Meet Serena Guen: Co-founder of #CookforSyria
By Georgina Roberts
When Serena Guen decided to host a small dinner, she never imagined it would spawn a global movement and raise hundreds of thousands of pounds to aid the worst humanitarian crisis the world has seen. Through cooking, sharing recipes and hashtags, she invited everyone to help make a difference in Syria, while celebrating the country’s culture.
As I sit down opposite Serena in her shiny Mayfair offices, it’s a far cry from war-torn Syria. We’re at the headquarters of SUITCASE Magazine, a travel publication she founded while still studying at New York University. This has earned Serena the Bloomberg title “the Mark Zuckerberg of publishing”, as well as a spot on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list. Yet as we talk upside-down lamb cake, Muhammara pepper dip, Lebeno balls and producing a cookbook as a coeliac, the baby-faced Serena comes across as humble and bashful about her achievements.
Learning Syrian cooking from scratch
Serena spent her childhood surfing the waves of Delaware beach on the East Coast of America. She has no bloodline connection to Syria - her mother is half Italian, her father half German.
Followers of Cook for Syria might be surprised to find out that although Serena was at its helm, she admits, “I can’t really cook. I do all the foodie stuff, everyone around me could cook, I just ate. I’m not particularly smart, I just work really hard.”
It was a Syrian refugee, Imad, “the sweetest man ever”, who taught Serena about Syrian flavours. “I didn’t know any Syrian people. He came over from Calais, on a really tough journey. I was talking to him on the phone for two hours. He said, ‘why don’t you come over? I’ll cook for you.’”
At his home just outside of London, Imad and his family “hosted us, stuffed us with food - Syrian hospitality is like they can’t stop feeding you. It’s all about sharing.” Imad had run three restaurants in Damascus, but when they were bombed he fled to the UK with his family. Serena explains, “his dream was to be a chef again”, which came true when her friend sponsored a falafel pop-up for Imad, who now has his own catering company.
What sparked Serena to do something for Syria? “I’d been thinking that I’d been wanting to do something for the Syrian refugee crisis for ages, but I felt a bit paralysed.” As a member of UNICEF’s Next Gen committee, a group of young professionals who aim to promote causes in unusual ways, she decided to host a small dinner to celebrate Syrian cuisine.
Food holds the power to unite communities and Serena wanted to make Brits feel connected to the shocking headlines through this. “It’s very difficult when you see images on TV to feel something, because you become so detached from the stats. England doesn’t feel like they have that much of a relationship with Syria, like ‘it’s a foreign country, it’s not my problem’. Once you’ve introduced that human element of food, one of the lowest common denominators, it makes it so much more personal, they feel more attached.”
Hosting an all-star dinner
How did it all begin? Serena enlisted @clerkenwellboy, a foodie Instagram influencer. “He called a few of his friends - Ottlolenghi, Angela Hartnett, the most famous chefs you can imagine - we ended up having about seven of them who wanted to cook this Syrian-inspired dinner. The food industry was so excited.” The all-star dinner line-up at 180 the Strand, where London Fashion Week takes place, raised £40,000 in one night.
Top chefs were keen to show solidarity with Syria in the kitchen after Angela Hartnett’s (MBE) winning speech at “the Oscars of the foodie world” garnered headline press. Angela “grabbed the mic and was like ‘I know you’re not meant to give a speech, but I just wanted to tell everyone about this amazing initiative called ‘Cook for Syria.’”
Chefs adding a twist
Serena then stepped up her ambitions and invited 100 restaurants to put Syrian-inspired dishes on their menus. Among them, José Pizarro (Pizarro), Sami Tamimi (Ottolenghi), Fergus Henderson (St John), Nuno Mendes, (Chiltern Firehouse) brought a taste of Syria to their kitchens by creating a special dish, and donating £2 from each sale of that dish to UNICEF.
“We would tell them about some of the traditional ingredients, and that would spark something. They’re creative, so you give them a challenge - to introduce elements of Syrian cooking into whatever culture the chefs are from, add a twist - and they have a lot of fun.” Under Imad’s watchful eye, Serena was keen to “make sure we weren’t appropriating”.
