Reems. My vision, my 10 year vision was always to have it worker owned. But I think the pandemic kind of sped things up. If your workers kind of help you build it with you, they're part of the fight.
They're going to be that much more invested in the outcome. So a core of my really loyal employees embarked on an apprenticeship program. We built an apprenticeship program where they got to learn tools outside of the kitchen, like how to communicate better, how to understand the finances of a restaurant.
And so now they're thinking like owners. And the hope is that once we make the transition to worker ownership, then they actually have a material stake in the business, and I think that that helps. Yeah, having good managers obviously, and structures in which there's democratic participation as we call it. Our style is really called participatory management, where we involve people in all the decisions we make, and it's very clear that pretty much every employee is consulted.
Sometimes they're just, they're notified, but it's transparent. But a lot of times it's like, you know, for example, with the health and safety of workers, when we decided to open up, that was a vote. We were like, we're not going to open up until all of our workers feel safe.
So there are certain things that we've already kind of instilled in Reems as if it's a cooperative. And that just builds a culture of cooperation. But we are hiring a Director of People and Culture. That's like my big, exciting thing that I really want to do because it's hard for me as a business owner to play all those roles.
Josh Sharkey [00:17:18]:
You said that as it relates to culture, you wanted to build a community and create a space for people. I'm quoting you here, “create a space for people of all walks of life to gather together,” which I think is great, but how do you hire for that? How do you filter for the people that that will resonate with?
Or is it more helping them to get there and just finding people that are just generally kind? Or like how do you filter for the people that you're hiring? I mean, you're growing now, so you’ve got to hire more people and you're gonna have to promulgate this mission to more and more people
I mean, some of it really has been organic, right from our growth, that we've developed a reputation for ourselves. The people who have worked for us or still work for us are our best recruiters. In fact, those are our best hires, people in other people's networks. We actually have a bonus that we pay folks.
If you recruit someone who lasts past, I think it's six months. Our standards have gotten a little lower post pandemic. That's been a really good one because you're not going to recruit just anyone. So a lot of our hires are people in the neighborhood, which for us is a really diverse set of people just by the neighborhoods that we're in.
Oakland is one of the most densely diverse locations in the us. It's pretty clear, even like two or three weeks in, the people who don't kind of fit with the culture. They weed themselves out, so we've developed a reputation. We've been very transparent about that. And so I think it attracts a certain type of person.
Same thing with our customer base, right? Like just by the nature of what we do and who is in that space, it's going to attract people with more aligned values. But that said, it's not easy because we also have people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, we have a lot of generational gaps.
A lot of my back house tends to be older, in front of the house, younger. It's like how do we get them to be the same. Language is another thing. One of the things we incorporated at Reems during the pandemic was this core tenant of language justice, which means that all of our meetings are simultaneously interpreted.
Everybody gets to participate in the language that they feel most comfortable in, and that really helps participation, when you can actually express yourself. So I think those have been the big learning lessons of, how do you hold a multi-generational, multiracial, multi-language workspace.
Josh Sharkey [00:19:54]:
That is quite the experiment going on. It sounds like it's working well.
Reem Assil [00:19:56]:
I mean it costs money and it costs investment, but it's worth it in the long run.
Josh Sharkey [00:20:00]:
That's your long term play right there. That's folding to that aggressive guy. So you talk a lot about Arab hospitality. By the way, I read through the whole book Arabiyya, which is awesome. We're going to talk about that. But what is Arab hospitality? And you have this very diverse team. But you are also sort of giving people this notion of Arab hospitality. So how do you foster that with this mixed bag of all these people?
Reem Assil [00:20:29]:
I think the beauty of Arab hospitality is that it's for everybody, right? Hospitality is all of our roots before we were colonized and you know pitted against one another. But if I were to describe Arab hospitality, in a nutshell, it's like sweet torture. It's like, let me just give you everything that I have, make you feel abundance, even if it's the last thing that I have.
