Bethany Kehdy’s cooking career has followed a very unorthodox path. Born in America to a Lebanese dad and an American mom, Bethany first gained prominence by winning the Miss Lebanon beauty pageant in 2002. Later, she left the beauty and glamour world behind and decided to focus on what had been her true passion all along, cooking. eniGma’s Mahmoud Al Badry caught up with Bethany for a discussion of her non-linear career path and her unbridled love for cooking.

How did you go from Miss Lebanon to a career in cooking?
I’ve always enjoyed cooking and eating. Actually, in my Miss Lebanon profile, cooking was listed as my primary hobby. I would often invite the girls over to my house for a spread I’d have spent days cooking. So, in hindsight, my heart has always been in the kitchen and it was just a natural progression for me. I wanted my work to revolve around something I loved, and cooking was just that and more for me.

Describe the pleasure you get out of it.
Cooking serves a lot of purposes for me; the primary pleasure comes with the end result, in being able to eat something delicious prepared just how you like it; and in the same breath, being able to share that pleasure with the ones you love. Cooking is also therapeutic for me. The kitchen is a place where I can get lost in my thoughts, keeping my fidgety hands occupied. The kitchen is a creative outlet for me.

What is the constant factor you seek to incorporate in your dishes?
I like to incorporate a sense of familiarity and comfort in my dishes. They make me, and perhaps those eating them, feel a sense of rootedness and belonging. The flavours I seek are subtle and mingle with one another, not boisterous and overpowering. I like to think my cooking style is homey with an understated elegance.

How important is variety when it comes to cooking?
I think when cooking, the focus should be on cooking to satiate the body’s craving. The body is a great communicator and I believe that cooking and eating for how you feel is underrated. Most people end up eating things because it’s what they should be eating, or it’s what everyone else is eating and that doesn’t end up making them happy or satiated. So, I think variety and exploring new flavours and cuisines is always going to be enlightening and inspiring, but really at the end of the day, cooking should be a manifestation of what your body and mind are asking for.

When preparing a meal, what is the best way to compensate for missing ingredients or less than ideal cooking circumstances?
Ah, cooking is and should always be open to improvisation- that is often when the best dishes come to life! Historically, cooking has been led by the seasons and what was available. People didn’t trek across town to a specialist shop to find a specific ingredient to make a certain dish go from ‘ok’ to ‘wow’. To compensate for missing ingredients, I think you should simply use the best ingredients available to you during a specific season. Don’t compromise to compensate. And also, keep a well-stocked pantry!

What is the best way for cooks to add their own touch on iconic, tried and tested recipes?
There is no accounting for taste, and every individual has his own preference. I think it’s important to understand the root of a recipe, especially if one is working with a classical/historical cuisine. You should not hesitate to apply your own touch inspired by your individual taste. You are very likely going to be influenced by where you are living and the season in which you are cooking, amongst other things.

In your book, The Jewelled Kitchen, why did you choose to focus on Lebanese, Moroccan, and Persian dishes?
The Jewelled Kitchen focuses on the cuisine of the region. It’s an introductory book on that cuisine, covering the more famous and lesser known classics. I believe there is a link between many of the dishes shared across the region which I highlight and discuss further in my upcoming book.

What lies ahead for your cooking career?
More cooking and the realization of other exciting projects that have been slowly simmering behind the scenes.