Lonely Planet Writer

This Bethlehem chef uses scalpels and blowtorches in creating traditional dishes

Palestinian cuisine is getting quite a makeover in one Bethlehem restaurant, where chefs use scalpels and blowtorches to create a modern twist on traditional dishes.

Musakhan: chicken liver pate, taboun bread, onions sauteed in sumac and olive oil
Musakhan: chicken liver pate, taboun bread, onions sauteed in sumac and olive oil

Fawda Cafe and Restaurant is part of the Hosh Al-Syrian Guesthouse, a smart hotel in Bethlehem’s Old Town. Both opened last year with the aim of offering something new to tourists. Working only with fresh farm produce, bookings are required at least one day in advance. However, in an area which has been hit hard by the ongoing Palestinian-Israeli conflict, finding the right kind of contemporary kitchen tools can be quite a challenge.

Fadi Kattan at work in his restaurant
Fadi Kattan at work in his restaurant.

Owner and chef Fadi Kattan says: “the difficulty is in finding high quality tools, baking utensils and precision tools. I believe it’s because few chefs use such tools and the import restrictions and high costs are problematic. We are doing something new and using pipettes, scalpels, surgical scissors and the like to create innovative plates that combine design, colour and flavour”.

There were a few raised eyebrows in the builders’ supply store, when Kattan asked to buy a blow torch. “They thought I was crazy! The store-owner knew us well and had supplied us with lots of building material when we were setting up the guesthouse and he could not believe it. I had to explain to him that using the blowtorch is one of the best finishing tools for cuisine. I use it on my slow-roasted lamb to give the fat an extra crispness or to slightly caramelise fresh rosewater meringues.”

Entrance to the guesthouse.
Entrance to the guesthouse.

Kattan,who trained in France, is making a name for himself with much of the news coverage focusing on his use of a scalpel in food preparation. He explains his thinking: “using a scalpel came with more and more focus on designing the plate and integrating raw produce. To be able to preserve crispness and play with transparency of colours, you need a very fine cutting tool, what better than a scalpel? There is nothing more precise.”

Fish and freekeh with a beetroot sauce and frozen sesame sauce
Fish and freekeh with a beetroot sauce and frozen sesame sauce

Despite the name, the hotel is more boutique hotel than guesthouse: “we’re trying to do something different. Thirty years ago, pilgrims used to come to Palestine on a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and that’s just not true any more. We’re attracting a totally different clientele,” he says. “Since we opened, the majority of my clients are individual travellers, many of my clients are gay, and many others are here to experience the culture.”

As part of his philosophy, Kattan offers visitors a tour of Bethlehem’s Old City Farmer’s market. “I sometimes take the guests on a tour of the farmer’s market where they meet Um Nabil, the lady from the village of Artas who sells us fresh herbs, Khaled and Issam the butchers who supply us beautiful lamb and have learned to age beef for us, Wajeeh the baker who has fun baking bread in all sizes for our plates and all the other farmers who bring in their produce fresh off the farms every morning,” he tells Lonely Planet. Kattan’s project is part of a wider move to regenerate tourism in Bethlehem, especially in the Old Town area near Star Street and the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square.