DFOUN, Lebanon: It was once said that the people of Dfoun were “baptized with a ladle,” such was their culinary prowess.“By the 1930s and ’40s, everyone was working in food, the whole village,” says Issam Abi Aad, a former cooking instructor in the lake-side city of Lausanne, Switzerland, and a native son of Dfoun.
Today, some of Beirut’s most famous gourmet shops are run by families from Dfoun, but this tiny, one-family village tucked in the Chouf mountains behind Aley was not always synonymous with food.
According to local lore, the village was founded around 1730 by seven brothers from the Asfar family in Jbeil who were forced to flee from some feud, the exact nature of which has been lost to history. One of the brothers, Naamtallah, named his son Aad, and the family became henceforth known as Abi Aad. Now, the village is inhabited almost exclusively by Abi Aads, some of whom also go by Dfouni.
The Christian Abi Aads began working as sharecroppers on the land, which was owned by local Druze. Eventually, they were able to buy the area plot by plot, until they owned the entire town and surrounding land.
During the mandate era, the French authorities recognized a natural quickness in the people of Dfoun and sent several to study cooking in Paris, local residents say.
As is often the case in such emigration stories, these first transplants soon brought their brothers, sisters, cousins and children, and a strong connection was established between Paris, the world capital of food, and the little Lebanese village.
Soon, cooks from Dfoun were working as personal cooks for the great families of Beirut, including the Sursocks and the Teunis. They often brought their children with them, where they were enrolled at the same schools as their employers’ children. By the ’50s, the children who had grown up in the kitchen were studying to be doctors, lawyers or engineers, and fewer and fewer pursued careers in food or cooking.
“It used to be that in the summer, they would work as cooks, and in the winter they would look after their land, but no one looks after the land like they used to,” Issam says. “With the war, more people left.”
Today, Dfoun is well-kept, quaint and quiet, a cluster of red-tile roofs overlooking a deep, green valley. Many of its approximately 1,600 residents live abroad, only coming back in summer, and the sound of wind rustling through a riot of bougainvillea or an olive grove is unbroken by the sound of children at play, neighborly greetings or cars.
But growing up in a village known for its food was less glamorous than one might imagine, says Joseph Abi Aad, who last summer opened what he calls the first professional kitchen in Dfouni. For throughout their years working in the kitchens of far-richer families, the people of Dfoun remained relatively poor, and the village is home to not a single restaurant.
“The food you make at home is different from the level of cooking you are doing for work,” says Joseph of his childhood in Dfoun.
“Our grandparents were not able to turn [their talents] to their advantage,” he adds. “I always wanted to be a chef, to have my own kitchen, not to work for someone else.”
After five years working as a chef in Beirut, Joseph opened his own catering business in Dfoun, transporting the food by van to his events.
“Beirut is hard, you need a lot of money,” he says, explaining his decision to move back to Dfoun. “Also, I wanted to do this in my home, on my land. This village is so beautiful, and famous for food, and yet a visitor would have no idea.”
The village lacks, however, the infrastructure needed for Joseph to fulfill his dream of opening his own restaurant there. The area receives little rainfall, and the waste disposal system is insufficient to support a larger commercial enterprise.
Joseph says relative interest in cooking has declined with time, as younger generations seem to prefer a more stable and financially rewarding career.
“All Dfounis have a developed palate, but it’s a difficult profession. It’s very tiring and you end up working through all the holidays,” says Joseph.
Of the current culinary trends in Lebanon, Joseph complains that many Lebanese have come to value presentation over taste.
“If you go to a wedding in Lebanon nowadays, you see decorative food with no flavor,” he says. “The market today is missing taste and this is what we are trying to work on.”
Joseph says the key to creating a great dish depends on three things: quality ingredients, the experience of the chef and the tools at his disposal.
“I’m stingy, I don’t share my secrets … but a pinch of salt changes everything,” Joseph concludes with a laugh.
At Aziz in Beirut, Antoine Abi Aad says the key to curating one of the most successful delicatessens in Lebanon is “curiosity.”
“Every time I travel and I’m in, say, a restaurant, I look at the wine list and try whatever I haven’t tried before,” he says. Some “90 percent of Lebanese will go to Paris and eat entrecote. They don’t like to discover what there is.”
Antoine, who took over the business along with his brothers from their father, who opened it in 1955, laments that fewer and fewer young people are studying to be chefs.
“Of the new generation … many of them work in the food industry but unfortunately very few of them are cooks, and most of those who worked as cooks have passed away. This is the problem,” he says.
The future of Antoine’s own gourmand dynasty is safe for now, with his youngest son Marco working in the family business as well.
“Until now there is a third generation, after that we will have to see,” he says.