Making a cookbook
The Cook For Syria cookbook was born from the overflowing pile of Syrian-inspired recipe cards chefs had sent her, like Ottlolenghi’s Aubergine Fetteh. Serena doesn’t do anything by halves – in October, she decided the cookbook had to come out before Christmas.
“That’s unheard of, normally it takes about 8 months. We had the most crazy month where we put together the whole cookbook.” Self-published with a pro-bono photography team, the end-product was a runaway success. By New Year 2017, Cook For Syria was an Amazon bestseller.
The cookbook gave the public a chance to immerse themselves in the bright, bold flavours of the Middle East, while simultaneously helping a worthy cause.
“We gave them tools to get involved and do something about the crisis. Otherwise people don’t feel like their money’s having an impact, like ‘oh, twenty-five pounds, that’s not gonna help that much.’”
The beautiful cookbook is packed full of colour and life and recipes. Serena’s personal favourite is Saima Khan’s upside-down lamb cake, as she is seduced by its theatre. “It takes a long time to make it, which is probably why it tastes so good. You put slow-cooked lamb on the bottom of a dish, there’s this dramatic moment at the end where you have to flip the dish over and hope it all stays on top, exactly like a pineapple cake.” Lamb is one of the common meats used in Syrian cuisine. Serena adds with a laugh, “they don’t have the concept of a vegetarian”.
Hashtagging for change
The hashtag was omnipresent on social media throughout Serena’s campaign, an idea she credits to @clerkenwellboy. To its critics, Instagram is the epitome of a narcissistic age and the idea that it could have a positive impact on the Syrian crisis might seem outlandish. However, the hashtag, which inspired #CookForYemen, proves to the positive power of ‘Clicktivism’.
“I know that Instagram has got a reputation for being a dark place because it’s so aspirational, but it was just an amazing tool. I don’t know how else I would have been able to spread the message – it made it much more globally accessible, open source, to share.”
This allowed Cook For Syria to go global, having launched in Paris, Melbourne, Sydney, Luxembourg, and Hong Kong. “You’d never think that these countries would care as much, as they’re so far away from the crisis.”
As online momentum grew, Serena encouraged people to host their own Syrian-inspired supper clubs, to raise money over a meal with friends (see her top tips for hosting).
Hosting Supper clubs
Her message is that there are so many ways to get involved - “anyone could do something.” Her baby has “taken on a life of its own, honestly. It’s nice to be able to have that whole journey from exclusive big event, all the way down to just home-cooked meals”.
The ripples made by the British public’s engagement with Syrian cuisine were felt across the foodie stratosphere. “The year after we launched this there was a Telegraph food report, saying how popular Syrian cuisine had become. People were learning about the culture because they were cooking the food, discovering ingredients like Za’atar.”
Bake for Syria begins
It wasn’t long before Bake for Syria was born, in the summer of 2017. Six months after Cook for Syria launched, famous baker Lilly Vanilli hosted the ultimate charity bake sale on Bethnal Green’s Columbia Road, bringing the country’s best bakers together to sell delicious Syrian-inspired pastries. “It rained massively that day, but even though it did, we sold out by one o’clock.”
But there was a spanner in the works when Lilly proposed a follow-up Bake For Syria cookbook. “I’m actually coeliac so they had to make special gluten-free versions for me, especially Osh El Bulbul” - delicate Syrian birds’ nests of filo pastry stuffed with figs, orange blossom and pistachios.
Making a real difference for thousands
Since then, the Bake For Syria baton has been picked up by British children hosting school bake sales to aid vulnerable Syrian children. Deservedly, Cook For Syria recently won a Foodism award for Best Movement alongside the Observer Food Award.
Serena says modestly: “It was supposed to be an awareness campaign and then it just ended up raising a lot of money” - a whopping £750,000 to be exact. All proceeds go to UNICEF UK’s Children of Syria Fund, which provide education, shelter, psychological support, and vaccinations for children.
Serena and UNICEF’s shared aim is that “there’s a generation that’s not lost. These children are growing up in refugee camps, we want to give them hope that they have a future”.
The chefs and diners who contributed to #CookForSyria or #BakeForSyria, have shown that a hashtagged photo of a lunch, dinner, or cake can actually be meaningful and make a real difference in a crisis on the other side of the world.