The Man Who Went From Sleeping Rough To Michelin Star

By Richard Clune
20 December 2018
Alan Geaam, France, Lebanon, Paris
In the wake of the Lebanese Civil war, Alan Geaam fled to Paris, sleeping on park benches and washing dishes. 20 years later, he opened an eponymous restaurant baring not only his name, but a Michelin Star

The dreams of Lebanese-French chef Alan Geaam are proudly stamped to the exterior of his small restaurant in Paris’ 16th arrondissement. – a neighbourhood of suitable wealth, nuzzled in the shadows of L’Arc de Triomphe. Geaam’s name is spelt out above the door, and to the side, a nudge under a glass cabinet detailing the daily fine-dining carte, a red 2018 Michelin plaque bears a round-edged, singular star.

“Je ne crois pas encore.” I still don’t believe the plaque, the star, Geaam says on a recent Tuesday morning. “Because this is my dream, like many other chefs it is the dream.”

It’s against odds and convention that Geaam finds himself here.

“Michelin, I never thought they’d be interested in me. I am self-taught, I didn’t go to any school, I’m not from here. I’m a stranger and it’s a closed circle of people – no one like me is allowed in, it’s reserved for the great chefs and the palaces. And yet here I am.”

Far from turning up a nose, the Michelin inspector assigned to Geaam’s eponymous restaurant noted the wonderful melange of French and Lebanese flavours, writing that the chef’s “commitment and passion can be sampled in each creation.”

Alan Geaam

The 43 year-old’s journey to the star began as a young boy in Lebanon – a country his family had returned as the result of a coup d’état in Liberia. His family had “lost everything they worked for over 20 years – everything.” Geaam was four.

The family exchanged one conflict for another. As civil war broke out in Lebanon, they would eventually make their way to Tripoli, in the north, occasionally taking refuge in the countryside of Sir El Danniyeh, where his father had roots.

Even amongst the lingering fear and trauma, Geaam can still recall the scents of the old Tripoli apartment, those that wandered from the kitchen to his small, adjacent bedroom.

“I’d know immediately what we were having for dinner. And I’d always watch my mum cook, ask questions, taste everything.”
As the civil war marched north, the young Geaam would sometimes wake unsure if the clattering he heard was that of his mother’s heavy-handed ways in the kitchen or of the remnants of another bombing raid.

“I have many memories of that time. Just two nights ago I was thinking, dreaming that I was in a bombardement. It was hard. You lost many friends and colleagues. We sometimes would sleep at school when we couldn’t go home, and when at home we’d sleep in the basement. Then, each morning you’d go up to see which houses remained, which were burning and which families were gone.”

Geaam tells this story simply, accompanied by a warm, affectionate stare. And then he’s off again, talking breezily, smiling through his words. He’s a man for whom the best way to face is always forward.

Food remained a singular constant during that period of Geaam’s life – be it squinting into a small screen and an occasional grainy program detailing French culinary masters Paul Bocuse and Joël Robouchon or aiding his mother in turning raw ingredients into morsels of fulfillment.

Alan Geaam

“We managed to eat well – not caviar, bien sûr, but I remember the zucchini and eggplant and tomato, potato and pita – these wonderful plates my mother would make. We would talk and share and she would make food for the neighbours, for anyone who needed it. My mother used a lot of love and emotion in her cooking, and she showed me how to cook for people with that same emotion, that same love.”

With the war over and his military service complete, Geaam’s natural talents led him to become the personal cook to an army commandant – it was in 1999 that he applied and received a tourist visa for France.

“I was happy to leave at that time. It was five years after the war was finished: everything was very tired, there was no work for the young, no school, nothing. And so I packed my bag and left.”

There was no real plan – because 200 French Francs in your pocket doesn’t allow for a plan. The one desire that remained in his mind was to see the aesthetic of his culinary heroes, those like Monsieur Robouchon – the men he had seen on a grainy television and compared to artists like Picasso.

“I wanted to see this, to taste this, to see macarons and fois gras and learn how to make a baguette. I thought that after two years maybe I’d go to the United States where my big brother was then living.”

Geaam easily recalls the date of his arrival – the humble start of his French odyssey.

“I was 24 years of age. I got there on the 2nd of March.”

***

The Champ de Mars is a green space that frames the base of the Tour Eiffel before lengthening across a couple of blocks south-east. It is today – as it has for so long been – a sea of fanny-packed tourists attempting to look French while haggling with trinket sellers over the equivalent of a buck or two. To one side, you can find a simple kids playground. Elsewhere, there are lush British blades of long grass and a wealth of benches on which to sit and take-in sights both iconic and transient.

It was on one of these green wooden benches – or in nearby dense bushes – that Geaam first closed his eyes and inhaled France, sleeping under the stars for what was a week or a little longer.

Again, he smiles under crinkling eyes at the recollection.

“When you come here after 15 years of civil war and it’s a country of peace and love and then you look up and see the Tour – well, you are happy. I mean everyone wants to see the Tour, that is the life.”

