Anissa Helou is a food writer and expert on Middle Eastern cuisine. Born in Lebanon in 1952 to a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother, she moved to London when she was 21 and pursued a successful career in art dealing in the U.K., Paris and Kuwait. In 1999 she sold her collection and turned to food writing, and has since written six books on Lebanese, Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking. As well as frequent appearances as a commentator on British television and radio, she also runs cookery classes from her home in Shoreditch, East London.
Q: Describe a typical day.
A: I wake up at dawn (one of the disadvantages of old age!) and I read the news online for an hour or so before I get up to make my coffee which I take back to bed to carry on either reading or starting to work, answering email, writing articles, recipes, etc. Then I get up, take a shower, get dressed and go upstairs to my studio/kitchen to start work properly. I stop for lunch and either go out or make myself a salad (can’t live without them) then back to work. In the evening I may go out to meet friends, either at their home or at a newly opened restaurant or a favorite one, or I invite them over for a meal or I simply go to bed and read which I also love doing.
Q: Who was the last person you spoke to?
A: The FedEx guy to arrange to send copies of my Modern Mezze book to Dubai ahead of a radio interview for the Emirates Literary Festival which I am being part of this year. He wasn’t very helpful.
Q: Describe Lebanon in five words.
A: Gorgeous, sunny, maddening, inspiring, irresistible but only for short periods.
Q: If you could change one thing about Lebanon, what would it be?
A: The political system.
Q: What would make you move back to Lebanon?
A: When law & order are respected.
Q: What’s your earliest memory?
A: The earthquake in 1956 when my parents got us out of the house onto a vacant lot opposite; also my uncles taking us to the roof to avoid being shot at in 1958 when there was a brief civil war.
Q: What did you want to be as a child?
A: A scientist like Marie Curie, then a writer like Simone de Beauvoir.
Q: Were you a good student?
A: Only at the end when I crammed for exams and passed them with flying colors.
Q: What advice would you give your younger self?
A: Be more serious about work.
Q: What is the most valuable thing your parents or grandparents taught you?
A: Honesty and needing to have a career to be independent financially, and of course love of food.
Q: How do you think people describe you?
A: Not sure, some will say that I am very kind and fun to be with and others will say that I am arrogant or too aloof.
Q: What’s the best item of clothing you’ve ever owned?
A: A beautiful Tan Giudicelli haute couture dress that was very like some worn by Lauren Bacall and a white halter-neck dress that made me feel like Rita Hayworth and that showed off my tan.
Q: How do you sleep?
A: On my tummy.
Q: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever done?
A: I’m quite fearless so I don’t remember much that scared me.
Q: How often do you laugh?
A: Not very often but I smile a lot.
Q: What do you look forward to in life?
A: Good food and interesting and good company.
Q: Happiness is?
A: Being serene.