Shelina Jaffer and Ali Nassrallah
Mild mannered Shelina Jaffer has a history of exotic life choices. As soon as she graduated from university, she took off for a teaching position in Japan, then followed that up with work as a teacher in England, then Lebanon and then back to London to pursue a graduate degree. So, her family couldn’t say they were really surprised when she accepted a new position in 2016 in Lebanon once again, working with a non-profit specializing in education. “I feel at home in the region, the culture is something I know and understand because I had already been exposed. It wasn’t scary, it was an adventure,” said Shelina.
Demonstrations have convulsed Beirut and other cities across Lebanon since mid-October 2020. The prime minister was forced to resign, the economy is in crisis. This wasn’t new, Lebanon had been in decline with high debt and low GDP for years.
Craving a cozy atmosphere, some light mood music and a good meal, Shelina found Cru in the heart of Hamra, Beirut. The now closed wine bar offered a dining experience that was like sitting at a friend’s table. It was a special place showcasing some of the best wines produced by boutique wineries across Lebanon, Cru was every Lebanese wine afficionado’s dream-come-true.
Cru was where Ali Nassrallah worked. As part of the team that ran Cru, Ali, managed the front of the house. He remembers when Shelina walked in, he said he just stood there with three plates in his hands. Fortunately, another waiter came by and rescued the food for the patrons waiting for their dinner.
“I was born during the Lebanese civil war,” says Ali. “My mother and father divorced when I was very young and as per tradition, I stayed with my father. Because of the war, I was sent to boarding school before I reached four. It was a time of strife, but it was also a time of learning and growing.”
“Lebanon has a communal culture. We work hard and we play hard. All the men in my family cooked. We loved to entertain, to meet new people, to share our food and culture. I feel that I take this even a step further. For me food is an art – cooking is life.”
When it became apparent that Shelina and Ali were more than just friends, they started to look at where they wanted to live. The situation in Lebanon was deteriorating. Canada offered more opportunities and stability, but it would have obstacles. Ali’s English skills, although good, still needed improvement. Also, Ali’s cooking skills, well known in Beirut, would not be as recognized in Canada. Shelina’s contract was ending in Lebanon so she would need to return to Canada on her own, find a new job and start the application process that can take a long time and a lot of patience. They would also have to get married in a ceremony that would be recognized by the Canadian government.
The wedding took place in Cyprus. Civil ceremonies are not recognized in Lebanon. Ali arrived in Canada two years ago this month. Since his arrival Ali has merged seamlessly into our little community. He and Shelina moved into their condo at the Red Hots. It’s a ground floor space where Ali has already planted a garden and pursued his passion for cooking. He is enrolled at George Brown taking Culinary Arts to get his Canadian qualifications and pre-Covid he has already worked in a number of kitchens in the city. Now he’s feeding the neighbourhood.
Like so many new Canadians, Ali and Shelina have had to be hardy and adaptive. Covid-19 has made many lives extra difficult, those who survive and thrive need to be resilient. As the hospitality industry closed down, Ali and Shelina had been busy developing a catering and entertainment business for private events. Now we can add feeding the neighbourhood to the list of accomplishments. Every Thursday, Ali prepares dinners for 20 people.
“I’m making comfort food. We need it during these times. Lebanese home cooking is food that flavour is marinated in for many hours and then slow cooked. Everything is made from scratch. We choose the best ingredients, the freshest meat, vegetables, lemons, garlic, olive oil, cumin, sumac, coriander and tahini. These are the backbone of the Lebanese way of life. Our food is flavorful but not spicy,” says Ali.
Follow Ali @alloushinthesix. The posts with the week’s menu comes out on Monday. First come, first served.