A Conversation with Reem Assil

The chef and community organizer talks occupation and moving to a worker-owned model.

  
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To speak to Reem Assil of Reem’s California in the Bay Area was a privilege. As a Palestinian-Syrian chef, former labor and community organizer, and restaurant owner moving toward a worker-owned model, she is particularly knowledgeable and thoughtful on every segment of the food system and industry that I care most deeply about. From colonization and occupation, to what role the restaurant plays in our society, to how to create equitable systems while living under capitalism—she is versed in it all. And so, through some technical difficulties, we talked about everything. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Reem Thank you so much for taking out the time to talk today.

Reem: Thanks for having me.

Alicia: Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Reem: So I grew up in a very small suburb, right outside of Boston in New England. My first food memories are actually — the stories of the food that I grew up versus the memories of food, there's a complete dissonance between the two, I remember sort of growing up and eating macaroni and cheese from the box and ramen, instant ramen. We were latchkey kids, so that was our comfort food. 

But we also had sort of an eclectic mix of Arab food. My mom always tried to find ways to take sort of American classics and Arabify them, as we would say. Our spaghetti and meatballs were more kofta and meatballs, with the red sauce that was spiked with our seven spice mix. So yeah, just a hodgepodge of sort of traditional Arab foods, but with a lot of sort of Americana cuisine trickled in between.

Alicia: How did you make your way into cooking, into professionally cooking?

Reem: Sort of a roundabout way, I would say. I never imagined that I was going to be a professional cook, per se. Sort of prior to my culinary career, I was — I spent a lot of time in the nonprofit sector. I was doing work around the issues that really matter to me here in the Bay Area, which I've been lucky to call home for the last 18 years, issues like affordable housing and living wages for workers and community benefits for residents. 

And that work was really amazing. I was part of campaigns that won some real tangible things for the communities that I was working with. But I think that my work as a professional community and labor organizer wasn't sort of getting the transformative piece of organizing that I was really yearning for, that sort of taking time and transformation of people in their leadership. It's too unstable. The nonprofit sector just basically was reliant on the funding we would get, and one month I'd be working in one community and sort of building up towards a campaign and the next minute the priorities of our funders would change and we’d have to move.

And I was like, ‘I don't want to do this anymore. I really want to build deep with the communities I was working with.’ And I also noticed that like the communities I was working with, and the things that we were fighting for, it was just like, ‘We're losing our ability to imagine what actually is the world that we want to live in.’ And that made me really sad. 

I was burnt out at a certain point, and went on a trip to kind of just deal with the burnout. So, it was really a selfish thing in the beginning. And when I was burnt out, I was really turning towards baking. Baking was sort of my place. And I had sort of been an amateur baker throughout the years. California is really where I learned how to work with ingredients, how to learn all these things. And it was really sort of a healing place for me, but it was personal, right? It wasn't like, ‘Oh, I'm gonna pursue a career in baking.’ 

But then when I took a trip in 2010 sort of out of Burnell back to the homeland, it was there where I kind of — everything sort of came together. For me, it was seeing these spaces. And these are the kind of spaces I was yearning for, this deep connection to my culture that I didn't have. I had been to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine over the course of my childhood, but I was a kid from America and I didn't have the memories in that homeland that my parents did. 

And so it was always sort of a strange feeling going back home. But it was this last trip, and it has actually been the last trip that I've taken there since. The food spaces is where I really felt connected, and I, really — the sort of gift of Arab hospitality and Arab breadmaking, and a way to think about the lifeline of Arab history and all that we bring. And I was like, ‘The U.S. needs to know about this.’

So, it became sort of just a mission. And I came back, and I was — I quit my job. And I enrolled myself into a culinary program at my local community college. They had a baking and pastry two-year program. And I scared the crap out of my parents. And there it is.

I was like, ‘I'm gonna be a baker, because I want to create this.’ So I always sort of had a mission, that sort of pursuing a culinary career was a means to this end, which was much bigger than just like, ‘I want to learn how to bake.’ But I knew that if I was gonna create this bakery; it had to be the best bakery. And I needed to show the truest reflection of what I saw when I went to Syria and when I went to Lebanon. 

