A delicious revolution: The social justice mission of Reem’s California

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Blending Arab hospitality and food, Oakland flavors and activism, Reem’s California reimagines what food and social activism can look like. On an ordinary day at Reem’s, you’ll find activists and organizers gathering around plates of man’oushe and shakshuka, sitting right alongside the vibrantly colored murals of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh and Oscar Grant.

Nestled in the corner of the Fruitvale BART station, Reem’s was founded by Palestinian- and Syrian-American chef and community organizer Reem Assil. After a life-changing trip to Lebanon and Syria, she rediscovered how social activism and food could work in conjunction with one another and decided to open a restaurant that functioned as an intersectional community space. Assil then started her formal culinary training at Laney College and later at Arizmendi Bakery and Pizzeria and Grace Street Catering.

In 2015, Assil launched Reem’s through the La Cocina program — a women’s food incubator — at a farmers market. After raising money through a 40-day Kickstarter campaign, she was able to expand Reem’s into a physical bakery by the Fruitvale BART station in 2017. Just a year later, she was named the James Beard semifinalist for Best Chef: West and San Francisco Magazine’s Chef of the Year. Despite the critical acclaim, she also faced a number of hurdles within the first year of opening the restaurant, receiving death threats online for her mural of Palestinian activist Rasmea Odeh.

In an interview with The Daily Californian, Assil talked about using food as a way to open up dialogue and create community, being an Arab woman in the restaurant industry and experimenting with Arab and Bay Area cuisine. 

The Daily Californian: Tell me a little bit about yourself. How did you start getting into the culinary arts and social activism? 

Reem Assil: Prior to entering the culinary world, I was a community and labor organizer. So social justice and activism have always been in the backdrop of everything that I’ve done. … I came here to the West Coast from Boston, actually. I was attending Tufts University and trying to figure out how to change the world (as) a bright-eyed college student and then (realized) that everything they taught you in school was not necessarily diplomacy or something that sat right with me. I took a break and came out here to the Bay Area in 2003 and the war was breaking out and that was … how I was introduced to activism and how you can effect change from the ground up and … I was hooked from the very first march all the way to the work that I did, organizing workers.

I am (still) an activist — I just use a different tool to do it. When I left the traditional organizing world, I was facing another crossroads in my life of how (to) do work that’s transformative because you’re always fighting the powers that be. But it always felt like we didn’t know what we were advocating for in terms of what we wanted to build. … I realized that the people I was working with lost their ability to imagine … the world we want to live in and … the spaces we want to live in. So, I took a break from the work and I had a chance to go back to the homeland with my father — we went to Syria and Lebanon and it was really in those spaces where I had an “a-ha” moment, like, “Oh, this is what that looks like, the thing we couldn’t figure out — what (we are) trying to build.”

It was in these food spaces in particular that I just fell in love with the idea of how you build up these sanctuary spaces, and it’s so beautiful — through Arab bread and hospitality. I wanted to recreate that. Also, as someone who was an Arab child in the diaspora here in the U.S. (during) the backlash of Sep. 11 and (faced) anti-Arab racism as long as I can remember, I thought that this could be a way to mainstream what Arab culture is about. I could use the word “Arab” and there was something inherently political about … starting an Arab bakery that was nominally Arab because there hasn’t been anything like that here in the U.S. We call it Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, some Arabs even call it Greek because of the anti-Arab sentiment — we hide. 

And I wanted to find a way to create a path forward where we didn’t have to hide. … I started off with this small idea of having this bakery and then it sort of grew because I didn’t want to just have a bakery. I wanted it to do all the things that I was advocating for when I was on the organizing side — so living wage jobs, jobs where workers have a voice, where they have pathways to start a career. 

“It was in these food spaces in particular that I just fell in love with the idea of how you build up these sanctuary spaces, and it’s so beautiful — through Arab bread and hospitality. I wanted to recreate that.” — Reem Assil

DC: How does your upbringing — the dishes and the cooking styles of your grandparents — form your style? 

