Chef volunteer Henriette Hajjar brings to Cooking Matters her fusion style of cooking, her boundless energy and her passion for helping the community. She signed up to volunteer just a couple of months ago and is already teaching her second class. When asked why she got involved, she says, "I felt responsible to answer the call and go for it and help. It is beautiful to give and share the gift that you have been blessed with, especially when you share it with someone who doesn’t have it and this is why I did decide to get involved in Cooking Matters." Not only is the caterer working on a new restaurant as well as volunteering with Chefs Move to Schools, she is also a mom. The busy chef took a break to answer some of our questions.
You have lived in many different parts of the world. Can you tell us a little about where you have lived and how and when you ended up in Michigan? Where are you originally from? Aleppo (Syria – Middle East ) is my home town, where I was born to an Italian Armenian Mom and Palestinian Dad ……. I lived in Syria for a while then the family decided to move to Turkey, where i learned a lot about their cuisine and the fantastic authentic food that they have. Also I lived in Athens, Greece, where I felt in love with their cooking and the simple dishes that they have. Then I lived in Jordan for a while there too. That was my last station before I moved permanently to Michigan when I got married and I had to follow my heart and settle down in Michigan, which I love a lot.
When did you start cooking? Why did you go into culinary arts? My love of food began when I was a child, as I grew up in a family filled with cooking and parties … I was born and raised in an Arabic/Italian/Armenian family where food is one of the most important pillars in the family and community. I hold my mother responsible for inspiring me to become a chef. She loved my way and insisted to let me help and cook for the family so every weekend my duty in the house was to go shopping for groceries with my mom and come home, clean, cut, organize and cook for family and friends. Having a restaurant business in my mom’s family made it easy for me to go and help on the weekend and after school. My love for cooking was so obvious to everybody in the family .
Tell us a little bit about your restaurant and the plans for your next restaurant. My previous restaurant, Flairs Mediterranean Fusion, is a new generation of Mediterranean food (Fusion): balanced, fresh and very high-quality ingredients in a comfortable atmosphere. Our menu covered the Mediterranean region fusing Italian, French, Moroccan, Armenian, Middle Eastern, Greek and more.
The new restaurant that I am working on is Skewers Plus: the whole idea is to go fresh and healthy with natural cooking on the charcoal for simple and delicious food.
I know you are involved with the Chefs Move to Schools initiative. At which school do you work? How long have you been involved? What does your work there entail? What are the future plans/goals? I am at Deerfield Elementary School in Novi. I have been involved in Chefs Move to Schools since 2011. What I do is prepare the dish that the students are going to try for that specific day, introducing the new MyPlate, talk about a new healthy way of eating, educate them nutritionally, let them try the sample that we made and see their reaction to the new food that we are presenting that day.
Why did you decided to get involved in Cooking Matters? As an active member in my community I felt responsible to answer the call and go for it and help. It is beautiful to give and share the gift that you have been blessed with, especially when you share it with someone who doesn’t have it and this is why I did decide to get involved in Cooking Matters. Helping others and seeing them happy makes me happy too.
What do you like best about volunteering? In my volunteering I am learning a lot as much as I am teaching. I love meeting new people, being exposed to a different environment, and seeing the others happy for what I give.
Is there a specific moment or highlight from a class you have done so far that is most memorable to you? Yes ….my previous class (at ACCESS) was hilarious, loved the group and their culture and the funny thing ... is they were so excited to cut and chop and prep the food even before me explaining what we need to do … I had a great time.
Can you share with us your favorite healthy, budget-friendly recipe with us? Simple Tomato Sauce Preparation Time: 10 min Cooking Time: 15 min Ingredients • 2 cups chopped tomato • 1 teaspoon basil, chiffonade • 1/2 teaspoon garlic • 1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning • 1/3 teaspoon black pepper • 1/3 teaspoon salt • 1/2 tablespoon olive oil • ½ cup of parmesan cheese • Enough wheat pasta for two
Instructions 1. Put olive oil and garlic in pan. Cook on medium heat until garlic is slightly brown. 2. Add chopped tomato, basil, Italian seasoning, black pepper and salt. 3. Cook on medium heat for about 15 minutes. 4. Cook pasta according to package directions. 5. Add cooked pasta to the tomato sauce and stir for couple of minutes. 6. Serve hot with sprinkle of parmesan cheese.