You know, I think the Arabs have really survived in the desert and everywhere they've traveled by being gracious to their friends and enemies alike. By just being generous. I don't know that feeling of abundance and sometimes it's a little much, but that's when you know you've really done your job is like stuffing someone to the brim.
We do it through our food. I mean, our hospitality is really through food. But one thing that I love about Arab culture that I'm pretty sure other cultures can relate to is this notion we're trying to change in the restaurant industry that the guest is an equal player in that experience of hospitality.
That if you refuse a drink, you are ruining the experience. You have to accept the drink. That's just like a simple example, but the idea of give and take, that's like what creates the magic and the person giving the hospitality feels equally as nourished by nourishing someone else. And that's what I think attracts a lot of Arabs to the restaurant industry, but for whatever reason it's turned into this like we're at your service, like a service industry where we do everything, at all costs for the customer. And that's definitely not the way that we do things at Reems. It's much more aligned with the Arab way of doing things, which is like, come as you are.
We'll take you as you are. Leave your xenophobia, of course, and your racism at the door. We are accepting, but obviously there are things that we don't stand for and let us break down that barrier and you can see us as humans and we can engage in a very authentic way, even when it's not comfortable. There are moments where our hospitality is a little overbearing.
Josh Sharkey [00:22:49]:
Well, that's probably when it's at its best. Okay, so I'm gonna quote you again, by the way to ask another question, but you said that you have a responsibility to your grandmother and your ancestors and your heritage as a whole to cook the food that they could not when they were displaced from their land.
So you have a really diverse team and you are obviously empowering them to help build some of this food with you. So how much of what you do is to sort of preserve the traditions of the culture that you come from versus evolving and adapting to this new crazy world, call it San Francisco, call it America, where you're sort of like introducing this food and this culture. How much is preserving versus sort of evolving?
Reem Assil [00:23:23]:
I think they're not mutually exclusive, I guess is the easiest way to answer that question. It's not so simple as to say I'm preserving the stories,not necessarily the traditions, but the traditions so much of the time tell the story, right? The story of struggle, the story of adaptation, the story of hospitality, right? Like why we approach dishes, the way that we approach them. So when I think about these dishes, I think about what is the heart and soul of the dish. It's not like I'm just throwing a bunch of things that inspire me on a plate, but it's like, okay, this is the core tenant of this dish.
And then how do I evolve it to be even better with the ingredients that are available to me? And I think that there's this misconception. Food is always evolving even in its place of origin, right? I don't think that the foods my grandmother was making were the foods her grandmother was.
She probably adapted it when she was displaced. So we should celebrate that and we should evolve our food because. There's just so many amazing ingredients out there. And prolific ways to create those experiences. And so what I try to do is pay homage to the place, and in my case, the place that I'm in is here in California where we're supporting farmers who live off the land.
There's a whole story to that, so why not tell that story too and respect the place that we're in now while telling the story that my grandmother was a refugee in Gaza and you know, in Gaza now they can no longer fish. So that's a privilege that we have here. Like that's a way to tell the story in a way that feels authentic.
Josh Sharkey [00:25:15]:
It's almost like you're preserving the tradition by evolving it.
Reem Assil [00:25:18]:
Exactly, because our tradition is really resilience.That's the tradition, right?
Josh Sharkey [00:25:21]:
And it was constantly adapting and because you had to migrate and there was constant displacement and that's probably what makes the food what it is…
Even better. Hopefully you got this from the book, but I'm fascinated with Arabs and diaspora in particular because if you look at the history of how in the 1800s and 1900s, every wave of fleeing empire, we've organically exchanged with the cultures around us, right? Whether it be here in the US or in Latin America or Europe.
And there's just something really beautiful about that. Like I love the stories of organic exchange of cultures and the building of a new culture that's a little bit, just a little bit better.