RA: My mom is an excellent on-the-fly cook. She can take all the leftovers and put them together and whip something up. She was a working mom, so she never really cooked for us unless we had lots of people over. I feel like my approach to cooking is something like hers — I only cook for big crowds. I’ve learned all of these hacks from her, which is nice especially when I’m cooking high volume. But I think it’s more methodical because I am a nerd and passionate about food. … I love the alchemy of it. … I learned how to cook as an adult (from) my aunt … and uncle — both of them were excellent (and) liked to look at cookbooks and study them and put the flavors together. I learned a lot about how to put ingredients together from them. … My approach is to think about a dish for a while. I’ll watch YouTube videos on it, I’ll talk to people about it, I’ll test things out until I have the right dish. 

DC: I personally have never encountered a dish like your chocolate-covered halwa truffles before. How did you start experimenting with food and what was your culinary vision for Reem’s? 

RA: I would say my food has a little bit of a California flair to it … that’s really where I learned how to cook and how to bake. We’re living in the Bay Area where people are coming up with the most creative dishes. I saw them and was inspired. So, I would describe my food as much Oakland as it as Arab. But my food also holds true to tradition — I don’t go too wild. I keep the heart of the dish and remix it a little. One of the things I really wanted to do is make things that seem weird to people more accessible. That’s why the musakhan — our trademark dish — is called the Pali Cali because maybe musakhan is hard to pronounce and we can do fancy stuff like take those caramelized onions and make a puree and sauce it up and then it becomes a really sexy sandwich, and use the vibrant color of the sumac. 

I am always thinking about the end product and the customer’s experience with things like the halwa truffles. I grew up not liking (halwa). It’s intense, sweet, crumbly … but I saw this halwa recipe for a halwa bar. And I thought, what if we put chocolate on it? Because we (already) had the brownie with tahini and I know those flavors work. … So, I made a sesame butter cup and it evolved from … a brownie to a bar to a truffle. 

“But my food also holds true to tradition — I don’t go too wild. I keep the heart of the dish and remix it a little. One of the things I really wanted to do is make things that seem weird to people more accessible.” — Reem Assil

I think my dishes really work like that. We play with something, see how the community reacts to it and adjust it based on feedback, and have fun with it. … It’s super accessible and fun. For me, what is traditional about my food is the flavor and the context in which it’s served, which is … our hospitality culture that unites all Arabs, and the flavors. As long as I get the traditional flavors down, I can have fun with everything else.

DC: What is it like to navigate a traditionally white male-dominated industry as an Arab woman, especially as someone who has faced attacks from people online and whose restaurant has faced racist attacks? 

RA: It’s not easy, but necessary. I am fortunate enough that I recognize the privilege I’ve had. I was part of an incubator program that helped food businesses and they helped put me in front of audiences and assert my legitimacy. But had I been on my own, I don’t know. When I was at the partnership in Dyafa and people would walk into the restaurant and ask me for the chef, can you imagine? It’s hard to be a woman and a woman of color in particular in a white male field — you’re always having to find a way to be visible and assert your legitimacy and be seen as someone who’s competent fighting to be visible and be seen because … the amount of investments that white males get is huge. 

That’s the personal side, but also being a minority voice in an industry that is still learning social justice — that’s sort of the catchphrase for everyone. … I’m not on the super margins of someone who has faced racism, but I have worked with communities who have so I understand what it means to be exploited. The people in the industry are so entrenched that they don’t know how to undo those systems. So it’s been interesting to be in an industry … as someone who has a social justice lens looking at business.

But I feel fortunate because I am part of a wave of women entering the restaurant industry. There are a lot more women (in the industry) now than there were 10 years ago. I (feel like) a pioneer in that sense (to) forge a different path and be an advocate, not just for workers but for women who are leaders in their restaurants. What would this world look like if we invested in women and people of color? Not only would our restaurants be a lot more delicious, but our cities would be a lot more inclusive and culturally vibrant. I think, for better and worse, I have an amplified minority voice. With it comes a lot of responsibility — it’s not always the most comfortable space. 

DC: How do you feel about that (apparent) erasure of Palestinian food in food criticism, where many critics will label a dish Israeli rather than Palestinian or Jewish? 