And so I spent really 10 years doing that, or 7 years doing that before I opened my bakery. And I feel super fortunate to have done it in a shorter amount of time, ’cause the food world is not kind. [Laughs.] Working in kitchens is not great. And I got to learn what is it that I want to do, and what is it that I don't want to do. So yeah, my entry into the food world was really sort of a roundabout way. It wasn't my love for food, but my love for community that sort of brought me in.

Alicia: And how did your work as a labor and community organizer influence the way that you run your restaurants? 

Reem: Yeah, it's a good question. I mean, as somebody who is a self-proclaimed anti-capitalist, to suddenly open my own bakery and become the ‘boss,’ that was a huge contradiction. And I grappled with it for a long time. I mean, I spent, prior to that, spent my time in underground campaigns to help workers sort of deliver their letter to the boss. And so I was like, ‘Ok, I'm going to be different.’

And in many ways, I think my labor organizing, seeing my workers as sort of leaders, and how do I build a team that builds the leadership of these workers to be more than just workers, right? I don't see my team as just cooks or front of house, or any of these things. And so I think, sort of having that experience of building leadership and workers as sort of nuts and bolts organizing skills really did help me and my leadership style. 

Right out of culinary school, I was really lucky enough to get a job at a pretty renowned bakery and pizzeria cooperative called Arizmendi. And so I learned what sort of participatory management and leadership looks like, in a way that I think I wouldn't have if I just reading about co-ops. 

And so I think all of those things really helped me build empathy. I mean, it's not easy to be a small business owner and I was constantly at odds with sort of the constraints of running a food business with sort of my recognition that from a workers’ rights standpoint, it's that these things have to be in place. And so it didn't make me necessarily the most profitable business in the beginning, but it was a long-term investment that I knew that I was going to build my model around sort of having a high labor line and in really investing in my workers.

Not just in wages and benefits, but also in time. We would have staff meetings, and we would pay people for their time to sort of go above and beyond. And that turned out to be really good for us. You know, we have a pretty good retention rate at Reem’s. 

And I want to say the biggest moment — and I talked about this in the piece with Tunde that you mentioned — that my workers delivered a letter to me in the midst of the pandemic. And of course, as the ‘boss,’ I could have been really scared and threatened and take it personally like, ‘Don't they know what I'm going through?’ [Laughs.

And instead, I was really proud. Yeah, I was like, ‘Ok, go, this is you stepping into your power and asking for transparency.’ This is a chance for me to kind of really check my own contradictions in sort of the role of power that I play. 

So, yeah, it's a lot of contradictions and a lot of things that I grappled with. But I think, above all, my world and community and labor organizing really helped me be a better leader. And that's kind of how I think of myself at Reem’s. And I'm still learning, but it definitely informed the way that I structured my business to really sort of center my employees first.

Alicia: And when you opened Reem’s, you told the press that you had envisioned it as a community hub. And has your understanding of the role of the restaurant in politics and community changed since that time, and especially in the pandemic?

Reem: Yes and no.

I don't think it's changed, per se. I think it's gotten more and more clear. When we opened Reem’s, or when I sort of envisioned Reem’s even 10 years ago, we weren't imagining just a restaurant, like the sort of traditional form of a restaurant. And the more and more I got — the deeper I got into the food industry, I realized that it's very short-sighted.

Alicia: I wanted to ask you about how you express political ideas and political realities through food and through the space that you have created. And how have you been successful and what do you think helps in trying to discuss issues of maybe colonization, apartheid, all these things? How do you express them through food and through a food space?

Reem: So, I think that sort of how my food sort of intersects with these larger concepts of colonialism and apartheid, I think that that is a multi-layered question. I think that just inherently my food is political, just by nature of being a generation of oppressed people who are fighting to, just for their mere existence. And so food becomes sort of a marker of our existence, our identity, in the midst of a myth that we never existed as a people. 

So the work that I do around my food is really as someone who is an exile. I'm in diaspora, as a Palestinian and Syrian, and my role is to continue sort of the generations of storytelling. Many communities that come from struggle sort of use food and other sort of cultural traditions to be able to carry that story, so that we don't forget.

