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Failure Is a Privilege

Chef Reem Assil on creating a culinary field that makes room for true innovation

Reem Assil speaks at the Eater Young Guns Summit.
Reem Assil at the Eater Young Guns Summit.
Alyssa Ringler

On July 27, 2019, chef Reem Assil gave a talk about failure at the Eater Young Guns Summit in Brooklyn. Assil, known for her work at Reem’s in Oakland, California, recently split with business partner Daniel Patterson and walked away from Dyafa, the acclaimed restaurant they opened together. The following is a lightly edited transcript from her presentation.

When I was younger, I wanted to be an actress. I’m a true performer at heart. It’s something that gives me utmost joy, being able to make people smile and feel connected, even if it makes me feel vulnerable. It’s not easy to put on seamless magic shows and amazingly produced music videos, but I did it day in and day out. You can make mistakes, you can forget your lines, and, worst of all, you can say everything right and still not captivate your audience.

Up until the age of 13, that wasn’t an issue for me. I didn’t care. I’m not sure what the turning point was, but fear of failure sunk in deep. I think for some of us who come from immigrant families who gave up a lot to be in the U.S., there’s this unintentional pressure of being the best, of being perfect, so that we could take advantage of those opportunities.

Maybe it was the fact that by the age of 13 I was reminded of my otherness, whether it was in school or in my community or in my neighborhood. That tactic of playing it safe, just doing whatever you could do to fit in, was the way to go. If I were to analogize my life to a baseball game, for instance, I was on a winning baseball team, but I was always in the dugout, always on deck, and luckily never had to step up to bat for fear of striking out.

The fear of not ever stepping up to the bat morphed into a severe obsession with perfection. No room for failure. But as we know, it’s a cold, hard world out there. Even when you try to blend in, even when you try to play it safe, life is going to hand you those challenges. For me as the eldest of my family, the first of my generation here in the U.S., those challenges started to mount and mount and mount, until I internalized all that pressure.

This is a survival tactic. It’s one that many of us use. It’s not surprising. This is a very unforgiving society. The pressures of capitalism, of having to succeed, of being not in community; a lot of us are isolated. It serves us. It served me for a long time until it no longer did.

I really wanted to think about those times that I fell apart that actually helped me — so that when I put myself back together, I could get closer to that 10-year-old who wanted to perform and be vulnerable. So I’m going to give a few snippets.

2002 is the year that I gave up an expensive college education to stay alive, and to heal through food. I remember the night in Boston I decided that I was not going back to school. I wanted to tap out, to escape. This was on the backdrop of 9/11. My parents had just gotten a divorce. School was overwhelming. There was a lot going on, but I didn’t even know it. What I did know was that if I walked up to the steps of that school the following day, that I would not be alive. I remember shaking my mom, waking her up and saying, “I’m not going back. I’m leaving.”

A few weeks later, I decided California was the place and I was fortunate that my aunt and uncle took me in. The U.S. had just invaded Iraq. Being in the Bay Area, I learned about anti-war activism. I learned about speaking up against injustice — my whole life I’ve been wanting to speak up and didn’t know how.

Reem Assil makes za’atar man’oushe at Reem’s in Oakland.
Reem Assil makes za’atar man’oushe at Reem’s in Oakland.
Patricia Chang

Flash forward to 2010. California was the place for me. I was going to be a badass organizer. I was at the height of my career and my parents were worried about me because I was making no money, working 80-hour weeks, fighting the good cause.

While California was integral to my journey, it also was sobering. Year after year of fighting on the front lines for the voices of other people, I felt like I had lost my voice. I became depressed because I had lost my ability to imagine what we were actually fighting for, to imagine what that better world could look like.

I do things in dramatic fashion. I left my job. I left my home. I left a partnership of six years. But luckily, because of the privilege that I had, I had a chance to go back to the homeland with my father. We went to Syria and Lebanon and it was there in my grief, mourning my identity, which was so attached to being an organizer, that I realized the resilience of my people. It was walking into the street corner bakeries in Beirut where I realized that my people have created food spaces for centuries. You wouldn’t know there’s political turmoil outside those doors because of the life that’s created in these food spaces. And suddenly I felt alive.

I came back. After 10 years in organizing, I started my career in food. I enrolled myself in a baking and pastry program. I cut my teeth in a bakery, that 4 a.m. life, for five years. I was just hustling until I developed big baker cysts in the back of my knees and was out for quite a while.

But again, in that time I was fortunate that I had a community helping me — I had been talking about Reem’s for a very long time, and they helped me manifest that. I found an organization, La Cocina, to help me write a business plan and think about what it would take to run a restaurant.

