I never took tv seriously enough and I think that was a mistake

Aug 11, 2022
Lebanese food writer Anissa Helou poses with books in her minimalist home

When Anissa Helou turned 70, The Los Angeles Times paid tribute in a Bill Addison article praising her ambitious research and culinary anthropology.

Yet Anissa didn’t turn to food writing until her forties, when she recorded her mother Laurice’s recipes in the book Lebanese Cuisine (Grub Street). It was immediately shortlisted for the prestigious André Simon Prize and since then she’s written several books and collected many accolades, most notably a James Beard Award for Feast: Food of the Islamic World (Bloomsbury).

Now based in Sicily and London, Anissa seems constantly on the move, not only an inveterate traveller but an inveterate learner and communicator. In this interview with Jenni Muir she reflects on lessons learned over 30 years in the food media, from books and tv to Instagram and Vimeo.


We first met when I came to interview you about Lebanese Cuisine for a magazine. Back then, you were an art consultant who had trained and worked at Sotheby’s and were not especially interested in food writing as a career.

I had two reasons to write that book. One was to record my mother’s recipes; I was thinking that one day she’d be dead, and then I’d be able to produce her food for the family – such as making kibbeh for my sister and brother, which is the case now.

Reason Two was because of the Civil War in Lebanon – I thought it would be a good book for all those who were displaced and didn’t have the advantage of being at home and learning from their mothers or grandmothers.

Which has turned out to be true. The younger generation of Lebanese emigres consider you a legend. It was a lucky start, having Caroline Davidson as your agent…

Yes. Caroline is a great editor, which helped me a lot in becoming a food writer. I didn’t know a thing when I started and she taught me how to write a proposal and then edited both the proposal and my manuscript. She also took me to the Oxford Food Symposium and introduced me to people who could mentor me.

Considering the time it took me to write Lebanese Cuisine, and the size of the advance, I was basically working for free but I was not particularly interested in money then. And I did work for free at the beginning, I was happy to be asked…. But then you become experienced, and then you become (if not difficult) more discerning, and then you don’t accept anything for free anymore!

You were educated in a French convent school and speak several languages, so I’m wondering how you found writing in English…

I spoke English fluently when I came to England and by the time I was writing Lebanese Cuisine I had been here 20 years. Even though the French education was never a problem, I probably wouldn’t write in French. English suits my personality – I’m pretty sober, not florid, but still evocative. I also had a lot of help from a wonderful English friend who sadly is no longer with us and I still get another English friend to occasionally look at my writing.

Because of those early conversations we’d had, I knew you had a keen interest in Morocco and put you forward for Conran Octopus’s Street Café series, which became your second book…

They did a great production job on that book and it sold a lot in France – I still have copies. I knew Morocco quite well and went back there for the book and I enjoyed it so much that I then suggested Mediterranean Street Food to Harper Collins New York.

And that’s when I became a serious food writer, in a way, because I was paid well and the book had high production values. It was like graduating from school to university.

As much as I like Lebanese Cuisine because of the research and family aspect to it, I loved Mediterranean Street Food because it was a proper job with a completely different approach. I even did the photos (which were black and white – I now think that’s a shame: I should have done colour).

Mediterranean Street Food was a major success, even though no publisher bought it for the UK…

That’s ultimately down to the Oxford Food Symposium and Caroline Davidson too – because that’s where I met Susan Friedland [then Director of Cookbook Publishing at Harper Collins New York]. I suggested the book to her there.

It won a World Gourmand Cookbook award, was listed by Cooking Light as one of the best cookbooks of the past 25 years, and by Food & Wine as the best of the best, and called marvellous by the New York Times. I went on Martha Stewart’s tv show. And that’s when I became as well known in the USA as here, and published first in America.

There’s a financial consideration to that, too, of course – the US pays much better than here.

You caused a sensation on Masterchef Italia recently with your masterclass on flatbreads. How has tv played into your food writing career?

I did one series for a cable food channel, and I had a slot on MBC in the early days, and I did Food File on Channel 4. But I never took it seriously enough and I think that was a mistake. I never wanted to become a celebrity but I didn’t realise celebrity and PR were so important to the career. And I’ve never been a career girl as such – I was into doing what interested me rather than just doing something to further my career.

Your interest in photography is really paying off – your Instagram feed is stunning. Have you got any tips?

