A Journey to the Kitchen with Anissa Helou

Posted: March 4, 2010 in Guest Speakers

Anissa Helou

Anissa Helou was born, the daughter of a Syrian father and a Lebanese mother, in Beirut and educated there at a French convent school. Aged 21, she moved to London to escape the rigid social convention of her country and began to study interior design and in Sotheby’s training course, the history of art. She was soon appointed Sotheby’s representative for the Middle East. For a while thereafter, she owned and ran an antique shop in Paris, dealing in furniture and objets d’art which reflected her own sophisticated and highly individual taste. From 1978 until 1986 she lived in Kuwait and was adviser to several members of the Kuwaiti ruling family who were then forming collections of Islamic art. She also advised these and other collectors on the purchase of Victorian paintings, European silver, jewellery and Arts and Crafts furniture.

During this period she travelled extensively and she also started to build her own very personal collections. On her return to London in 1986, she housed her collections in her Victorian house transforming it into an Aladdin’s cave of beautiful and often bizarre treasures.

In the spring of 1999, she decided to change the course of her life. There were no half measures. She sold her house and put her remarkable and idiosyncratic collections up for sale at Christie’s. In the introduction to the catalogue the celebrated art historian and jazz singer, George Melly, described his arrival at her house to dine and to inspect the objects for sale:
‘when the taxi drew up she heard it and through the open door she stood in silhouette instantly recognised by her totally unique ‘coiffure’, an inadequately dainty word for this explosion with its dramatic white streak; the nearest equivalent is in fact that of Elsa Lanchester in ‘The Bride of Frankenstein’. Nothing scary about Miss Helou though. Her hair is more like the personification of her amazing energy. Her smile is as friendly as you can get. She is as lithe as an athlete.‘

An example of her acumen as a collector was the sale of a series of display panels of fishing tackle, one of which achieved a world record price. Having sold all but her books and most personal possessions, she bought with the proceeds of the sale a remarkable two-story warehouse loft in Shoreditch. This she decorated with her usual excellent taste, but this time as a severely functional, minimalist working space.

Anissa has always taken a strong interest in the food of the Levant. She had already written two books about it – Lebanese Cuisine, the first comprehensive collection in the English language (1994) and Street Café Morocco, a fascinating introduction to the subtle flavours of the cuisine of that country. Both books achieved considerable acclaim. In 2002 Mediterranean Street Food followed and was equally well received. In 2005, The Fifth Quarter, a pioneering book on the uses and delights of offal, was published. It is already beginning to overcome the traditional squeamishness of the British cook. Her fifth book, Modern Mezze is published in the UK in July 2007, and her sixth book, Savory Baking from the Mediterrean, is published in New York in August 2007.

Anissa is an experienced, accomplished and photogenic broadcaster on radio and television and writes regularly for the Weekend Financial Times. She speaks 3 languages fluently: Arabic, French and English.

She has recently founded Anissa’s School. Anissa continues with her unique style and her ferocious energy to demonstrate to the West the range of culinary delights offered by the East.

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