In America we think that preserving is keeping things the way they are, but for most of the world and for most of history, it has been the opposite. Like thinking about Ghangis Khan, who ruled most of this planet for a very long time and for all the crazy things that he did, he actually brought cultures from other places and made sure that they combined ingredients and flavors and ideas, and that's been happening for millennia. That actually is more of the norm than saying, no, this is Mexican cuisine. This is Indian cuisine. It's like it's always evolving.
Reem Assil [00:26:43]:
Yeah. That's a colonial construct.
Josh Sharkey [00:26:44]:
Yeah. Yeah. It really is.
Reem Assil [00:26:46]:
It's a reaction to colonialism because even the distinction that I make when I call my food Palestinian or Levontian or even that’s a colonial construct, right? The French called it the Levon,or Lebanese or Syrian. It was all one land and we were traversing it, but it's a reaction to a certain colonial construct that is trying to invisibilize our food. That's why it's important to say this is from this country. So it's in reaction to the theft of land.
Theft of food, theft of culture, right, in order to invisibilize the people. So then that's when it becomes necessary to kind of stake. But it's really, it is in essence a reactionary thing. And if we didn't have these, again, colonial constructs, we wouldn't have to do that. But that's unfortunately, You know, our food is a marker of who we are, and for Palestinians, it's probably one of the last frontiers that we have to make sure we still exist, right when we're being literally killed off our land.
Josh Sharkey [00:27:55]:
Well, I think you're at least chipping away at that a little bit with what you're doing. There's a quote I love from Henry Matisse. It's like literally three words, creativity takes courage. And, you know, I think that's what you are doing and that's what your ancestors did. And so you, you have to keep adapting as you get put in these situations.So I think that story's coming through with what you're doing at Reem’s.
Reem Assil [00:27:55]:
Trying. Still the underdog.
Josh Sharkey [00:27:57]:
I'd rather be the underdog and surprise people. So what's next? I know we talked a little bit about some fundraising, so how's your chip stack? What are you working on next?
Reem Assil [00:27:57]:
The chip stack is dwindling for some buildings, but hopefully I'll get it back in the next part. So we just signed a lease on a location that will be kind of announcing to the world, and this is going be basically my original vision of Reams, which was this big one-stop shop bakery cafe where people can get their daily bread and big catering operation in the heart of downtown Oakland where we opened our first brick and mortar.
And we're so excited to build that. And that will be kind of the house of the heartbeat as we call it. And the idea for the growth of Reem’s is to really, you know, get our breads into as many hands and homes as possible. So, you know, the restaurant model we knew even before the pandemic is not sustainable in and of itself.
So we want to create multiple revenue streams, which we've learned over the years how to be able to allow our food spaces, the cafe and the restaurant just to be a community. Not to have to rely on that to build wealth for our workers and to build wealth in these other areas that can scale.
So that's kind of the trajectory. We're raising money for that. We're trying to hire an infrastructure so that, you know, as we grow, we're growing thoughtfully. So getting some high level folks who have a background in CPG, consumer packaged goods, and cultivating, operationalizing, codifying all of the amazing things we’ve done around people on a larger scale.
And hopefully coming up with a toolkit for other restaurants to follow around how you can transition into worker ownership. I think a lot of restaurant owners out there say “I want an exit plan, but I want this legacy to stay.” How do I do that without selling my soul, you know? And they'll either hold their restaurants or sell it to someone that doesn't quite understand.
Josh Sharkey [00:30:22]:
It's tough to find an exit strategy for a restaurant.
Reem Assil [00:30:25]:
Yeah, this is a wonderful exit strategy of like, how do you build your employees to carry on your legacy, and how do you codify that in an operating agreement? So it builds wealth for generations to come, and you don't have to be in the trenches. That's what I'm working on now.
We're raising money for all of that. The kind of worker transition, the building of the flagship. Building of this infrastructure. So I'm really excited to eventually be back in Oakland and have this beautiful one-stop-shop, where you walk in and there’s just like hundreds of workers around you doing their thing.
