As this operation carries on under the leadership of Mr. Mouzawak’s business partner, Christine Codsi, Mr. Mouzawak is building anew in France, with Tawlet Paris, a canteen and grocer which opened this month in the 11th arrondissement.
During the restaurant’s opening week, Mr. Mouzawak talked about his journey from one market to many, his feelings about leaving Lebanon — a former French mandate — and how food can unite.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What was your goal when you started Souk el Tayeb?
I was trying to change the world. I still want to change the world! It’s not that I decided to do it, I just followed a stream. Nothing I’ve done in my life has been with long term planning. During the war, Lebanon was divided into small parts, each unreachable from the others. But when the war ended, the whole country opened. I traveled for more than a year to write a guidebook about Lebanon and discovered this country I heard about, but could never visit. I was not only amazed by its natural beauty but by the link between the people I met. Whether Christian, Muslim or Druze, we were all the same. I went to meet people with open arms, and they had even wider arms. Then, I wrote about travel and food, learned about macrobiotics and slow food, joined the board of the Slow Food organization for several years, and knew food was the way to unite.
Why a farmer’s market?
I always dreamed of a farmer’s market for Lebanon like the one I visited in Trabzon, Turkey, with only women farmers. They bring whatever they have in their garden or have foraged. It’s very simple. Wherever I go, I visit farmer’s markets because that’s where you discover the people. The products wouldn’t exist without the people who grow them. It was the same idea with Tawlet. What’s behind a restaurant? Humans who grew the ingredients, who brought them to you, who cleaned, cooked and served them. Everything I do is about inclusive human development and betterment.
Why do you think it took off?
Perhaps because we spoke to something that people missed: Simplicity, authenticity and truth. It was food, without all the storytelling and marketing. It’s a person selling their food and that’s it. Also we’ve never stopped running Souk el Tayeb, not even during conflicts. For us, resistance wasn’t fighting, resistance was holding the farmer’s market no matter what. Because if the producers didn’t sell on Saturday, they didn’t have money for the week to come.