“My grandmother.” That is the answer Riyad Al-Kasem (aka Chef Rakka) will give you to the question “who taught you how to cook?”
While still young and living in Syria, Chef Rakka cared for his grandmother until her death. During that time, the 80 grandchildren she had would also visit on the weekends, and Rakka’s grandmother taught them all how to cook.
Her cooking methods were those of a different generation – she used “a little of this, a little of that”, but also taught Rakka what he terms the unofficial science of cooking (why you do what you do when cooking), which gave him the basics he needs to regularly create wonderful new recipes.
In college, Chef Rakka longed for the home cooking of his Syrian youth, and after a long and stressful day, would turn to cooking for relaxation. He would call his mother for help recreating his favorite Middle Eastern recipes, and finally started writing down instructions. After scoring the highest possible score on his International Studies test on American government, and his interest in the democratic system of checks and balances, the U.S. beckoned. Rakka does have a law degree, and although he may some day think about returning to law, cooking remains, as it always has been, his first love.
And no wonder! Chef Rakka’s family has been renowned cheese, butter and yogurt makers in Syria for more than five generations. Along with this family tradition, Rakka learned the importance of using fresh, natural ingredients from his youth living in Syria’s Fertile Crescent region by the Euphrates, and furthered his knowledge of natural and organic cooking during his time working in the food and beverage industry in Santa Barbara, California.
His cooking today continues to reflect that love of fresh food. Just as he and his father, after a trip to the market in Syria, would bring home only what was fresh that day for his mother to cook, Rakka and his wife Linda decide on the daily menu specials based on what’s available fresh from the market.
Although Rakka credits his mother (who he still calls weekly for cooking guidance!) and grandmother with learning how to cook, it is his father who he calls his “professor of life”. Every day during his trip to market with his father, they would stop and visit with other men in the area and have a coffee. And every day, Rakka would hear a story containing wisdom and life lessons. Those have stuck with him to this day. Ask Chef Rakka what he would prepare if he could only cook one meal for the rest of his life, and he promptly answers “Kabob Halabi”. This delicious seasoned ground meat dish, prepared with an old family recipe, was his father’s favorite.
Chef Rakka now lives in Hendersonville with his wife Linda and their two children.