Josh Sharkey [00:30:59]:
That's so cool. It's like the Willy Wonka of bread.
Reem Assil [00:31:02]:
Yes, like pita lines and the smell of zaatar as you walk in the door
Josh Sharkey [00:31:07]:
Are you gonna make your own labneh there, too? Do they use it in Palestine cuisine?
Reem Assil [00:31:18]:
Well we do at the restaurant. We'll focus on the bread and you can get the dips at Reem’s. I'm, you know, preaching the gospel of Arab hospitality and still trying to push the envelope of what Arab cuisine can be in this country, and keeping this cookbook tour going. For folks who haven't seen or read Arabiyya yet,I just think that that book is intersectional. Right? Like anybody can relate to it. Even though the stories are very unique to my story. My hope is that there's some things that resonate with anyone.
Josh Sharkey [00:31:46]:
For me it was like, it was obviously way more than a cookbook, because it was just a great story in it. You said and I’m quoting you a lot today, so I hope that's okay. You said Arabiyya was kind of a love letter to your family, to your people, to yourself. So how has it been received and has it been cathartic for you now that it's published and it's out there?
Reem Assil [00:32:16]:
Yeah, it has brought me the greatest joy. It's been really vulnerable, but it did exactly what I wanted to do, which is to build my community far bigger and more expansive than I ever thought it could be. Last year I went to places like Texas and Charleston and met Arabs and diaspora for everywhere and second, third generation. That is the beauty.It's like taking all these folks who felt invisibilized and they finally feel seen, and that's been really amazing to connect with folks across the country and hear their stories.
Josh Sharkey [00:32:40]:
Did they take you to any great spots when you were there? Any local Arab spots?
Reem Assil [00:32:40]:
No. I mean, I didn't have time. Usually I was there doing an event in and out. But I think that that synergy has been great. I mean people I didn't imagine were going to be so touched by the book, like a burly white man from Texas who stuffed me in a barbecue event. And he's like, I just want to tell you how touching that book is. Just like you'd never know who your audience is.
And how it touches people and you get to know who your fans are. So that was very touching to me, is to understand that there's like a universality of human experience that anybody could really be touched by this book. So I loved that part. And yeah, I think it's been well received. I think it's doing well. I'm gonna keep this cookbook tour going this year.
I had a really good run last year and I took a little break. And you know, one of the things that I really want is for people who are not from my cuisine, who have restaurants that are not Arab to take the book and adapt it to their own culture. So like last year we did like, An Arab Izakaya with Chef Soma.
I'm not sure if you met Chef Soma from Indie Chefs. The Japanese and the Arabs share no ingredients, but we share the same traditions of small bites and you know, just like figuring out ways that look like my food but with Japanese flavors and it was amazing.
We did a Palapino Magna in Portland, and so I wanna do more of that, like the building of other people's cultures with Arab cuisine. And what we can create from that.
Josh Sharkey [00:34:39]
I think you and I were just talking about this, you were in Mexico recently.
Reem Assil [00:34:44]:
Yeah, we did a Mexi-Pali.
Josh Sharkey [00:34:45}
There's a ton of parallels there. Obviously there's also just a huge Arab influence in Mexico, but do you see a lot of parallels between the cuisine in Mexico?
Josh Sharkey [00:34:50}
Oh my God, Mexico feels like home. I could close my eyes and feel like I'm in Beirut. Yeah, I mean the Arab culture is very vibrant there. I think from the influx of the Lebanese that came in the 1900s, but also the touch of the Moors on the Spaniards.
Yeah. I think there's a lot of that Arab influence. So I think that Mexico, with its abundance of amazing ingredients, Makes our food even better. Yeah. And that's, you know, that's, yeah. Especially how the Al pastor was adapted from shawarma and all of these things that are now part of Mexican cuisine. So we really celebrated that at that dinner. And it was cool. Like chupulinas on muhammara, like who would've known.
