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Qatari cuisine inspires an American chef

المطبخ القطري يلهم شيفًا أمريكيًا


William Dissen, chef and owner of The Market Place in downtown Asheville, took a trip to the Middle East and returned with an understanding of how a shared meal can help bridge divides.

During the Thanksgiving weekend, Dissen introduced Southern cuisine and U.S. customs to the people of Doha, the capital of Qatar. In turn, Dissen and long-time friend, chef Saif Rahman, who was also invited to assist, gained knowledge and experiences that are influencing how and what they cook in their restaurants.

“Travel is one of the most important things that I’ve humbly had the opportunity to do in my life,” Dissen said. “Whenever you go outside of your boundaries it breaks down barriers and stereotypes. When you go places where people don’t look or sound like you or eat the same food that you eat it opens your eyes to realize we’re all global citizens. We’re all human beings on this earth trying to live a great life and keep moving forward in a positive way.”

From Nov. 24-29, Dissen participated in the Arts Envoy Program, cultural diplomacy program, to showcase the foods of the Appalachian and Thanksgiving traditions.

The Arts Envoy Program is a public-private initiative of the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, in partnership with American Voices. The program appoints artistic professionals to share their talents, skills and knowledge of the American culture with community members in other countries.

The diplomats’ fields vary from performing and visual artists to poets and playwrights to theatrical directors and filmmakers. Each outreach effort is curated and may include workshops, performances and mentoring to “foster cross-cultural understanding and collaboration and to demonstrate shared values and aspirations.”

Preparing American and Appalachian food was just the beginning for Dissen. He delved further to explore social and cultural identity through food that would bring people together.

“It’s a wonderful way to learn the identity of a place,” Dissen said. “It’s a way that you can also storytell and talk about a sense of place through the food you eat because everybody has connections and stories to tell through that through family and friends.”

The experience was powerful as it inspired conversations about culture and the background of the people, Dissen said.

Breaking bread
Dissen has been on a few diplomacy excursions in different countries over the years, including New Zealand, Copenhagen, Denmark, and hosted virtual events for viewers in Israel, he said. His first invitation from the U.S. State Department was in 2015, he said.

“The idea was to do both domestic and foreign culinary diplomacy and to send us around to bring people together across the table to break bread,” Dissen said. “What better way to have cross-cultural affairs than by sharing a meal?”

Dissen and Rahman, executive chef of Vidrio restaurant in Raleigh, were the special guest chefs invited to host the holiday week of culinary arts, which was a part of the Qatar-USA Festival within the Qatar-USA 2021 Year of Culture.

There were many discussions as to how the countries’ customs are different, as well as cultural overlaps, Dissen said.

“It shed any stereotypes I may have had as a preconceived notion,” Dissen said. “The people were some of the kindest, most giving people I’ve met in my life. I can’t wait to go back.”

Dissen produced three live demonstration workshops with assistance from Rahman: Al Messila Cook-Off and Masterclass, Qatar National Library’s Sweet Fusion Masterclass and Thanksgiving Discussion & Tasting. 

On Thanksgiving Day, the chefs prepared a traditional dinner for about 40 guests that included residents, students and others invited by the event sponsors, the U.S. Embassy of Doha.

Over the course of the weekend, the chefs served and demonstrated how to cook dishes, such as Carolina Gold rice, grits, collard greens, pumpkin pie, stewed green beans and Dissen’s original recipe for hot and crispy fried chicken using poultry from Joyce Farms.

Dissen used the platform to discuss topics, such as sustainability, reducing food wastage and the benefits of locally-sourcing ingredients.

The opportunity to learn and grow went both ways.

Qatari hospitality

The kindness and hospitality of the Qatari community is something that won’t soon be forgotten, according to Rahman, who described the diplomacy trip as “an experience of a lifetime.”

“We got to experience Qatari culture. That was the most amazing, epic moment of our lives,” Rahman said. “The Qatari hospitality and Qatari people — it’s like an open heart. … Words cannot explain the moments, you have to experience it.”

Dissen and Rahman spent time with Qatari residents and in Doha’s communities and restaurants experiencing the local cuisine. They learned firsthand about the country’s rich culture and explored the city and desert landscapes. They visited Katara Cultural Village and Souq Waqif marketplace’s food outlets. They engaged in activities such as dune bashing and camel riding and “hung out” with a falcon, Rahman said.

The chefs said they made lasting and impactful relationships.  

“We built the bond. The impression they left on us and the impression we left on them is going to be permanent. It will be a story to tell for the future,” Rahman said.

The chefs are considering ways to incorporate the recipes and flavors they learned abroad into the food they serve daily to diners at their U.S. restaurants.

“It’s changed and evolved me as a person and also as a chef to eat foods and try flavors that are not in my normal repertoire or day-to-day eating,” Dissen said. “It was a humbling experience to be a representative from the United States and take our culture on the global scene to showcase our cuisine of America through my eyes and culture as a chef in the Appalachian American South.”


قالت صحيفةُ سيتيزن تايمز الأمريكيّة في تقرير لها: إنَّ ويليام ديسن الشيف المريكيّ وصاحب مطعم ذا ماركت بلايس وسط مدينة آشفيل سافر إلى قطر وعادَ من هناك بفكرة أنّ الطعام قادر على التقريب بين الثقافات والشعوب ومدّ جسور التواصل في العالم.

وتابعت الصحيفة: إن الشيف ديسن قدّم المأكولات الجنوبية والعادات الأمريكية لشعب قطر. في المقابل اكتسب الشيف الأمريكي خبرات في طهي الطعام في المطاعم القطرية.

ونقلت الصحيفة عن ديسن قوله: إنَّ السفر مهم لكسر الحواجز والصور النمطية، وعندما تذهب إلى أماكن لا يشبهك فيها الناس ولا يشبهونك أو يأكلون الطعام نفسه الذي تأكله، فإن ذلك يفتح عينيك لتدرك أننا، جميعًا، مواطنو هذا العالم.

وتابع ديسن: إنّه خلال فترة وجودي في الدوحة، كانت هناك نقاشات عديدة حول اختلاف عادات بلدَينا، فضلًا عن التداخل الثقافي وهو أمر مثير للإلهام. كان الناس لطفاء جدًا، وأنا على أحرّ من الجمر للعودة إلى هناك مرة أخرى.

وأوضحت الصحيفة أنَّ ديسن وبمُساعدة صديقه القديم الشيف سيف الرحمن أدار 3 ورشات طبخ في مكتبة قطر الوطنية، وأعدّ الرجلان عشاءً تقليديًا لنحو 40 ضيفًا.

ونقلت الصحيفة عن الشيف سيف الرحمن قوله: «لقد اختبرنا الثقافة القطرية، كانت تلك أكثر اللحظات المدهشة في حياتنا. الشعب القطري فتح لنا قلبه، لا يمكن للكلمات أن تعبر عن هذه اللحظات، عليك أن تعيش التجربة لتشعر بما شعرنا به».

وأشارت الصحيفة إلى أن ديسن وسيف الرحمن قضيا بعض الوقت مع القطريين لتذوّق المأكولات المحلية، واطّلعا بشكل مباشر على الثقافة الغنية للبلاد، واستكشفا المناظر الطبيعية كما زارا كتارا وسوق واقف، ناقلة عن الشيف سيف الرحمن قوله: إنّ «لطف المجتمع القطري وكرمه أمران لا ينسيان، وهذه الرحلة هي بمثابة تجربة العُمر».

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