With no French but a passion for basketball, he hustled some street games with other immigrés and expressed a firm desire to secure immediate work. It led to another sleeping arrangement – on the construction sites where he would paint building exteriors during the day, coupled with eventual work as a dishwasher at night.

“I’d never painted before in my life, but you say yes to these things. And during that time being without papers – it was maybe 15 months – you’re always looking out for the police and really worried that you’ll be found and sent back.”

By night, in the kitchen, he was scrubbing dishes and annoying the chef – why this way, why that, how much, how long? And then, a dazzling opportunity.
“The chef one day cut his hand and had to go to hospital. I could see that the boss was stressed. So I said, ‘I can do it, I can cook.’ And so I did. That night, Geaam made a big, brilliant mess – but he managed to cook everything. The boss took note.

“He saw the pleasure it gave me and he asked why I’d never told him before that this is what I really wanted to do. And I said to him, ‘I just wanted some money and a job so that I could eat – I would never tell you my dreams from the start.’”

Geaam and I are sat in the far booth of his tightly-held restaurant. It’s 11.30am and the day’s first service is being finalised. It means a busy, clattering kitchen and lithe, attentive front-of-house staff confirming bookings over the phone in both English and French. (Mainly English.) Through the speakers, Joan Jett belts out the lyrics to the Runaways’ 1976 punk-pop anthem “Cherry Bomb”.

Geaam’s created an easy interior to sink into and enjoy. Like the man behind the burners, it’s humble – a subtle design with an extended and snaking grey banquette and a central pendant light complemented by soft sun that peers through a curtained window.

Lunch is set for 18 on a menu consisting of two starters, two mains, a cheese course and two desserts. Amongst the offering, there’s a deconstructed fattouche of king crab and caviar, turbot with soujouk and zucchini flower, and pigeon two-ways, each commanding attention and delight. The latter is a dish often highlighted in gushing tones by the press and by those unnecessary amateur online critics. It’s all delicate, it’s all flavoursome. And it all goes a way to explaining why Geaam is celebrated. But it’s not only the food that dictates the star.

It’s claimed that Michelin judgment casts a gaze across five key areas: quality of ingredients, mastery of flavour and cooking techniques, value for money, consistency and the presence of the chef’s personality within the cuisine.

Curiously, it took Geaam years to put himself on the plate – to tell his story via his food; to acknowledge and be proud of his ancestry. It happened by accident. To that point, he’d slowly worked his way up and across various Parisian kitchens, studying the habits of those above him while spending hours reading about and learning various techniques.

Alan Geaam

It all led to 2007 and his helming of Auberge Nicolas Flamel. It was French and without his name above the door – and so, he’ll admit, the many platitudes that arrived were frustrating. Two personal bistros soon followed, both bearing his initials: AG Saint-Germain and AG Les Halles. Geaam had opened up a little, introducing the gastronomic world to his initials, though the food remained French. “But it was modern, with some Japanese influence and yuzu everywhere, too much at times. But there was no risk, even if people liked it,” he says.

When asked where he originally hailed from, he’d always say Liberia. He questioned everything– a self-taught foreigner slowly making a name for himself, but not yet confident to hang his name in full.

“I would never say I was from Lebanon – forget it. I was scared and I had no confidence in myself, always questioning where I’d come from and how I got here – and also questioning my abilities and my food.”

Then once again, there was a happy accident.

“One day I didn’t have lemon, so I used something Lebanese instead and the customers really liked it. Another day, I threw in some Lebanese thyme and they liked that too.”

Cut to now, to this place in the 16th, the one with his full name displayed on the exterior and his life delicately detailed on each plate. It is, Geaam considers, an enlightening move – snaring the former two-starred property of chef Akrame Benallal. With the move, he realised that what he needed to do was to be bold; to offer modern cuisine that is signposted in French but which ultimately leads to the Middle East.

“It was the time to take a risk. My bistro was working with its French food. It was about jumping a bit, to make it Lebanese and call it Alan Geaam and tell the story of my life. People loved it and so I’d trust myself more and more each day. And it’s original: no one else is doing it or cooks like this.”
Call it French gastronomy wrapped in Lebanese cuisine. Call it – as it has been heralded in every major French publication from Le Figaro and beyond – a triumph.

“I understand now why it’s important to tell my story – as the only Lebanese chef with a Michelin star. Because here in this city you have all the big chefs of the world. I’ve had to work doubly hard to get here.

“For me – and this is what I tell my two kids – I started washing dishes and painting buildings. I didn’t get anything handed to me or easy. I moved from making vinaigrette and beurre blanc to learning to cook meat medium-rare. At every place I worked, I was always available, always smiling and always the first one to arrive and the last one to leave. It’s taken a lot of willpower and passion, that same passion and love my mother taught me – and courage too.”

You get the sense that Geaam alone will ever be able to process the enormity of his quest – the marathon that led him to the star.

“People always talk about the American Dream, but this is the French dream,” he says, pausing to correct himself. “It’s my French dream.”

Photography: Gaelle Le Boulicaut