Josh Sharkey [00:35:34]
That's amazing. Yeah. I was just chatting with Barkha Cardoz, Floyd Cardoz wife, and we were talking about Indian cuisine and how similar it is to Mexican cuisine, and actually I think it's just like through the trade. And there, it’s also just so diverse, like, you know, obviously like the food Chiapas is completely different from, you know, Sonora or Puebla or, or Oaxaca or the Yucatan. And the same is in India. Like Goan food and food of Mumbai or Hyderabad are completely different. Are there other pieces of that in there?
Reem Assil [00:36:04]:
Yeah. We're not a monolith and yeah, I really try to show the breadth and depth of Arab cuisine. When I talk about my food or do pop-ups, North African cuisine is not going to be the same as cuisine in the Gulf. They don't have the same things available to them, to that of a Mediterranean climate where my parents are from.
It's different terrain. There's also indigenous cultures, like we forget to talk about indigenous cultures in that region. There are the Bedouin, there are the Berbers. There are people that even pre-Arab colonization that still live in these areas. The Assyrians, the Kurds, the Armenians.
So when I talk about that region, That's why I say you can't just call it Middle East or you can't just lump it Into these things. Because there are different people with different eating traditions that get invisibilized in that.
Josh Sharkey [00:36:55]:
What's exciting? Cause it just, that's more things for you to start teasing up and dig into.
Reem Assil [00:37:01]:
Exactly. Because I'm a student forever. Just like I told you. Easy to learn. Lifetime semester.
Josh Sharkey [00:37:06]:
So cookbooks are pretty static. You know, once they're published, kind of that's it. They're out there. There's nothing you can change. So now that it's out there, is there anything that you wish you could sort of add on or change or tweak given you can’t.
Reem Assil [00:37:24]:
Truth be told, I submitted double what I was contracted for in terms of words, and they were like, wow, we just needed 40,000. I'm like, well, I had a lot to say. Like I can't turn this down. Ten Speed really went to bat to get this book published the way I wanted. I mean, we had to cut so much out.
We went from 90,000 and 80,000 words and that was hard for me because really what I wanted to do was tell my story and you know, the way we say the breadth and depth of Arab cuisine, the breadth and depth of Reem too, like that I evolved. And you know, I wrote this book, I mean, it's called Arabiyya, which means Arab Woman in Arabic.
I wanted to reclaim. It was like a reclamation of my identity that I had felt like the media was kind of shaping me into this like a superstar chef, and it's not really what the reality is, right? So, you know, I wish I could have delved deeper into some of those issues. Maybe I'll write a memoir one day. We ended the book at the opening of my first restaurant. We had to do an epilogue about how I opened and walked away from a fine dining restaurant. All of those things just kind of stuffed into an epilogue.
Josh Sharkey [00:38:30]:
So that was with Danielle Patterson. Right?
Reem Assil [00:38:30]:
Yeah. So I think that there are more opportunities to write more in depth about some of the issues I've covered in the book, but I'm proud of this book. I think it's a snapshot of who I am in this period of my life and who knows what the next 10 years are going to be for me. But my original concept was to look externally also at like other people that have the story compare and contrast. So that's like if I were to write another book. I'm working on a few creative projects where hopefully we can bring that to light to show that even Arabs in the.
We're not like the poor refugees or the middle class, you know, assimilated family. There's just so much in between. And I would like to be part of the pioneers that help kinda break that down for people.
Josh Sharkey [00:39:10]:
Well, I'm sure you can. I don’t know if you know the author Yuval Noah Harari, but for some reason I thought about his first book and then his next book, and maybe your first book is Reclaiming the Arab Woman and your next book is The Future of Arab Women.
Reem Assil [00:39:35]
Exactly, exactly. And I'm still exploring that.
Josh Sharkey [00:39:39]:
Any current mentors or people that inspire you?