I didn’t realize this until graduating from that program, but La Cocina was really about the privilege of failure. It allowed me to discover what exactly I wanted Reem’s to be, the truest to my vision and values, and to make mistakes without feeling the economic brunt of starting a business.

At some point I was doing my business and working five other jobs. I was not sleeping, I was grinding. There were so many times that I was sitting in the La Cocina office telling them I wanted to throw in the towel. But every time I wanted to quit, La Cocina would throw resources my way — and not a lot of people get that opportunity.

I was really lucky to have that. So I fought through wanting to quit. I fought through that fatigue, that isolation of trying to run this business. I took the leap of faith, I quit all my other gigs, and I went all in. We opened a restaurant, Reem’s, in 2017.

Flash forward to 2018: the year I faced death threats, delivered a nine-pound baby, and opened another restaurant.

Most people on the outside were talking about Reem’s as this meteoric rise to success. They’re not talking about the 10 years that I put in to get there. There were a whole slew of mistakes, failures, and challenges. I was probably the most depressed in my life when I opened that restaurant. I was the happiest and most depressed. It was a weird dichotomy. Opening the restaurant and finding you’re pregnant was not the best introduction to the year, but it was what it was.

But to compound that, when I didn’t know if Reem’s was going to make it and I barely had any money to open the restaurant, I was waking up to phone calls and emails of death threats, calling me a terrorist because I had a Palestinian activist on my wall. That shook me to my core. It brought me back to my 13-year-old self who said, Why didn’t you just blend in? Just don’t take up space and then you won’t have to deal with this.

I grappled with that for a whole year, but the turning point was my community having my back. They said to me, we know who you are, we know what your restaurant is all about. They organized eat-ins at my restaurant, putting their bodies on the line when people showed up at my restaurant to antagonize me — mind you, eight months pregnant, then — and to antagonize my customers. They saved me.

I don’t think that my restaurant would have survived that had I not had that community. A year later, Food & Wine named us a top 10 restaurant in the country. So clearly, my community was much larger than I thought.

Failure is always going to steer you off course, make you doubt yourself, and maybe meander away from your true self. If you don’t have your community to hold you accountable to what your values are, it’s easy to get swept away in that.

Reem Assil and her son.
Reem Assil and her son.
Patricia Chang

Now, I know you want to hear about how I opened a restaurant two weeks after I had a baby, with the Patterson Group, only to leave that partnership a year later. Many of you probably think, she’s crazy — and you’re so right. I was crazy. But sometimes you make decisions based on that tactic: going back again, of playing it safe, of doing what is going to help you survive.

I stand by my decisions. I do not regret any of them. But I learned so much in those partnerships of who’s allowed to fail and who’s not.

Which brings me to my final point: Failure is a privilege. We valorize it, we romanticize it, especially in the Bay Area, the heart of Silicon Valley. The more you fail, the more money you’re given and the more successful you are — especially if you’re in tech or you’re a white, straight male with a lot of VC money. You can fail. You’re actually celebrated for that. And yet we expect people with less means to get it right the first time, all the time.

There’s a double standard there. Where I stand in society, I had privilege and access in some areas and not in others. This journey of failure taught me not to take those privileges for granted. Obviously I struggled with being the only one in the room a lot of times, and that feeling of having a stunted voice. But I also had the privilege of language.

I understood why Arab communities all across the country were not calling their food Arab. They were calling their food Mediterranean and Middle Eastern because they could not afford the backlash on their businesses, should they put themselves out there. They simply could not afford it financially.

That is a privilege I have as someone who is college educated, who had a family to fall back on when I was jobless, depressed, and hopeless. I do not take that for granted. The success I’ve had at Reem’s is due in part to the community that surrounded me, the other women chefs who came before me, who paved the way. It was because of organizations like La Cocina, who mitigated my financial risk.

What I want to think about when we think about failure is, What do we need to be working towards for true innovation? For building a world where more people are allowed to fail so that we can get closer to our true selves? This world will look a lot more beautiful, and the food world will definitely be a lot more delicious.

For me, in the role that I play as a food entrepreneur, that means creating economic self-sufficiency for my employees, giving them space to fail, building their leadership inside and outside the restaurant, and growing my enterprise so that I mitigate that risk for them to keep growing, and failing, and growing. I have a role to play in helping us all envision what that world looks like, never losing our ability to imagine. As a gatekeeper and resource, I have a responsibility to give back to the people who helped me get where I am here today, to shine light on organizations like La Cocina, like FoodLab Detroit. And to be investing in those resources, because it’s going to take all of us.

If we all fail individually, we’re not going to get anywhere. It’s going to take all of us or none of us. So thank you for being on this journey with me.

Reem Assil is the chef and owner of Reem’s in Oakland, California.