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Page last updated at 08:50 GMT, Thursday, 20 August 2009 09:50 UK

Top chef tickles Iraqi taste buds

By Natalia Antelava
BBC News, Baghdad

Chef Firas
Chef Firas knows Iraq's TV celebrities can face heightened risk from violence

Its early morning in Baghdad, and the smell of fried onions and meat fills the television studios - a sure sign that Good Morning Iraq is live on air.

The daily breakfast show on state television is the way that many people in Iraq start their day and some tune in for just one reason - to learn the culinary secrets of Iraq's best known chef.

Every morning, the round face of Chef Firas pops up on screens across the country.

"For me this is about creativity, about inspiration," he says during the programme break. "In Iraq many people don't realise that cooking can be creative and fun."

But it was not fun, Chef Firas says, when he first began his career back in the days of Saddam Hussein. He started as a trainee, in the kitchen of a posh restaurant of one of Baghdad's hotels. But it was not Iraq's late dictator, he says, that he feared most.

"Our chef was a Scottish man, and he was so tough with us that we feared him more than we feared Saddam. But he was very good and I learned a lot from him," Chef Firaz says.

The 2003 invasion, he says, expanded his culinary horizons even further. He got a job cooking for an American logistics company.

"I was suddenly exposed to other chefs from many parts of the world - and to all the new spices that they brought with them, it was very interesting."

Good Morning Iraq studios
Many citizens begin their day with Good Morning Iraq on al-Iraqia TV

Because of the security risks, it was not easy for him, he says, to accept the job at the Iraqi State TV.

"Iraqi TV offered me the job twice, but twice I declined because it was too dangerous," he says.

The offers came at the time when TV celebrities faced a serious risk of being killed, or kidnapped. Two of Chef Firas's predecessors fled the chaos of the war for the United States.

Sectarian fighting raged on the streets of Dora, his neighbourhood in Baghdad - coming to work, and especially being seen on TV, carried an enormous risk. But finally, Chef Firas agreed.

He has had no regrets, he says.

'Woman's work'

His programme stands out from what normally fills the air time in Iraq: the news of violence, trouble and political upheavals.

"What I do is important, it makes people smile," he says.

Luna
The glamorous Luna helps with unsolicited advice on what to do in the kitchen

"For me the best thing is that even people in poor areas watch me and try to cook what I recommend. Even the ones who have a very difficult life," he says. "Sometimes when I am out in the streets, I feel embarrassed. It seems that everyone loves me."

And it's the women who love him most.

On the show, the chef has a self-appointed adviser - the glamorous presenter Luna. Her input is important, as she represents the majority of his fans. In Iraq, women dominate kitchens, and Luna hopes that with Chef Firas's help they may get men to help out a bit more.

"Iraqi men are not like European men," Luna says. "They are not interested in cooking. But Chef Firas is so charming, so funny that even men watch his shows."

Chef Firas may be contributing to the culinary education of the Iraqi men, and he is certainly the king of his on air kitchen, but at home he admits to being just another man.

"At home I rarely go into the kitchen. I don't even make myself a cup of tea," he says.

"In Iraq we believe that men should provide the money, and women are in charge of homes. That's the way it should be," he adds.

As the broadcast comes to the end, everyone in the studio rushes to the kitchen to have a taste of Chef Firas's latest dish - grilled lamb and vegetables.

"I mostly cook Iraqi dishes," Chef Firas explains. "I teach how to cook lamb in different ways, and rice, or our delicious Iraqi chicken soup."

"But sometimes I also make European dishes, although I always add an Eastern touch to them, or a bit of our local spice to make it more familiar."

His personal favourite? A pepper steak, he mutters, as he tucks into his food.

As Good Morning Iraq comes off air, another day begins in Baghdad. The morning show is often followed by more depressing news of violence and deaths. And this is why for many in Iraq, watching Chef Firas isn't just about cooking. It's also a nicer, lighter way to start the day.



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