Reem Assil [00:39:40]:
It's always hard when I get that question cause I just feel like everybody in my life inspires me in a certain way. I feel like, just like a lot of the women who work for me, I feel inspired by them every day. Because I'm like a single mom and carrying all these things and I'm like, how do people do this? And seeing some of the women I work with do that day in and day out is pretty amazing. I just signed on with Pone, which is a talent wing of Whetstone Media and Stephen Satterfield has been a really big inspiration to me, like what he's been able to do and carve. So I really look to people like that in the industry. Just people who are doing both the creative and, you know, the on the ground work to spread their resources to people. I think they're inspiring.
Josh Sharkey [00:40:30]:
Absolutely. You're a mom and a business owner. I have two kids, so I can certainly attest to It is fucking hard to be a parent and run a business. I mean, my kids inspire me every day. I get surprised about things. What has being a mom taught you, or what has Zane taught you about anything? Business, life, what you're doing.
Reem Assil [00:40:55]:
What has he taught me? I think letting go of control. That has been something that I'm still learning, but like just these power struggles that happen with kids is just so interesting how though that learned behavior. And kids are so powerless, like why are we struggling for power with them? Like I've been reading Bell Hooks “All Above Love,” which I highly recommend to people.
I read it every once in a while and it just talks about, from the beginning, like how do we give love to our kids and what they associate with love? And so I'm really cognizant of that with my child, but I think it carries to everything that I do, especially people who've been on the margins and have never been given any power. It's a process.
And I think that's taught me a lot. You know, I'm definitely the type that has “power with.” That's my style of leadership. But even when you have ”power with,” sometimes you take up a lot of space. So like how do you let people make mistakes and learn from their mistakes? So I'm doing a lot of that with my child. But it's hard because you have to give up control. If you don't want them to learn the hard way, especially at that age, but like sometimes it's just got to be the way it's got to be.
Josh Sharkey [00:42:03]:
The thing about kids is like, you know what I've learned most? They're so innocent. And we have kids of similar ages.Mine's two and four, and yours is five years old. Like, everything that they're doing is because they have some feeling. When they piss you off and they'll just like not putting their clothes on or they're just being an asshole. But you realize like, obviously like there's some reason behind it, that they have this feeling when you sort of apply that to people in general, like the people that work for you, the people around you, you realize everybody just has some reason why they're doing it.
Josh Sharkey [00:42:31]:
Most likely. 99.9% of the time it's not malicious. Yeah. That they're just, they're hurting or they're sad or they're depressed or something is behind it. And the more that I see it in my kids and the more I sort of build that muscle of every time he does something where I'm like, Dude, chill the fuck out. Instead, I'm like, okay. Why are you having a tantrum? I wonder what you're thinking right now. It helps me build that muscle when someone on my team maybe does something, you know, or someone that I know does something.I'm like, you know what? There is probably something going on. And you know, and I suck at that.
Reem Assil [00:43:10]:
It's so funny because I could see how he feels. I'm like, yeah, I wish I could cry about that. Like, I feel that and why, you know, we're taught . I wish I could just freaking throw a tantrum. Like I had to make a film about it. , you know, we're taught to suppress our feelings a little bit and so then our feelings come out in very toxic ways when we're adults. So, yeah, I'm like, let's cry it out. Yeah, this sucks. That's what I say. This sucks. I know it's really hard.
Yeah. But I always, and I think this is kind of related to people you lead, it's just because limits are important too. So I'm always like, what's my job? My job is to keep you safe and keep you healthy. So when I'm mad, it doesn't mean I don't love you. I'm mad at you and I still love you.
You don't have to say to your team members that you love them. It's like, I'm upset about this thing, but this is not a reflection on you as a person. I still respect you and you know, you're an integral part of this team. Because people are afraid of rejection and that we learned that I think from our parents, at least for me.
Because I came from a culture where it's like you just perform and you never get the positive affirmation. So it's a learned behavior. It really is.
