How does an Iraqi chef say “kick it up a notch”?
Ask Khaldoon Al-Khazaali. As the host of Iraq’s first TV cooking show, he’s been the closest thing to celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse there. This week, Emeril’s alma mater, Johnson & Wales University, is hosting Al-Khazaali for a cultural exchange.
The energetic and telegenic 24-year-old chef is looking for a new job, too. He left his show and Iraq — after, he says, escaping a kidnapping and subsequent attempt on his life.
Al-Khazaali learned an appreciation for food early, starting his culinary education at his mother’s elbow at age 6.
“Cooking is art,” he said through a translator. “It’s like painting a portrait, but it’s even closer to a human being because you’re consuming that art. It will feed you — body and soul.”
He spent four years as a chef at the ritzy Al-Rashid Hotel before he answered an ad seeking a TV cooking show host for the state-run Iraqiya television.
Al-Khazaali was selected partially because of his good looks, he concedes, but he also had a hard-to-find combination of confidence, the right Arabic accent and knowledge of different kinds of cuisine. He became Iraq’s first TV chef when the show, called “Bilafya,” began in 2005.
Later, the network incorporated his show into a new one — “Good Morning Iraq” and his 25-minute cooking segment ran live six days a week.
He’d often make traditional Iraqi meals reworked with techniques borrowed from French, Chinese or Spanish cookbooks. Or, he’d modify dishes he learned from his mother.
One thing we all have in common: A love of creamDuring his visit to Johnson & Wales, Al-Khazaali has demonstrated some of his dishes, talking and cracking jokes all the while about overweight Iraqis and Americans who all seem to like cream.
Thamir Ibrahim, a producer at the network, said Al-Khazaali’s camera presence was excellent and the audience liked him.
While it might seem strange for Iraq to have a cooking show amid chaos and violence, Al-Khazaali said the culinary arts are essential to a happy life, and a cooking show can transport people to a better world for a while.
“If you eat right, you live right,” he said.
The threats against Al-Khazaali began a few months after he began working at Iraqiya, he said. They would come in letters left on his windshield or delivered to his home, and would demand he leave a network that was supported by the occupying Americans.
One day, he said he was dragged out of his car and into another. He said he escaped by jumping out of the vehicle as it turned upon approaching a group of Iraqi National Guard soldiers.
He continued the show until a few months ago, when, as he was getting out of his car near a market, he was shot at, he said. He hit the ground, crawled to his car and escaped. He said he never did the show again.
Ibrahim said Al-Khazaali left the show in January, but did not give an explanation. He has since been replaced by a new chef.
Since then, Al-Khazaali has moved to Damascus, Syria, where he is living with friends. He’s had trouble getting work there, even though he is sometimes recognized there as the TV chef from Iraq.
Karl Guggenmos, the dean of culinary education of Johnson & Wales, worked for months to bring the young chef to the United States after reading about him in USA Today last year, when Al-Khazaali was still on the air.
He said he wanted to focus on the positive — using food as a way of bringing people together, teaching his students about other cultures and appreciating the passion that Al-Khazaali has for food.
“In my profession, food has always been a medium of touching people,” Guggenmos said. “It’s a global language that we speak. I believe more friendships and more relationships can be put together by sitting around and having a meal than anything else.”