Breaking – and inspiring – bread

Acre chef Alaa Musa traded the peaceful Stockholm streets for the crazy Middle East, hoping to infuse his port city’s cuisine with European style to feed both Arabs and Jews.

Acre chef Alaa Musa (photo credit: ALAA MUSA)
Acre chef Alaa Musa
(photo credit: ALAA MUSA)
Chef Alaa Musa embarked on his culinary journey at the age of 15, working as a dishwasher. His life’s trajectory has since taken him from Acre to Stockholm and taught him that ultimately there is no place like home.
Though both Stockholm and Acre are located near the water, this is where the resemblance between the two cities ends. The capital of Sweden is a clean European metropolis known for its culture and trendsetting restaurants. On the other hand, Acre is a small town on the northern periphery of Israel and is inhabited by both Jews and Arabs.
Musa is a chef whose restaurant fuses European and traditional Palestinian cuisines. Despite his young age, only 31, he had already accumulated years of experience in the kitchen.
Even as a teenager, Musa knew that cooking was his passion. Starting as a dishwasher at the famous Uri Buri restaurant, he moved up the ladder of success, first to the big hotels in Eilat, then to a restaurant in Tel Aviv, where he was the chef. Eventually, Musa arrived in Stockholm, working at the city’s most prestigious restaurants.
A whole new culture of cooking
At the age of 22, while most people his age feel their future is still blurry, Musa was ready to take his career as a chef one notch further and extend his culinary experience. The ambitious young man, who studied at the Dan Gourmet Fine Culinary Arts Cooking Center in Haifa and worked at the Royal Beach Hotel in Eilat and as a sous chef at the Carmela Banahal restaurant in Tel Aviv, found his way to Michelin- starred restaurants in Stockholm.
“A family visit to Stockholm in 2006 changed my life. I arrived in Sweden to visit my cousin but fell in love with a Swedish girl and decided to stay. I realized that there would be more opportunities for me to develop as a chef in Sweden than in Israel,” Musa states.
“The first opportunity came along when I auditioned at the renowned French restaurant Operakellaren. This led to my first job in Stockholm.
“I had the opportunity to cook with top-quality ingredients and seafood such as lobsters, oysters and fish. Just as thrilling, I was able to work side by side with legends such as Stefano Catenacci, considered one of the top chefs in Sweden.
It is more than I ever dreamed of,” he says with a smile.
The culinary experience included molecular cooking at the European fusion restaurant F12 and French cuisine at La Rose.
“These restaurants exposed me to a whole new culture of cooking, demanding of me high levels of creativity and a professional attitude. We used the finest ingredients, such as blue lobsters and white truffles, to create incredible dishes, some of which comprised 12 different elements.
There was a certain way to present the food on the plate – first comes the vegetable puree, topped with the main dish, and finally the illustrations. It seems that every dish is treated as a work of art,” he explains.
When asked about the struggles along the way, Musa admits that it was mainly the cold weather.
“The first winter was extremely harsh due to the short days and darkness that descends right in the middle of the day.
As the days grew longer and warmer, I began to think that I could just jump into the ocean. Was I mistaken! I nearly froze to death!” he laughs.
“While I made a few friends, people in Sweden are different. They tend to mind their own business. For instance, on the subway passengers tend to keep their heads down in order to avoid eye contact. I lived in a building for three years and didn’t know any of my neighbors,” he adds.
Home is where the heart (and happiness) is
Maybe it was the cold weather, the introverted people or a visit to Israel: Musa realized it was time to go home.
However, going back to Acre would be a struggle. He returned to a town stuck in an ’80s time warp, culinary-wise, with most of the town’s restaurants serving the familiar combination of hummus, French fries and grilled meat/fish.
It was time for a change, and it was up to Musa to bring it about.
“My vision was to combine the authentic traditional cuisine with the modern new-age style I experienced in Sweden. I aspired to teach people about a different attitude toward food and introduce them to fine cuisine.”
This revolution in taste is obvious to anyone who peruses the menu of El-Marsa (“anchor”), the restaurant Musa opened at Acre’s old city port together with his partner and childhood friend Marwan Sawaed.
The menu includes dishes that combine Palestinian tradition with a touch of Western European finesse, such as seafood kubbeh (semolina dumpling usually stuffed with meat), veal carpaccio along with “baladi” eggplant, pickled anchovies, creamed mussels, coquilles Saint Jacques, alongside tabbouleh and fattoush salads and herbs and more. It is obvious that the marketplace and the sea are felt in every single dish.
“When I walk through the market, I know everyone and it feels like home.
With people shouting and even cursing on the streets, I sometimes find myself missing Sweden. After experiencing Swedish tranquility, I wish there was a way to put some order in this place,” he smiles.
Israel is a country constantly on the verge of war; and with the violent acts that occur on a daily basis, keeping a normal routine at a restaurant is almost impossible. When the streets bleed, no one feels like dining out. The first blow occurred last summer, during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza. For two months, Musa’s restaurant stood almost empty. Nowadays, the sad situation is repeating itself.
“The city is empty and no one comes to the market,” says Musa, adding: “The Arab and Jewish residents of the city keep a distance, and it seems like this crisis will never end. Still, I need to keep the restaurant open and pay my workers, since they depend on me, even as our profits are vanishing.”
Encouraging the people to dine outside
Some initiatives, like the Facebook campaign Eatifada, started as a response to the violence in the streets, encouraging people to go out and dine outside, especially in mixed cities like Jerusalem and Acre.
Musa’s restaurant also initiated an event in cooperation with three other market restaurants – Marketo, Savida and Kokushka, owned by Israeli-Jewish chefs – to show that Jews and Arabs can live and work together.
“It was a special tasting menu event that provided the opportunity to enjoy exquisite food and support the market,” explains Omri Shahar, chef of Marketo.
“We were surprised by the positive reaction of the public and also of the media, as both Channel 10 and Channel 2 were eager to cover the event. It shows that most people simply want to live and work in peace.”
Yet even through these difficult times, Acre was recently declared as the culinary capital of the North. New restaurants are regularly being established throughout the outdoor market, with chefs coming all the way from Tel Aviv to be a part of this intoxicating cultural maze. In the past year, the ancient bazaar has developed into a major culinary attraction, with innovative eateries sprouting up beside traditional Oriental establishments.
All that remains for the ending of this story to be a happy one is some peace and quiet.
“I am glad that more chefs like me are coming up to Acre, and I welcome them with open arms. We have a great country, and I only wish we could have some peace and quiet like the Swedish people have. If we wouldn’t have these constant problems, life could be great.”