Josh Sharkey [00:44:26]:
And if you don't come from it, I don't, I don't either. It's very hard. It takes a lot of work to build that.
Reem Assil [00:44:41]
Yeah, but it makes us better. I think it's a different generation.
Josh Sharkey [00:44:43]:
All right. I have what might sound like a dumb question, but I kind of, I'm asking it to everybody. Yeah. Because I ask myself this all the time, so you can take it for what it's worth, but if there was no construct of time and you had unlimited resources to do whatever the heck you wanted, what would you do next?
Reem Assil [00:45:03]:
There's no construct of time. Like I could be a mom and do this thing.
Josh Sharkey [00:45:05]:
Yes, exactly. Like you could be a mom. Something that would've taken a hundred years, could take a minute. And if it took a hundred million dollars, you have that tomorrow, what would you do?
Reem Assil [00:45:11]:
Ooh, that's a tough one. Because I'm like, I would lead the revolution to free my people. But that's a little much and that the revolution will not be televised or whatever fundraised. My dream was always to grow dreams, to build, you know, work our spaces or models for that. I would like to really launch deep into that and help restaurants convert.
I always had this dream of having Zaatar farm, so doing some more like back to the roots projects that would help refugees and you know, folks who wanna be connected to their roots, learn how to live off the land or not live off, make a living providing those ingredients to the restaurants. I'd also have my own show. Yeah. There's a lot of things that I wanna do.
Josh Sharkey [00:46:07]
Well, if part of it included a Reem’s poker tournament
Reem Asssil [00:46:09]
Oh yeah. We're gonna do that too. I'd be playing poker. Maybe try to take a shot at the World Series.
Josh Sharkey [00:46:12]
There you go. If you had a show, what would it be? I'm going to say when you have a show, I'm pretty sure you're going to have one.
Reem Assil [00:46:22]:
I'm working on something. I mean, there's one where I get to dabble with just cool people like pop icons where we get to like cooking something, but talk shit. So there are a lot of social justice type folks who are secret foodies. So for the foodie people to hear about these important issues that they're working on and help organize them through my show.
And then there are foodies who are food people who are doing really awesome social justice things that, you know, the activists in the world could get a little bit more interesting in organizing and lighten up a little bit. So it'd be like fun talking shit with both those types of people to merge those two worlds.
Because I feel like I have like social justice and then the foodie world and if there wasn't such a dissonance because like social justice is like the trend, but it's like no, there are actually people doing on the ground organizing that is changing people's reality and we need to be doing more of that, you know?
And then a travel show where I get to go all around the world. I never traveled. I've been working since I was 13.In 2010, before I took a hiatus, I had a whole previous career working as an organizer, labor organizer. A policy person, and nonprofits and whatnot. I took like three weeks and went to Lebanon in Syria. That was like my longest vacation, but I otherwise haven't really traveled. I've never been to parts of Europe. Yeah. I just wanna kind of see the world a little bit.
Josh Sharkey [00:48:00]
Okay, we're wrapping up here. Anything you wanna tell the audience, your friends, your colleagues, anybody that's gonna be listening to this crazy show that we're doing?
Reem Assil [00:48:09]:
I feel like I said it all. Yeah. Come to Reem’s. Come experience the warmth of Arab bread and hospitality, as we call it.
Josh Sharkey [00:48:13]:
All right. Well it's a sweet torture. Yes. I will say thank you. This was awesome and I really appreciate it.
Reem Assil [00:48:20]:
Thanks for having me. Thanks for talking poker with me. You know, that's another world. The world is converging.
Thanks for tuning into The meez Podcast. The music from the show is a remix of the song Art Mirror by an old friend, hip hop artist, Fresh Daily. For show notes and more, visit getmeez.com/podcast. That's G E T M E E Z dot com forward slash podcast. If you enjoyed the show, I'd love it if you could share it with your fellow entrepreneurs and culinary pros and give us a five star rating wherever you listen to your podcasts.
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