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(CNN) – In Damascus, chef Imad Alarnab says he has run three popular restaurants, as well as several juice bars and cafes. During the Syrian Civil War, Alarnab’s businesses were destroyed and Alarnab was forced to leave his home country.

After what he describes as an arduous journey through Europe, Alarnab arrived in the UK in 2015, ending his career as a restaurateur as he focused on finding work and building a home for his family.

Supper boxes quickly sold out, and Alarnab’s lunchtime falafel bars became a word of mouth success, drawing crowds and long lines.

Soon after, Alarnab was spending weekends preparing for a storm at weddings and birthday parties – an experience he describes as “absolutely magnificent”.

His ultimate dream was to open a restaurant in central London, but even as his culinary reputation grew, Alarnab was unsure if that was an achievable goal in the face of London’s high rents.

Against all odds, Imad’s Syrian Kitchen opened in May 2021 – a warm and welcoming restaurant in bustling Soho, central London, serving Allarnab’s best dishes, from his mouth-watering falafel to the delicious Kabab Hindi, a dish made with lamb and tomatoes.

While some refugees have to retrain to work in a new country, Alarnarb stresses that good food is universal and says he always knew he would find a way to cook for a living.

“I can talk to people through my food which is amazing,” he told CNN Travel.

Warm environment

Inside London restaurant Imad’s Syrian Kitchen.

Issy Croker

The interior of Imad’s Syrian kitchen – light and airy with touches of blue tile – was designed by Alarnab to be “very simple” and to resemble a house in Damascus.

The name of the restaurant says it all.

“It’s a kitchen – it’s my kitchen – and it’s my dining room. I like it that way,” says Alarnab.

“Usually when you go to any other restaurant in the Middle East, you will find a bit of mosaic, wood – we have it, but not in our houses, everything is in the restaurants,” he says. “I didn’t want to create another typical Middle Eastern restaurant. Instead, I always wanted to create something more intimate, more comfortable.”

The walls are covered with photographs from Alarnab’s journey so far.

“One of them from my neighborhood in Damascus, some of them in London with my family …”

Alarnab funded £ 50,000 (approximately $ 68,300) in the fall of 2020 to help secure the lease. The restaurateur plans to donate the money to Choose Love – £ 1 of each bill goes to the UK refugee charity.

Alarnab says working with charities “only adds to the business. It doesn’t take anything away from it.”

It’s part of the ethos he says he lives his life with.

“I believe in karma,” he says. “It’s always been like that, when I do something right, honestly I know for sure that there is something right waiting for me.”

He left Syria as a refugee six years ago.  Now he owns a successful London restaurant

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Imad Alarnab serves Syrian dishes at his London restaurant, including Jaj Barghol (chicken thigh with bulgur wheat) and Fattoush Baitinjan (eggplant, cucumber and avocado), pictured here.

Issy Croker

Londoners have flocked to Imad’s over the summer months, salivating over the menu, enjoying the friendly atmosphere and chatting about his food with Alarnab.

Still, opening a restaurant during a pandemic was a risk. During Covid-19 closures in the UK, restaurants were banned from opening and many struggled to survive.

Alarnab says that although his rent is more affordable due to the impact of Covid on the London restaurant scene, he knew the opening in 2021 was going to be a difficult feat.

But it was a bet he wanted to take.

“I was like, ‘It’s now or never, I’m going to give it a try,'” he recalls.

Alarnab says he runs Imad’s Syrian cuisine in the same way he operated his restaurants in Damascus. The main difference is that its Soho space has a small kitchen, so the menu is lightened up, but every dish has been perfected – and the food is designed for sharing, adding to the cozy vibe.

Alarnab has also adapted a few recipes to make them gluten-free or vegan. He says he enjoys the creativity that comes with making those kinds of adjustments. He also enjoys tasting dishes from other cultures.

“It’s really nice to be involved in other kitchens and to create something together – either spices, or a technique, or a new taste, or a new way of preparing plates,” he says.

He left Syria as a refugee six years ago.  Now he owns a successful London restaurant

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Alarnab’s falafel is famous in London food circles.

Issy Croker

Alarnab’s favorite London restaurants include Berenjak, a Persian restaurant in Soho, as well as Club Mexicana, which serves Mexican-inspired vegan fare.
He’s also a fan of Darjeeling Express – now located in Covent Garden, Asma Khan’s Indian restaurant was once located in the Soho space that Alarnab now occupies.

While Alarnab loves creativity and collaboration, he also knows when a dish should not be tampered with. Take his falafel – for those in the know, it’s the gold standard, and Alarnab says the key is in its simplicity.

“People try to play around with traditional recipes where it’s good enough like that – and you don’t really have to add too much to do that,” he says.

If you add too many extra ingredients to falafel, you can ruin it, Alarnab says.

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t be creating new recipes, but creating new recipes doesn’t really mean we have to change. […] traditional recipes that we already have. “

Shared humanity

He left Syria as a refugee six years ago.  Now he owns a successful London restaurant

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The restaurant has a cozy atmosphere, with pictures on the wall of Alarnab and his family.

Issy Croker

Alarnab is proud and excited about the success of Imad’s Syian Kitchen, but it is his family that brings him the most joy. He says his personal life is “the most important part”.

Alarnab spent a year away from his family before they followed him to England. He says this time of separation has been extremely difficult and that he is happy that his loved ones are now thriving in London.

“My wife and daughters, they are happier than ever,” says Alarnab. “We are connecting with each other more than ever. They are doing very well in their schools.”

The recent Afghan crisis, coupled with UK Home Secretary Priti Patel’s policies to prevent migrants from crossing the Channel, has intensified conversations about refugees in the UK in recent weeks.

Alarnab says the problem is that some people view refugees as if they came from “another planet”.

“Maybe they have their own culture, but at the very end of the day, they’re human beings,” he says.

Too often, says Alarnab, people describe refugees as “angels” or “demons”.

“It’s not either – neither are we – we’re just a human being,” he said.

Becoming a refugee is not a choice, adds Alarnab.

“If the war in Syria had not taken place, I would never, never have thought of leaving Damascus in my life. But we are forced to leave our countries – it is not something optional.”

“Before you say Syria is safe and you want to send people back there, don’t do it. It’s not safe,” he said.

“Ask us about it, we know more about Syria than anyone. We still have friends there. We still have families there.

As for Britain’s policies on asylum seekers under Patel, Alarnab says they do not reflect the attitudes of the London he knows, sees and celebrates every day in his restaurant.

“She doesn’t represent London. People represent London,” he said. “And the people are amazing.”