We’ve all seen it on the news or at least on our social media feeds: Boats packed with people — many of them educated, career people; many more of them children; all of them refugees fleeing horrors untold. The closest estimate, according to The New York Times‘ Eliza Griswold, is that more than 4.5 million Syrians have fled their homes and are now displaced by violence and Syria’s shattered economy.
In early January, the city of Ramadi was reclaimed by Iraqi forces, but there wasn’t much left to recover — most of the area was left in smoldering piles of rubble. When The New York Times’ Ben Hubbard asked an Iraqi general if people would be able to return to their homes, he responded simply, “Homes? There are no homes.”
Locally, chef Nate Allen hopes to do his part to highlight the cuisine and culture of the region of the Middle East known as the Levant while raising money to help refugees with an upcoming dinner fundraiser at his Spruce Pine restaurant, Knife & Fork. “I just want to figure out how to get some help to [these] people,” says Allen. “We do a fundraiser every year this time of year, but I picked this one to be a fundraiser for the refugee support efforts that are going on.”
For three years now, Knife & Fork has taken the slower winter season to research, experiment and stretch its creative wings a little by hosting an every-other-weekend international-themed pop-up called the Culinary Adventure Series. At past events, Allen has featured Italian cuisine with handmade pastas, Chinese food laden with Szechuan specialties and tables covered with the myriad small dishes of Korean banchan.
“The inspiration and the learning curve that I go through by immersing myself in other cultural cuisines, and the research it takes to do so … is the greatest part of my year,” he says. “It lets me constantly stretch my brain and expand my understanding of the culinary world outside my own narrow viewpoint.”
The next pop-up, Refuge, is slated for Thursday, Feb. 4, through Saturday, Feb. 6. That weekend, Allen plans to focus on Levant cuisine, a style of cooking developed through the assimilation of cultures and foods that occurred before and during the 623-year reign of the Ottoman Empire.
“I thought we’d just celebrate that culture and give something back,” says Allen, whose connection to the cuisines of the Middle East runs a little deeper than the average Southern-born white kid. “It’s something that I grew up loving as my parents spent four years in Turkey before I was born.”
Before Allen’s birth, his father was stationed with the U.S. Air Force at Yalova, Turkey, for over four years. “It struck such a chord in my mom that there were always interpretations of these Levant dishes that were pretty weird to find in a Southern home growing up,” Allen says. “It was nothing that ever seemed out of place or anything until I was a little older and realized how cool it was that it had crept into our lives.”
It isn’t just the flavors but the methods of service that stand out to Allen — something he hopes to capture with the presentation of family-style dishes as lamb kibbeh. “I’ve had it several ways. Sometimes they make meatballs, but my favorite is hand-minced lamb marinated in lemongrass, garlic and parsley, and seasoned with salt and pepper, served in a big mound and surrounded by a bulgar wheat salad with heavy parsley and lemon,” he says. “It’s just the experience of having this huge smorgasbord in front of you, and it’s served family-style, and you can just pick and choose. It’s a feast, and I am so excited to share that with people.”
Beyond his parents’ indoctrination of Levant food, Allen relies on his friends to get it right. “I had a whole Lebanese family that were really dear friends of mine for a long time in Los Angeles, and I would always go over to their house to eat,” he recalls. “They exposed me to restaurants that they claimed were really authentic-tasting and were the right way to have things served at the right times.”
In North Carolina now, he relies on a friend who was married to a Syrian immigrant who was taught to cook the cuisine by her mother-in-law. “In looking at all of it, I’ve realized the commonality between foods in that region. Borders didn’t really have a lot to say about the division of what happens on the plate in Turkey, Lebanon and Syria,” says Allen.
The family meal and full experience at Refuge will cost $50 per person, but there will also be an a la carte option for those who prefer to choose their own adventure. All profits from the three dinners will be donated to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent relief organization.
“I’ve done a lot of research over the past month, but I’ve come to the conclusion that although there are a lot of more specific [NGO’s], the efforts of the Red Cross and Red Crescent seems to be the most effective and efficient in getting help out to certain people on the path from Lesbos to Germany,” Allen explains.
Refuge takes place 5:30-9 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, through Saturday, Feb. 6, at Knife & Fork, 61 Locust St., Spruce Pine. Reservations are highly recommended. For details and to reserve a table, call 765-1511.