But I think, in particular, being in diaspora in the U.S., which is the belly of the beast, as I would call it. The U.S. has been single handedly responsible, if not aiding and abetting, other forces of colonial rule and extraction of resources from other communities. And so if we can change the worldview of people, it's a sort of organic consciousness raising. 

Food becomes this sort of very visceral experience. If you create these conditions through food, you can break down at least some barriers to be able to have the hard conversations. And then hopefully the people who engage with my food, particularly as an Arab in this country, they could start to question, what is the role and what power do they have to hold their government responsible? I don't think that I'm going to end apartheid in Palestine through my food or anything like that. But I think that that sort of deeper level of consciousness raising is important. 

I think the second part of my work, which is a little bit more indirect, is sort of the issue of food sovereignty. Reem’s, we sit in different neighborhoods in Oakland, mostly Latinx communities, Black and brown communities. It is important to intersect the struggle that people are dealing with the forces of gentrification and being sort of cut off from their food systems, and what has helped them be resilient. We think about sort of the connections between our disconnection from our food with the disconnection of other Black and brown communities. 

And so the intersection of struggle is really important for us, and why we sort of engage in questions of food sovereignty, and how do we build resilience in communities, and fight sort of the forces of disaster capitalism.

Alicia: Yeah, no, it's interesting because I was reading about the sort of controversy that emerged over the mural you have of — and I'm not sure I'm going to say her name correctly, but Rasmea Odeh. 

And so it's interesting to me, because here in Puerto Rico, people don't know about — well, Americans, white Americans generally, or most people from America don't understand the situation with the United States. They come here because they don't need a passport, and because the money doesn't change. And they don't come here with any real understanding of the impact that the U.S. occupation and colonization of the island has had on how things are. They'll make commentary about things kind of not working properly, or not being available, or maybe the government is corrupt. 

And it's like, ‘Well, do you understand how that circumstance came to be? And do you understand why local food is far, far more expensive than imported food, and also far less abundant?’ And all these things.

And I was thinking about how there's a bar down the street from me called The Mezzanine, which is almost themed, but — as Pedro Albizu Campos, who was a very big force in, for Puerto Rican independence. And there's bullet holes there from the FBI shooting up the bar, but I don't think that anyone makes any connections about — they go there and they have a drink. Maybe they look at a newspaper article. There's no real attempt to make this real conversation happen. 

It was so interesting to read about what happened in your restaurant, because it just seemed like a different sort of acceptance that happens here and — about things, or erasure that happens here, versus that conversation kind of really coming alive and happening, which is something I would like to see, I guess. It was interesting to see that. And there's so many — there's not so many — but there are parallels between the struggles.

Reem: My experience with the sort of political backlash of — I had two ways I could have gone with that. 

One, I could have just shied away and been like, ‘my food is for everybody,’ and kind of taken that line. ‘This is just a community elder.’ But that would have been a little disingenuous. I mean, those things are true, right? My food is an inclusive space. But I think that I really pushed, by doubling down and saying, ‘I refuse to sort of hide parts of my identity,’ made my food even better and my spaces even better, because I think people are—

We're in a moment of history, because this is not the first time this has happened. And I think about resistance fighters like Nelson Mandela, and now he has the Nobel Peace Prize. Who was the first person to put him up on a wall? And same thing, I'm sure in Puerto Rico, there are moments in history where you can kind of shift people's thinking. 

But I think here in the U.S., there is definitely — I call it like Progressive Except for Palestine, the PEPs, and it's like nobody's willing to touch that. Like, ‘Yes, ok, we’ll help combat anti-Arab racism. The Muslim ban is bad.’ But when it came to Palestine, people don't want to touch it. And so I do think that I kind of play a role in that, for better or for worse, of not shying away from these things.

But it is true, Puerto Rico — I’m just so fascinated by the history there, but I think about — I often think about it as a parallel with the situation with the occupation of Palestinians, because we're — it's like 70 years now. So it's new, right? And the occupation of Puerto Rico, it's over 100 years.

