Ramzi Choueiri, a Lebanese chef who became a culinary ambassador across the Arab world with top-selling cookbooks and an innovative television cooking show that had viewers calling in for advice or to dish out critiques on his recipes, died June 18 at his home in Beirut. He was 52.
His sister, Myriam Shwayri, confirmed the death but gave no specific cause. Lebanese media reported that Mr. Choueiri had a heart attack.
With a big personality and sly humor that included references to his expanding belly, Mr. Choueiri was the Middle East’s preeminent media-star chef for decades with a show that began in 1994 — before the dawn of foodie social media and the explosion of celebrity kitchen culture.
In Lebanon, his stature as a national figure was recognized in 2003 with the Medal of Merit, one of the country’s highest civilian honors. Yet he always joked that his mother held him to loftier standards with Lebanese cuisine.
“I think I still have to do some progress,” he told an interviewer earlier this month.
For his show, Mr. Choueiri borrowed the simple staging of the foundational cooking programs of Julia Child, Graham Kerr and others: a cooktop, an apron, pans and ingredients. He also introduced a novel touch to the show “Chef Ramzi,” as he was widely known. His interactive repartee with viewers reached a daily audience of more than 8 million across the Middle East and North Africa at his peak.
He first opened the lines to viewers in 1996 as an experiment. “The calls kept coming in,” he recounted. It began a running dialogue that lasted for more than 2,000shows until 2010. Many viewers wanted cooking tips or a chance to share their love of the region’s cuisine — from the humble dish of stewed and seasoned fava bean known as “ful” to the intricacies of the date-filled holiday treats, called “ma’amoul,” flavored with orange-blossom water.
Some viewers also dispensed their own opinions. “Too much salt,” said one. “I chop the onions smaller,” another viewer told him. Many were fascinated by his techniques in making European dishes such as French sauces and soups.
”It’s not just frying and onions and meat,” Mr. Choueiri told the New York Times in 2002. “I feel it’s a cultural program, about food, cooking, the history of the dish, old Lebanese recipes.”
The Pan-Arab reach of his show also required some foodie diplomacy. He noted regional variations of seasonings and styles on various dishes, such as hummus or kebabs, and was careful to avoid giving definite origins to any recipe in a part of the world where cultures and cuisines have mixed for millennia. He knew that what is called “Lebanese” in Lebanon can be called “Syrian” in Syria and so on.
”I tell people not to be prisoners of your recipes,” said Mr. Choueiri, whose name was sometimes spelled Shwayri or other variations. “You have to let your imagination take over.”
He also respected Islamic dietary rules by not using wine or pork on the show, even though he was raised Greek Orthodox and wine is commonplace in the Lebanese culinary scene. Lebanese politics, including the country’s deep-rooted factional tensions, were never far away, either.
In 2003, an Islamist group fired two rockets at the Beirut building housing Future Television, the media group owned by then-prime minister Rafiq Hariri. The attack touched off a fire that gutted the newsroom and studios, including the set for Mr. Choueiri’s show. (Hariri was killed in a 2005 blast in Beirut that also killed 21 others.)
They next day, Mr. Choueiri did his show amid the charred debris. “Our message is one of peace,” he told Reuters in 2008, “cooking is one area where people can get along.”
Mr. Choueiri’s cookbooks, “Culinary Encyclopedia” (1997) and “The Culinary Heritage of Lebanon” (2002), are among the most popular Arabic-language food titles, with more than 1 million copies sold, according to Mr. Choueiri’s biographical webpage. (There is no comprehensive data on book sales around the Middle East and North Africa, but books with a few thousand sales are considered successful.) An English-language version of his recipes was published in 2012 as “The Arabian Cookbook.”
Ramzi Choueiri was born Sept. 23, 1971,in Beirut. His parents were founders of the Al-Kafaat Foundation, a charitable group for children with physical challenges or financial needs.
Mr. Choueiri was sent to France to finish school during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which began in 1975. He studied economics and law at the University of Lyon, receiving his degree in 1992 while doing food gigs on the side.
“Working in restaurants and cafes from 5 in the morning until noon and attending classes from 1 to 8 p.m.,” he told the Associated Press.
He then studied culinary arts at the University of London before returning to Lebanon. In 2018, Mr. Choueiri put his culinary career aside to become Al-Kafaat’s chief executive.
In addition to his sister, survivors include his wife; three children; his parents, and two sisters and a brother.
Ever the showman, he managed to get into the Guinness World Records four times in charity events: the largest servings of hummus (10,452 kilos, or nearly 23,043 pounds); tabbouleh (about 3,175 kilos, or 7,000 pounds), and falafel (5,173 kilos, or nearly 11,405 pounds). An elementary school in Israel currently has the tabbouleh record.
The fourth record — 3,438.2 kilos, or 7,579.93 pounds, of a pita-chickpea-tahini mix called fatteh — was made in 2017 with the help of children and staff members at Mr. Choueiri’s Al-Kafaat Foundation. An all-you-can-eat lunch followed.
Mr. Choueiri’s favorite tastes? Lebanese mountain tomato, a “glug of olive oil,” some basil leaves, Lebanese cheese and fresh pita bread with sesame.
“That’s my ideal,” he said.
Source: The Washington Post