Written by William Dobson
Lower Sunbury is the quintessentially peaceful, Thames-side commuter town in Surrey. It’s home to a couple of old English pubs, perhaps an artisan café or two, while a few local shops line its main thoroughfare. In every aspect it couldn’t be further from war ravaged Beirut in the 1970s and 80s, where Mona Usher grew up. Yet, it’s from here that she now runs Samara Cuisine, a catering and events company, which brings a unique taste and touch of Lebanon straight into your home.
Mona’s story is so far fetched that it’s almost in the realms of feel-good Hollywood fare. Growing up in the midst of bloody Civil War, every night she said her final prayers before going to bed; no idea whether she’d be waking up the next morning. Having never experienced peace in the city of her birth, she – a Muslim – escaped to Cyprus, without telling her family, to marry a young Oxford graduate whom she had met, and fallen in love with, while she was studying Fine Art at, what is now, the Lebanese American University (LAU). Having eschewed a promising career as an artist back home and hardly speaking a word of English, her first gainful employment upon arriving in London was at a run down fish and chip shop, owned by ‘an awful couple’. Later, she found work in the Lebanese Embassy. However, due to the fact that she had married against her religion, she was never treated with the respect she deserved and eventually left to forge a career in the media, first with Al Hayat and later the BBC. Yet, it was through her passion for food that she really found salvation. Cooking was not only a way to express her artistic passions but also a way to connect with people from such a different world. More than that, it has been through cooking and her business that she has been able to reconnect with her previously estranged father.
Samara Cuisine first came about on the back of selling homemade falafel at a fund raising event for her daughters’ school. They went down so well that, next thing she knew, she was being asked to cater for a party of 70 people. Suddenly, she saw an opportunity to do the thing she truly loved – cooking – as an aside to also being a full-time mother to her two small children. Ten years later and Mona is still a full-time mother, yet Samara Cuisine has grown into something altogether more substantial. Of course, there have been teething problems and set backs along the way, but such has been the popularity of her business – with the only ‘advertising’, her website and word of mouth – that this part-time enterprise has now become a full-time occupation, not just for her but for the entire family. Indeed, husband Seb – a respected journalist in his own right – spends his rare days off as the company’s delivery driver while eldest daughter, Izzy, is a budding and talented maitre d’. However, it’s her youngest daughter, whose name is eponymous with the company, whom Mona believes is most likely to follow in her footsteps as a cook. Aged just 10, she’s already showing signs of a sophisticated and discerning palate. Furthermore, Samara Cuisine has evolved into a fully fledged events company, able to provide waitresses, Arabesque crockery, Bedouin tents, shisha pipes, belly dancers, henna tattoo artists and, if you’re really looking to go overboard, she has a ‘contact in Surrey’ who can supply a caravan of camels for the evening. Perhaps most exciting of all though, once a month Mona runs a hands-on cooking class teaching her own unique take on Lebanese cuisine.
When I went to visit Mona at her home, she was busy preparing her standard party menu for 30 people which, at just £12 per person, is ludicrously good value. Expecting to walk into a large, commercial style kitchen, I was instead greeted by the exact opposite. Nothing more than you would see in homes up and down the country, there was just one small oven and her mise-en-place balanced on every available surface, including the piano. Yet, she completed the whole menu in little over two hours while simultaneously tending to the family and talking to me about her life in both Beirut and England and the food that she loves to cook, her arms whirling at almost cartoonish speed throughout. This is clearly someone with a deep-rooted passion for food. More than that though, it’s about the food that she grew up with; a link to her heritage and her homeland. This comes through in her style – completely instinctive rather than taught – and she relies on taste and smell, instead of measurements, to put her own individual stamp on Lebanese cuisine, adapting and updating classics by introducing personal touches. I was particularly enamoured by her kofta, which she had made using beef rather than the traditional lamb. The unusual addition of tomatoes added moisture and a bit of tartness, while cinnamon was used, as well as other more authentic spices, to give some North African warmth. The other dishes, while with their roots still in Lebanon, were also mingled with different influences – including the use of Saudi Arabian date syrup in the dressing for her grilled aubergine salad – and her own creations.
A truly family run business, Samara Cuisine completely embodies the Lebanese vibe. The food is rustic, fun and hearty – it doesn’t rely on complicated techniques and elaborate presentation – and it’s created with an infectious love and passion and no little shortage of skill. Out of adversity, Mona has created something incredibly special.