RA: Obviously, I don’t feel great about this. At the same time, I have to figure out the best strategy and being an advocate without engaging at all. … (My) duty and approach is that food is a way to have uncomfortable conversations. It’s not a way to cover up the realities of what’s happening on the ground because my language is to speak to everyone … there’s a chance to capture the hearts and minds of people who don’t even know where Palestine is on a map. … But I am also very outspoken and I do events about decolonizing food and calling people out and calling things out as they are. I have a more nuanced view — I don’t think anyone owns food. I think the idea of ownership of food is tough because food evolves and there is friendly competition, even among Arab countries, about things like who has the best falafel. But we migrated and there was a natural path of evolving food and there’s nothing wrong with that. The context in which some stories are erased versus others is the part that bothers me. It’s about power. 

DC: How do you see your restaurant as a place to bring visibility to both Palestinian and Syrian cultures? For example, your restaurant cards feature famous Arab and Arab-American activists, politicians and creatives, and you even have a mural of a Palestinian activist. 

RA: Those are the things that I see bringing visibility to my cultures — I thought they were pretty subtle. They’re not subtle, obviously, I got backlash for Rasmea on my wall. I wasn’t even going to put a plaque about her on the wall. It was just that I needed an elder Arab woman and it would incite conversation and she was beautiful — to have someone smiling, elder and brown. I think we intentionally think about the space: how do people interact with the space to learn a little bit about our culture? I want to do more of that. We’re always thinking about how to do that … creatively. Whether it’s the cards, the art or events in the space, just by nature of the space, it’s very educational. We do fundraisers with different nonprofits and donate proceeds to them. We use our platform on social media. We talk about important political events and what’s happening in Gaza. We take a stand in the public and we have this whole mainstream audience who might not be hit with these things in their social media feeds and all of a sudden we end up in their feeds. We’re trying to use our platform in the best way possible. Most of the things we do are very subtle — how we train our front-of-house employees to talk about the food and the stories behind the food and how they engage with the customers. A lot of … people don’t know anything about the food, so it’s a good opportunity to talk to them about it. 

“I think we intentionally think about the space: how do people interact with the space to learn a little bit about our culture? I want to do more of that. We’re always thinking about how to do that … creatively.” — Reem Assil

DC: How do this inform your hiring decisions in terms of hiring people from marginalized groups?  

RA: That’s our No. 1 priority and it’s not always easy to recruit people. We try to intentionally figure out even the workers we have — they’re our best recruiters. They have people in their community. Everyone in Reem’s is from a 3-mile radius of the restaurant. We have 25 employees and the majority people of color, women-led. We have people in all facets of identity. That was really intentional for me. I think Arab hospitality shouldn’t be just confined to Arabs. We’re in the middle of Oakland in this rich, diverse community — here’s a way for us to be part of this fabric. So my restaurant is not just talking about the Arab experience but it’s also about intersectionality of Arab struggle and other Black (people’s) and brown (people’s) struggle. … It’s also important for our community to see and face their own internal racism. There’s a lot of anti-Blackness in the Arab communities. To see Black communities representing Arabs in this amazing light and leveling the playing field is important for me. 

DC: How has Reem’s encouraged dialogue between people from different movements?

RA: We get those people who read about us in Food & Wine Magazine and come to Reem’s to engage. … We try to facilitate conversation between communities and make them engage with one another. That question is hard because we’re a fairly new business. There was a lot of work I did before Reem’s … those people are in my spaces (because) I built that relationship over the previous 10 years (in community organizing) to find this space. I see the fruits of that labor but it’s hard to tell what we’ve done because Reem’s is still new. I’d like to think that cross-pollination is happening. It’s amazing sometimes (to) walk across Reem’s and see the Pilipinx community center having their worker meeting and the anti-police terror project is having a security meeting … that’s kind of awesome. Reem’s is like the hub for meeting and organizing. The cafés are where the revolutions are born. Who knows, maybe the revolution will come out of Reem’s.

Contact Elizabeth Neoman at [email protected].