Dalia Dogmoch Soubra knows her crêpe from her crouton. She could also test the springiness of your Spätzle, firmness of your falafel or curvature of your cupcakes (or muffin-tops for that matter).
Born in London to Syrian parents, raised in Paris and schooled in German and Arabic, Dalia left Europe in her late teens for New York. After completing her studies in the US, Dalia decided to explore her cultural and cooking heritage in Beirut then Dubai. There she has gained renown for her food-fusion stores: Kitsch Cupcakes, the first to introduce cupcakes to the sub-continent, and international cuisine blog: Dalia’s Kitchen. Growing global interest has since spawned the publication of her eponymous cookbook: Food, Love and Life from Dalia’s Kitchen and cult-status with the food and fashion élite. Dalia now juggles roles as Food Editor for Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, TV chef appearances and being a busy mom to boot.
This year her latest project is set to bring Dalia back to New York. We met up with the busy chef on a recent trip to promote her cookbook:
Edible Manhattan: Hi Dalia, thanks for taking the time to speak to me today I know you have a busy schedule.
Dalia Dogmoch Soubra: I hosted a breakfast this morning with a lovely mix of people. We did a cooking demo of classical French crêpes. That was the first thing I learned how to do myself and is very much my own comfort food. Then I made dishes with eggs, cheese…
EM: Very healthy!
DDS: I love labneh (or “Greek” yogurt) on everything! I eat wholesome food but everything else in-between too. I grew up in France; gluten is not the enemy for me! Then we had German hazelnut cake…
EM: You have a very international take on cuisine, tell me more about that?
DDS: I’m Syrian, my parents are Syrian. My dad left Syria when he was 17 for Germany due to lack of opportunities and the political situation. My siblings were born there but I was born in London. We moved to Paris when I was two and attended German school. So we were Syrians living in Paris but going to German school! I would speak German to my dad and Arabic to my mom then speak French to everyone else in Paris.
EM: How did you come to New York?
DDS: I stayed in Paris until I was 19 but became obsessed with New York thanks to American TV shows. I wanted to live in that city surrounded by people where everyone was rushing off to work. I moved here when I was 19. At that point New York had great food but it was harder to find then compared to Paris.
EM: How did you overcome that initial shock here in New York?
DDS: I taught myself how to cook. I was obsessed with cookbooks and learned from there.
I used to live close to Dean and Delucca. It was good but expensive! But everything happens for a reason. Perhaps if I hadn’t moved to New York I wouldn’t have gotten into food as much. I also discovered peanut butter! When you grow up in France you don’t know peanut butter. I loved it! Even to this day.
EM: Has your time in New York influenced your eating habits in any other way?
DDS: [Laughs] When I want to indulge I don’t go for an éclair! Now for me it’s a banoffee pie or a red velvet cake.
EM: Now you live in Dubai. What happened after your time in New York?
DDS: At age 25 I felt like I needed to touch base with my roots — go see where I’m from. At that point Beirut was on a high due to a reconstruction boom. My parents had moved there from Paris too — they wanted to get closer to home. So I moved there and set up a café with my childhood friend. She always loved fashion while I always loved food. We found an old Lebanese house and set up a bakery and shop inside. I missed everything from a simple latte to a good salad, so we brought all those things there when we opened in 2006. The most popular item turned out to be cupcakes!
EM: Interesting that cupcakes were the most popular thing given how different they are to local cuisine.
DDS: Yes, with the internet and the popularity of American TV shows that influence had made itself felt in Beirut. Now people love having a slice of that. Then with the advent of the war I decided to move to Dubai as a safe haven in the region. We ended up with 3 business locations: Dubai, Beirut and Abu Dhabi. When [my friend and I] opened in Dubai we decided to go with the cupcake concept since that was the most popular thing. But over time we’ve expanded the concept to encompass more cultures and cuisines. For example you can now sample chia seed puddings [and] kale salads and a naughty bakery.
EM: [Laughs] What do you mean by naughty bakery?
DDS: We use butter, sugar, wheat and all the things people seem to be afraid of these days. The ingredients are French-sourced but American recipes. At the same time it’s small batch baking, we make everything from scratch… Then on the savory side we work with an organic farm.
EM: That’s interesting. How much of a local or organic food movement is there in the Middle East now?
DDS: It’s definitely there now. It’s taken a while to take off. Obviously there are practicalities… you’re in the middle of the desert! Organic is definitely in Dubai now though. Even if things aren’t certified organic the practices are traditionally organic and have stayed organic.
EM: Would you say farms have turned organic to cater to demand or instead practices are still very traditional, so organic by nature?
DDS: Right, farms here have missed that big agribusiness step but have instead stuck to their original roots. They’ve avoided having to change course like a lot of bigger farms in other parts of the world.
EM: Tell me more about your cookbook and plans for working in New York again?
DDS: I was always experimenting with recipes and taking photos. People wanted me to share the recipes so I started a blog. It took off really nicely and in 2010 I became the food editor for Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, which is recipe columns and advice. In the midst of that I did more and more food presenting for Dubai TV — a lifestyle show. Then I decided to bring out a cookery book last year. It’s got everything from traditional Syrian dishes to classic French and German with a bit of fusion like date-stuffed turkey for the holidays or pomegranate freekeh risotto. It’s a testament to what I’ve witnessed. Now I’m bringing those recipes and mix of cultures back to America.
EM: What are your hopes for this next project beyond showcasing great food?
DS: Food is a neutral ground and a great messenger to bring people together and communicate that message. When you bring people together around a table they let their guard down and are more open to questioning and understanding each other. Not everyone in the Middle East is going to be someone that the West can relate to, but understanding more makes the transition easier to bringing people together. My future plans are to bring together two worlds who don’t really understand each other so much!
EM: Good objective!
DS: I know it sounds cheesy, but at the end of the day foods need to be more meaningful, especially for someone coming from a region where people can be misunderstood. I don’t want to show people a particular dish for example but also introduce them to a region and culture. Social media today can give us a window into these different worlds and we can’t ignore that. We have a responsibility to know more about each other.