Alicia: Right, by the U.S. And then before that Spain, yeah.

Reem: And the normalization of occupation is a scary thing. That's the hardest to fight. And the State of Israel, the government, they put thousands, I mean, millions of dollars into marketing campaigns. And even gastrodiplomacy is kind of their big ‘thing.’ And wow, they're putting all this money in their — they understand food is a way to pacify people and normalize it. Like, ‘Look, we're all this nice — this is like a beautiful place to visit.’ And like, ‘Don't mind what we're doing.’

They do these farm-to-table programs, and right next door they're razing farms and kicking people off land that have been connected to that land for hundreds of years. And so, the true contradictions, they're putting millions of dollars to try to normalize. And so, I'm in the business of fighting that normalization. And just talking to activists on the ground in Puerto Rico, I think that that is a part of the work, is denormalizing. 

The other thing that I always see the parallel between is the NGO-ization.

Alicia: Oh, gosh, yes. [Laughs.]

Reem: [Laughs.] Yeah, like squashed people's movements, nonprofits. And that is very apparent in the West Bank and Gaza. 

But I am really inspired by people on the ground who are building their own cooperative movements and figuring out ways to work outside of the NGOs to do that work of denormalization.This is not normal.

Alicia: It's so important to say that. But as you say that, it reminds me of this kind of, also fetishization of Palestinian ingredients in the West that has happened where it's like, ‘Oh, this is za’atar from a co-op in Palestine.’ I have za’atar from a co-op in Palestine in my pantry. I love it. But at the same time, it's like, ‘Well, what does that mean, really? And what difference does that really make?’

And someone was saying to me, ‘This olive oil is from a co-op.’ These are really fetishized ingredients and food without real conversations there. How do you feel about that, or how do you—

Reem: Glad you’re going there, I love it. [Laughter.]

I always joke, I'm like, ‘A win is a win, right? If Whole Foods is selling—’ But obviously, the pessimist in me is like, ‘Oh, they're just doing this to avoid our conversation about deshelving from Israeli products.’ Like, ‘Here’s a co-op. [Laughs.] There. Don't bother us,’ kind of thing. So, that's the pessimist side of me. 

But yeah, I grapple with that. I grapple with that even in my own identity in this age of the celebrity chef of like, ‘Oh, she's Palestinian.’ And it feels a little tokenizing. It's like, ‘Ok, but what are you gonna do about that? Are you gonna challenge the next time you see in the news about something?’

Yeah, I mean, I think it's not to take away from the fact that these things are becoming more and more sort of — I wouldn't say mainstream, but at least sort of knowledge. That's different than it was 10 years ago when I was organizing. But yeah, it's a weird place to be. I'm just so used to being on the fringes that when you — what happens when it becomes sort of the hot thing?

That really bothers me in the food world. I feel like the food media — this is something that you talk about a lot, is like, ‘What does the food media have to do with this?’ And I think absolutely in the way they shape and frame the stories that people just gravitate and repeat those frames in their heads. So yeah, we have a lot of work to do. [Laughs.]

Alicia: I mean, I think about it, as kind of say — in the same way as the media has said, ‘We are representative now and we have diversity now,’ because you put people in positions, you know? But then you do nothing politically to — or even in writing, you don't really take a political stand to say anything else. And so, yeah, it's very complicated. 

And food has such a big role to play in keeping people, as you said, from believing that occupation and colonization is normal. And I don't think that the food media necessarily is kind of holding up any sort of end of that bargain. It likes to cover chefs like you, but I don't think it likes to take it any farther than that. 

Reem: Some sort of social justice. I'm like, ‘I just need to start my own sort of ‘State of the Dough’ or something.’ Because if somebody asks me again, ‘How are we going to solve the issue of the restaurant industry?,’ I'm just gonna just go crazy, you know? 

I think not dealing with the root causes is just like, ‘You're just part of the problem. You're asking the wrong questions around what is to be done.’ And yeah, it's quite frustrating, because we don't have to tell you the answers. The answers are there. And they're just not willing to touch it, I think is the big thing. 

