Aline Kamakian rules the Armenian restaurant space with a not-so-secret mission
If cuisine is an advertisement for a nation’s culture, Aline Kamakian is Armenia’s Ambassador Extraordinaire. Chef and co-owner of Beirut’s renowned Armenian restaurant, Mayrig, Kamakian’s self-described mission is to celebrate and share Armenian culture with the world. The first restaurant anywhere to rely exclusively on traditional recipes preserved by the Armenian diaspora that fled the Ottoman Empire at the start of the 20th century, Mayrig is helping put Armenian cuisine on the world map. “Through our food, we express who we are,” Kamakian says proudly. “Our food is a way to experience our origins, to relive the positive side of the land where we come from.”
An Armenian term of affection that translates to “little mother,” Mayrig is inspired by Kamakian’s own grandmother Manouchag’s traditional Armenian cooking. Located inside an old stone house at the quiet end of one of Beirut’s liveliest downtown streets, the restaurant’s warm and inviting Armenian atmosphere is a favorite of celebrities, locals and tourists alike. Behind every savory signature dish, such as Mante, Sou Beureg or Wild Cherry Kebab, a powerful tale of an ancient culture and an indomitable spirit of perseverance is waiting to be told. “There aren’t many who are willing to read a depressing book about the Genocide. But who isn’t curious when biting into a rice Kebbe or indulging in a crispy Mante with creamy yoghurt?,” Kamakian asks. “Our clients ask a hundred questions: where are the recipes from? How come many names are in Turkish? Is this what people eat in the Armenian republic? I think that food is one of the richest mediums to communicate to both the younger generation of Armenians and to outsiders.”
Combined with world-famous Armenian hospitality, the formula proved to be a recipe for success for this highly ambitious entrepreneur, who has since opened another Armenian restaurant in Beirut, Batchig, and expanded the Mayrig concept with franchises in Dubai, Riyadh, Yerevan and in the Four Seasons Luxury Resort in the Maldives. Integral to that success has been not only Kamakian’s talents in the kitchen and passion for Armenian cuisine, but a razor sharp business acumen.
After her father passed away when Aline was 17 years old, she took a job in the insurance industry to finance her university education. Graduating with a Master’s degree in both Finance and Marketing from Université Saint Joseph, Kamakian began her career as an insurance broker before launching her own company, IIC, one of Lebanon’s leading Brokerage firms. She never forgot her father’s dream of one day opening up a restaurant in Lebanon that celebrated his rich Armenian culinary heritage. “I kept hoping that one day I would be able to realize my father’s dream, so when the occasion presented itself,” she says, “I jumped on it.”
Today Kamakian is considered one of Lebanon’s leading entrepreneurs and a role model for women in business. Named the 2014 Woman Entrepreneur of the Year during the nationally televised Brilliant Lebanese Awards, she is an active board member of the Lebanese Franchise Association and the LLWB—the Lebanese League of Women in Business—where she serves as an inspiration to aspiring women entrepreneurs seeking to follow her lead in breaking barriers for women in the financial sector.
Recognition and reward, however, have never been the standards by which Kamakian measures professional success. “Profit should be a consequence,” she says, “but not the purpose.” Her own career goals are instead rooted in a desire to help preserve her Armenian culinary heritage. In 2011 she embarked on a journey to her ancestral homeland of Cilicia in present day Eastern Turkey in order to research and gather forgotten Armenian recipes for her popular cookbook, Armenian Cuisine. “When our grandparents fled their homes in the beginning of the 20th century, they couldn’t take anything with them. They often lived for years in extreme poverty and still they remembered the flavors and aromas of their parents’ cuisine. They searched for the seeds of herbs and vegetables that they planted in their new host countries and mothers remembered the recipes or kept the recipe book of their mothers.”
It isn’t easy to safeguard a culture in exile. Just as language, history, religion and art are all elements that help to maintain an identity, I think that food is as important for Armenians; it offers us, over and over again, the occasion to gather with family and friends, share the aromas, remember our origins and reconnect to the stories of our ancestors.
Those stories have served as a powerful source of motivation throughout Kamakian’s career, molding her into who she is today. “There would be no Mayrig without this,” she insists. “It is the driving force that gets me out of bed on difficult days, it is the passion that keeps me going and inspires every important decision I take. I find so much hope and strength in our history. We went through the worst and here we stand, not as victims or beggars, but as great artists, leaders and courageous entrepreneurs. It teaches me to take pride in my origins yet not be arrogant, to hold on to our values and culture yet not be conservative, to move forward yet never forget where we came from.”
Honoring that legacy also means giving back to her community through several channels, including her AGBU family. A veteran AGBU member by the time she was 20 years old, she helped launch the Beirut chapter of AGBU Young Professionals (YP) group, remains actively involved in AYA Scouting movement and, whenever possible, helps mentor other members of her AGBU family. “I used to cook at our scout camp,” she proudly remembers, “grilling food over the nightly fire after a day spent learning how to be independent and mastering leadership skills.” Today, Kamakian continues to work with AGBU, recently as a mentor to aspiring female entrepreneurs participating in the AGBU Women Entrepreneurs (W.E.) Program.
Outside of AGBU, Kamakian volunteers to teach cooking classes to students and is working to establish an Armenian hospitality school that will provide training in Armenian cuisine in Yerevan. She encourages aspiring chefs hoping to open their own restaurant to never give up their dream no matter how challenging it gets, never be afraid to ask for help to navigate the pitfalls of the restaurant industry and the challenges of operating a successful franchise, and, above all, to care for customers and staff as if they were your own children. “I believe people are the most important element in a restaurant,” she says, “and this is why I invest a lot in them. While this might not make you a wealthy entrepreneur, at least it will make you a happy one.”
For Kamakian, there is no greater reward than listening to a customer exclaim, “I never knew that Armenians had such great food!” or seeing Mayrig’s star items appear on the menus of more and more Lebanese restaurants. “What greater honor than to inspire people to love Armenian food?” she asks triumphantly.
Despite all of her success so far, Kamakian is determined to continue fulfilling her mission. “I am grateful for where I am today but I also feel impatient because I see all the potential of the Armenian cuisine and there is still so much work to be done!” She recently launched her own cooking show, Cook with Aline, hoping to inspire more people to try Armenian cuisine and offer the younger generation a tool to preserve the aromas of a lost homeland. At the same time, Kamakian is keen to find the right partner to further expand the growing Mayrig brand. “By putting Mayrig in every country, I am planting the Armenian flag, culture and history in that country. I am proud of being Armenian and I want the world to know, see and feel that through Mayrig.”