by Andrew Hermiz
When most people think of Iraqi cuisine, they usually think of their grandma or mama’s home cooking. Who’s ever heard of a master chef specializing in Iraqi food? I recently learned of a man who is trying to be just that (and much more) and jumped at the opportunity to have a conversation with him. What ended up happening is being enlightened and excited about this man’s venture and the future of Iraqi cuisine. This man is Philip Juma, an Iraqi chef living in London. He is founder and head chef of JUMA Kitchen - the culmination of all his efforts as a pop-up restaurant, food blog, and upcoming website featuring his recipes and writings.
I had a chance to talk to Philip and ask him a few questions:
Andrew: Take us on your journey of how and why you wanted to become a chef?
Philip: To take you right back to 2002, I studied Economics For Business and took the normal route into finance following my degree (2006). Cooking and food was consistently part of my life, but it was only a hobby during my time in the city. Weekends would be spent volunteering in kitchens or helping friends out on their streetfood stalls. I absolutely loved it and, in hindsight, I could see I did not have that same passion for finance. In 2011, I quit the city and decided to find my passion elsewhere. You could argue that this was my time to go full steam into restaurants and carve out my own career path, but you’d be wrong. At 27, I had it that I was too old to start out in kitchens and I wasn’t good enough. Confidence was low but the passion was still exceeding. Instead, I began working for an energy consultancy and it was there that I really began to thinking about my own streetfood/pop-up concept. I had my debut pop-up in 2012, and JUMA Kitchen was born. I’ve never looked back!
A: Why Iraqi cuisine?
P: Iraqi cuisine has been a big part of my life. My dad, from Mosul, was a huge influence on my cooking. He and my aunties showed me an array of amazing Iraqi dishes and as I got older I became more inquisitive and started cooking them myself.
From a restaurant perspective, Iraqi food was almost non-existent in London and I knew we had so much to offer. I really wanted to put that right and show people that it is a country rich in culture, heritage, and amazing flavor!
A: What is your primary mission when it comes to bringing Iraqi cuisine to the world?
P: There are two missions really:
Primarily, I want to introduce one of the world’s most under-stated cuisines, and present it in a modern and contemporary style.
It’s the most incredible feeling when people come and try ‘kubba’ for the first time in their life, and love it!
Secondly, I want to change people’s perceptions of Iraq, through food. For too long, it’s become normal for us to see Iraq in the media as a wartorn country. I aim to reinvent that stereotype and let people know the fascinating culture, heritage and flavor that Iraq has to offer.
A: What is your favorite dish?
P: Ohhhhhh.... that’s a tough one. It’s got to be dolma. All Iraqis have the ultimate recipe and think theirs is the best, or their mum does it the best. I love that. It’s also the reward that you get after spending all that time in the kitchen rolling the vine leaves and stuffing the onion shells. It’s always worth the wait.
A: Who influences you?
P: All the JUMA family. Modern chefs also, like Raymond Blanc, Phil Howard, and Nathan Outlaw. The new series Chefs Table on Netflix is really inspiring, too.
A: How can people support your cause and Iraqi cuisine in general?
P: People can come to my supper clubs and try the food. Next year, I hope to find a residency in London where people can come and try my food over a 3-6 month period. I will continue to host one-off supperclubs, which will be advertised on all my social media outlets.
Twitter/Facebook/ Instagram: @JumaKitchen
Another way to support Iraqi cuisine is to cook it and celebrate it. For all the Iraqis out there, I’m sure you’re already doing this, but bring your kulecha (date pastry) into work and hand them out or bring the left over dolma in for people to try. Just that one bite of dolma can change people’s perception. I’ve seen it.
Supperclubs in your home are another way. For those not familiar, you invite people to your home and they have an Iraqi food experience. It’s great fun! For all those not experienced in the cuisine, I will be writing a fortnightly recipe for Chaldean Post Magazine, so you can give the dishes a go yourself.
A: What are some misconceptions that you’ve faced about your ethnicity and/or that you’ve seen others make about Chaldean people in general?
P: It’s an interesting question. I remember when I first started with JUMA Kitchen, some people advised me not to have ‘Iraqi cuisine’ as my strapline. Their reasons were down to people’s perceptions of Iraq and that people might find it politically sensitive. “Middle Eastern cuisine is safer,” I remember a friend say. Luckily, I went with my gut and stayed true to the cuisine.
I have to acknowledge my own views too. At the beginning, I would not agree with my modern interpretation of the cuisine, which is totally inauthentic as I wasn’t being true to me. Now, I feel a real sense of freedom when creating or reinventing a dish. Cooking is a form of self-expression, which should only be celebrated.
Another misconception is Iraqi cuisine itself. People just don’t know what it is or they think it’s the same as Iranian or Lebanese cuisine. It’s my job to put that right and show that Iraqi cuisine has its own, unique identity.
Regarding Chaldeans, I know very little to be honest. You are the first Chaldean people that I’ve met from what I know.
May I ask what a Chaldean means to you?
A: Chaldeans, as I know and understand to be, are indigenous Aramaic-speaking people of Mesopotamia. Great question!
What are your short-term and long-term goals?
P: Short term, I’d like to find a venue that will give me a 1-3 month residency this year. I also want to finish my website by February and work in some Michelin-starred restaurants early in the year to broaden and expand my experience.
Long term, my goal is to have the world’s first, contemporary Iraqi restaurant, which celebrates and educates diners on Iraqi history and culture.
I came away very impressed, to say the least, and hopeful for the future of Iraqi cuisine. With people like Philip who are passionate about maintaining and evolving the food of our homeland, we may not need to solely rely on our mothers passing down their knowledge. The culinary world needs to be aware of Iraqi cuisine and implement it into menus everywhere. Greeks aren’t the only ones who make dolma…
Philip Juma Founder & Head Chef of JUMA
Kitchen Workplace: Worldwide Birthplace: London, UK
Family Background: EnglishIrish-Iraqi
Follow JUMA Kitchen: facebook.com/JumaKitchen Twitter and Insta: @JumaKitchen
Look for recipes from Phillip in the next issue of Chaldean Post.