Q&A: Mohamad Skeik, Bakery House

Mohamad Skeik was born in Tripoli but moved to the U.K. at the age of 21. He got into cooking through entertaining friends, cooking traditional Libyan food, and he joined Bakery House as its manager when it opened in 2015. Over the last 5 years, Bakery House has built up a devoted following for its shawarma, falafel and my personal favourite, the boneless baby chicken. Mohamad now does much of the cooking there (“I love it: my heart was always in the kitchen and I was very hands on”). He lives in Lower Earley with his wife and three small children.

Bakery House has reopened post-lockdown, and also delivers via Deliveroo (at crazily reasonable prices).

What have you missed most in lockdown?
I’ve missed having coffee with close friends and catching up with them. Also travelling, which is one of my favourite things. 

How did you find yourself ending up in Reading? What were your first impressions of it?
Well, I arrived into London from Libya and the very first place I went was Southampton. I only stayed there two nights and I just knew it wasn’t for me. So I packed again and came to Reading, because I already had a few friends living here. I never went anywhere else after that, and I’ve never looked back. I absolutely love Reading, it’s my home. 

My first impression of Reading was that I loved the Riverside! I arrived in winter, and everything looked so nice around with the lights and the snow (which I had hardly ever seen in Libya). I just fell in love with everything about the place from day one. 

What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?
It was in Istanbul last year, where I had a special feast with my best friend at a restaurant called Medeni (the chef there, Boraq, is very famous). There were several dishes I really loved, but my favourite was the flaming lamb ribs. 

What’s your earliest memory of food?
Every Friday having brunch with my family before the Friday prayer started: my dad had Fridays off.

How would you describe Libyan food to somebody who doesn’t know about it?
Libyan food is heavily influenced by Italian culture (but with an Arabian twist) because Libya was occupied by Italy in the past and that’s created some kind of fusion. So for example we have a dish called rishda which is a dough put through the pasta machine and steamed (sort of like a noodle) and then added to the traditional Libyan sauce which features in most dishes. That sauce involves tons of onions, chickpeas, usually lamb neck and some tomato puree. It’s spicy, rich and meaty and perfect for the carbs to soak up! We also do red couscous (called “couscousi”) with pumpkin, although here in the U.K. we use butternut squash.

What is your most unappealing habit?
Probably not letting go and being worried about things when it comes to work. Micromanaging, basically!

What is the worst job you’ve done?
I worked as a security guard throughout one winter. I had to sit in the car park all night on patrol.

What one film can you watch over and over again?
I love action movies and I never get bored of Denzel Washington films, so probably The Equalizer

What prompted you to move from management back into cooking, and what do you enjoy most about being in the kitchen?
Technically I’m still the manager, but I run the kitchen at the same time because I love it and I’m so passionate about the food we are giving to people. I wanted to make the change because I wanted a more hands-on role. The kitchen gives me a place to really feel at home and relaxed, because I just love what we do. 

What is your most treasured possession?
My old childhood photos – and my wedding ring, which was engraved in Palestine. 

What one restaurant do you wish you could pick up and drop in Reading?
There’s a restaurant me and my family love called Antep Kitchen in Oxford, down the Cowley Road. Either that or Diyarbakir in Green Lanes. Those are two of my absolute favourites and my job and hours make them very difficult to get to!

What is the most important lesson life has taught you?
Not to judge people based on first impressions. I think everyone has a problem with thinking they know people before they’ve properly given them a chance to show themselves, possibly even just based on the first few minutes. It’s better to wait and see: some people you might think are good turn out not to be, and others who make mistakes or don’t initially impress you can turn out to be the best and most trustworthy later. I’ve definitely changed a lot over the years, partly because of that life lesson!

What’s the finest crisp (make and flavour)?
I love ready salted Pringles. They just go with everything.

What’s your favourite dish on the Bakery House menu?
Definitely the chops. They’re so moreish. 

What is your favourite smell? 
Oud, the Arabian perfume. I bought some on my last holiday before lockdown. 

Where is your happy place?
Either being in Istanbul or being in the kitchen. Ideally both combined, like they were last year when I explored some Turkish kitchens!

What’s the most underrated dish you serve at Bakery House?
I would say probably the maqaneq or the batata harra. I think customers don’t expect those smoky flavours, but people who try them love them. 

What’s your guiltiest pleasure when it comes to food?
I absolutely love chocolate.

Tell us something people might not know about you.
I’m actually Palestinian, even though I was born and raised in Libya (and work in a Lebanese restaurant!)

Describe yourself in three words.
Kind, humble, adventurous.

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