My art background has helped but also the fact that I wanted to be a photographer when I was younger. I have always had a good eye. As a child at home, I insisted on decorating my own room, so I always had a sense of aesthetics. The Sotheby’s course teaches you how to use your eye and how to look at a thing properly before you find out about it.

I don’t have practical photography tips for people as such. My real tip is for restaurants who don’t pay attention to their lighting in view of the fact that everyone’s taking photos of their food these days! In Italy and Sicily especially, too, the restaurants use green and yellow plates and it’s hard to make the food look good because of those terrible colours.

Feast: Food of the Islamic World was a massive undertaking with over 300 recipes (more than three times the size of many of today’s books). What challenges did you encounter putting it together?

I actually didn’t face any challenges, apart from thinking hard about the division of the book and finally coming up with the right solution and trying to choose a selection of recipes that were not too repetitive and that were representative of the culture. Of course, I could have included many more and I am sorry I missed a few iconic ones, like the Palestinian musakhan. But as you say: it is three times the size of many of today’s books and I think I managed to have a good selection as well as a lot of information about the history and culture.

Many countries and regions like Indonesia, Zanzibar, Kashmir, Xinjiang and Senegal, to name a few, were new to me and I am sorry I couldn’t go to other countries like Algeria, Mali and Burkina Faso because of the political situation, and Malaysia because I ran out of time. That said, I travelled a lot to research the book and it was mostly great and often eye-opening. 

What is it that tends to motivate you to tackle a new subject? Is it recording endangered traditions?

Yes, it is this mostly. I view my work as recording culinary lore, heritage and recipes to preserve them and pass them on to future generations.

How do you approach recipe testing these days? 

Having tested so many recipes, I can tell from reading them if they’re going to work but before I test, I read as many of the same recipe in different books as I can, then I check different videos posted online. Then I set about testing the recipe as it was given to me and if it works and I like it, I keep it as is. Otherwise: I adapt it, taking in all the information I acquired looking at the different versions. I never test endlessly. My feeling is that if I can’t make a recipe work after two or three tries, it’s best to move on to others.

I’m struck reading the piece on ^Awarma in Lebanese Cuisine and the detail on how all the parts of the lamb were used – that you also wrote The Fifth Quarter and have written and spoken memorably about cooking camel hump. You’re not squeamish. Is that down to your Lebanese heritage, or more your personality? Is there anything you would not eat or not include in a book?

I am definitely not squeamish, and it’s due to both my fearless personality and Lebanese heritage – we ate everything my parents ate from when we could chew, including raw lamb’s liver for breakfast! The only thing I don’t eat is bad food.

I would write about everything, although I got a lot of hate when I posted the little birds (asafeer) that we eat in Lebanon during fig season. They are called bec-figues in French because they feed on figs. They are not protected in Lebanon and are considered a great delicacy but I see how people are concerned about their numbers dropping and, as a result, I have stopped seeking to eat them although I will not say no if I am offered them! 

You’ve been in the industry quite a while now. What do you think makes the ideal food book? Who do you like reading and cooking from?

I like cookbooks written by writers who have explored the country’s cuisine they are writing about properly – ie they’ve lived there or travelled extensively there, or are from that country. As I am interested in traditional regional cooking, I stay away from the very fashionable fusion kind of cooking. I like to eat that food prepared by chefs I admire, but I am not particularly interested to read about it or cook it myself.

You’re good at making big, sweeping life changes – like selling your collections, and moving to Sicily. What advice do you have for people who are hesitant about trying new things, such as a change in career, or a change of location?

That they should be brave and determined and not be scared of changing direction if they are not happy with where they are. After all, we don’t have much time on this earth; we need to make the most of our life to be happy (or at least contented and serene) and to leave something worthwhile behind for those who will come after us. 

2024 marks your 30th anniversary as a published food writer, so what’s next for you?

I will have a cooking school in Sicily when I restore the ruin on my land! In the meantime, I’m more and more into the visual side of things rather than writing. My plan is to learn about video. I make lots of clips and I have a lot on Vimeo already but I plan to learn video editing. I’d also like to take advantage of photography classes for technique. My first ambition was to become a photographer but every time I thought I had a genius idea some great photographer had done it before me and I was too arrogant back then to think I could do something that wasn’t completely original!

📸 Phil Fisk

Follow Anissa on Instagram and Twitter @anissahelou

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