It began, simply, as a supper club. Dreamt up by SUITCASE Magazine’s Serena Guen and taste-making food blogger Clerkenwell Boy, the pair hoped to use the incredible vibrancy of Syrian food culture to raise money for Unicef’s NEXTGeneration initiative.
Now, #CookForSyria has evolved into an astonishing global movement, garnering support from 50 of London’s best restaurants and inspiring 30,000 social media posts, and counting. The initiative has even led to Imad Alarnab, a Syrian restaurateur who fled to London with his family, opening his own pop-up on Columbia Road after consulting on the #CookForSyria project (You can read Imad’s story here).
So how did one supper club lead to a best-selling Amazon cookbook and one of Instagram’s fastest growing hashtags? Appear Here caught up with Serena Guen to find out...
Tell us a bit about how the idea for #CookForSyria come about?
I’m part of an organisation called Unicef NEXTGeneration which supports children in Syria and the surrounding regions. I was chatting to my friend Clerkenwell Boy, and we were saying we should do something about what’s happening in Syria. We decided we were going to bring the food industry together to do something, and incorporate social media. Originally we were just going to do a big dinner, but the interest from that was so enormous that we decided to make it bigger.
What happened next?
In the space of a few weeks we organised a massive dinner for 250 people with the help of some top chefs, each cooking a different course, each with a Syrian twist. And we raised over £40,000 from that.
Then throughout the month of November over 100 London restaurants had a special dish on their menu which was Syrian inspired, and all the proceeds from that went to Unicef NEXTGeneration. What we saw was that people were inspired to take part by cooking in their own homes and schools and offices, with people hosting supper clubs and bake sales using recipes from our cookbook and our website.
What were you hoping to achieve through #CookForSyria?
We wanted to have as much impact as possible. We thought the situation had become dehumanized. The numbers were so big they were very hard to put into perspective. And because people were unfamiliar with Syrian culture, we wanted to give them something they could connect to. Food has no borders. Through social media again we wanted to make it egalitarian. We wanted to make it so that as many people as possible could participate, preserving a little bit, I hope, of Syrian culture.
From one dinner to hundreds of restaurants getting involved and a best-selling cookbook on Amazon, why do you think the project caught on so quickly?
The project caught on quickly because it was so easy for people to get involved. If you were a restaurant you could put a dish on your menu, or you could cook at home, and sharing on social media increased awareness massively.
The project has been incredibly successful on social media, what have been your learnings from this? Is there any advice you can share for other people trying to make a difference through social media?
I think they key is to make it as easy as possible for people to participate in something. And for it to be something that fits into people’s daily lives. Eating is something everybody does and sharing food on social media is very popular. Also it helped having all these celebrity chefs involved. If you tagged them maybe you’d get an interaction from them.
What was your favourite moment from the campaign?
There were so many amazing moments from the #CookForSyria campaign that I’ll always remember. I think bringing together so many people from so many walks of life - the dinner was very special. Really famous chefs and owners were happy to do front of house and to serve people. So when it came to the auction there was this incredible moment where everyone who was serving the food and wine came together and started bidding. There were no boundaries, everyone was united for a common cause.
Another one, which Appear Here are very involved with, was meeting Imad. I met him through a friend, and he became an advisor for #CookForSyria. I think it’s absolutely incredible what he’s doing now.
What’s your favourite dish from the #CookForSyria cookbook?
Everything! I’ve basically eaten the whole cookbook. But one favourite is from Saima Khan, the founder of The Hampstead Kitchen. She created this upside-down lamb cake, which I can’t recreate because it’s a little too difficult, but I’ve made her make it for me twice now, and I could eat that for the rest of my life.
How to get involved with #CookForSyria:
.#CookForSyria is launching in Australia at the moment, then this June it's off to America, starting off in New York. If you know any chefs, restaurants, cafes or people who'd love to get involved, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more on the story behind Imad’s Syrian Kitchen