I don't know how controversial I was, but I was a good figure to cover for a few years. But then when we actually go down and do the work, that part is not covered. It's just the sound bites, and I'm just tired of the sound bites, you know? So I don't know if media, food media can change and will change. Hopefully, there's more folks like you who are covering the real root cause. 

But until that changes, I think that we — there has to be other ways that we — there has to be other gatekeepers. [Laughs.] Maybe we're our own gatekeepers, and we continue to do the work. Yeah, just talking about the ideas as this — almost tokenizing, it takes away agency and power from the real work that we're doing. And that is very frustrating.

I don't feel like I really accomplished my goals. Yes, I got a national platform to talk about these issues. And that is important to some extent. But it also distracted me from the real work that I was doing on the ground. So, for me, this pandemic has been a blessing in that way of like, ‘Ok, great. Za’atar is popular. Ok, what are we gonna do about it? How do I subversively use this za’atar to take it a step further?’

And the thing that I'm most proud of is when we got someone like Gabrielle Hamilton to not take an Israeli-sponsored trip. I mean, those are the wins. It's gonna take a while, and it's gonna take real organic conversations, but those are the things that are most rewarding for me is to connect with people on the real.

I did these pop-ups in New York three, four years ago. I made so many comrades in the food worlds from those pop-ups that are doing work around food sovereignty both here in the U.S. and in Puerto Rico. And Indigenous folks, that's a whole struggle that I'm only just surface level learning about and seeing the parallels. That work is — it's gonna take us. It's gonna take the people who are most impacted.

And that's kind of why we shifted gears at Reem’s. Obviously, I was on this path to this meteoric rise, as the media would say. I halted all of that. And I was like, ‘We’re gonna switch to a worker-owned cooperative.’ That's easier said than done. But we're doing the work to get there.

Alicia: Well, in ‘Let It Die,’ a short film by Tunde Wey, which kind of touches on all of these things that we're talking about, he talks to you about the differences between incremental change and revolution. And you end it by saying, ‘We need to start from zero and that some people will have to give up their privilege in the restaurant industry,’ which seems connected to you saying you're going to go to that worker co-operative model. 

So a lot of the conversation has been happening during the pandemic about maybe not focusing on the chef, maybe talking to people who work in the restaurant itself. What does that shift of power and privilege look like to you when it comes to the restaurant industry?

Reem: Yeah, I think you said it so eloquently. 

I mean, I think I included myself in that. I had to lose some power, and what — how are we going to use that power and share that power and give up some of that power in order so that we can all sort of step into our power? I used power like six times there in that sentence. 

So we were doing an apprenticeship program for our workers. And we were doing the pyramid of power yesterday. I was demonstrating it to them. And I was like, ‘What would happen if we just said, ‘While we're pressuring you to give up your power’ — ’cause we know that people in power don't give up their power freely, so there is organizing that needs to happen — ‘but while we're doing that, what if we build our own systems so we don't rely on you? We're not gonna rely on your banking institution. We're gonna build our own health care systems. We're gonna grow our own food.’ 

And I saw this spark in my team. There was an a-ha moment of, ‘We don't have to. We have power on the bottom of this pyramid, ’cause we are the foundation of it. So let's crumble this thing. Let's turn it up on its head a little bit, and cut off some of the lifelines a little bit.’ 

And so, that work has to be done on the ground level. But those of us who are sort of in the middle of that pyramid, we have a role to play to step aside to allow that work to happen. And so for me, I'm really hoping that the — we're documenting everything that we're going through at Reem’s to go through this transition, so that people can imagine. 

I think a lot of people in the food world, especially my own sort of colleagues in the industry, might be curious about this model. Might want out. It's so burdensome. The sort of pressures of capitalism are not healthy for anyone. But they might not know how to wrap their brains around how to do it. And so, we're doing a lot of work to sort of document that process. It's a process. 

And what I told my workers yesterday is just because we're pressuring those in power to give up their power doesn't mean that we're not going to replicate the same things we see. And so, there's a lot of unlearning we have to do in this next year. If we're going to turn into a cooperative, we need to learn how to be with one another and recognize even our own power and privilege within that space. 

Yeah, so a lot of work has to be done sort of on the ground level to unlearn the generations of internalized racism and all the things, all the oppressions that people, especially in the food world. I mean, the food system in general, it's majority BIPOC folks. We have internalized all these things. And so we have to unpack that a little bit and explore it and figure out what is the new model? That's just gonna take time.

And I thank Tunde every day. I never believed an incremental change, so he put some words in my mouth, just for the movement. [Laughs.] He compared me to Obama. I'm like, ‘I don't think that I was Obama.’ I understood the contradictions of being a business owner; I'm trying to just feed my family; I'm the primary breadwinner in my family. So, I understood that was a means. I didn't think that the revolutionary work that I was doing, sort of within the scope of my business — was within the scope of my business. It was more the byproducts of my business that I do, not work. Just for the record, Tunde.

But I think that I did sort of play into the — I could do side by side. And I was like, ‘Actually, no, we could be more revolutionary with our models and the economic system that we play in. And I have a role. I have knowledge. I have experience, I've seen models. I have all these tools in my toolkit, and I have all these relationships with different communities. Why don't I fast track this?’ We always wanted to be worker-owned at some point. So, all I did was fast track a vision that I already had. 

But that said, I am a little bit less wavering. And if it doesn't work, I don't want to participate in the things that were detrimental to my community. And if the contradictions become too much, I will exit. And so that's something I'm grappling with personally. But I feel really inspired by my team. They're primed for worker ownership. So that’s good. Some places aren't, because of the structures they’ve built. So everything that I built thus far sort of made it a little bit more fertile for this kind of transition, but transition is hard and it's a process. So I'm just trying to be humble, and decenter myself in it all as much as I can.

Alicia: Well, my normal final question is redundant here. I want to ask you about the phrase, ‘There's no ethical consumption under capitalism.’ I wrote a piece about ‘ethical chocolate,’ very beginner's guide, just kind of reminding people that there are still so many labor issues happening in chocolate, and that we could lose chocolate at any moment if a disease decides to attack the one species that we consume. 

So they were like, ‘But there is no ethical consumption under capitalism.’ Regarding chocolate, chocolate made from cacao, that children picked versus chocolate made from cacao that children did not pick, that the maker paid a fair price to directly to a farmer. These are actual differences, but also it is — we're still stuck in a very bad structure. And so, I wanted to ask what you thought of this phrase, generally.

Reem: Yeah, the frustrating — especially if that person hasn't worked in the industry. It’s like, ‘Ok, what kind of privilege do you have to say that?’ Yeah, I was reading your peanut butter. incident. It reminds me of that.

Yeah, I mean, we’re trying to get by. We're trying to create our systems outside the system. And there's always something. Reem’s, even in the, when it turns into a cooperative, is all, is gonna be — it's not immune from the forces of capitalism. We still got to make a profit. 

People are not going to be making a true — the only way that that will happen is if we overthrow capitalism, which is a goal. [Laughs.] In a dream world, we'd have reparations and we could build our new model from scratch. 

But until we get those reparations and have an equal playing field, we got to figure out what's the path away from capitalism. How do we build resilience? Some of that means trying to engage in more ethical ways of currency and building livelihoods for our people. 

So, yeah, I mean, that was the thing that I was struggling with in the conversation with Tunde. It feels very similar. It's like, ‘Ok, well, then what do you suppose I do?’ [Laughs.] I'm sure you deal with that as a writer. I know that capitalism is not good for my health, and I'm trying as much to kind of build that sphere of resilience for myself and my team at Reem’s. It is a process. 

But yeah, I think what we're vouching for is a complete overthrow of the system that at least we had in our little corner of the world. And hopefully, other people will catch on to that. And we see more worker ownership. We see food media actually talking to workers. We see them at the table dictating what are — they know the solutions. They're the ones who have the lived experience, right? 

But it's crazy, Alicia. Every time I get asked about these things, I even put people in touch with my employees and very rarely do they get a call. So, we have a long way to go. 

Alicia: Yeah. [Laughs.] Well, thank you so much for taking the time today.

Reem: Thank you for—