Hospitality comes naturally to the Lebanese Dutch creative strategist Carmen Atiyah de Baets. While her professional background is in fashion, she has an instinct for organizing generous, family-style gatherings that she honed during trips to Beirut with her Lebanese mother. “Lebanon is a place of contrasts,” says Atiyah de Baets, who was raised in the Netherlands and has a degree in Middle Eastern studies from SOAS University of London. “Hosting, sharing and hospitality are, despite hardships, deeply ingrained in both our history and the stories we hear from our parents.”
In 2019, determined to support craftsmanship in the country, which has been in an economic crisis for the past four years, Atiyah de Baets and her friend the Lebanese journalist Gilles Khoury began to gather what she calls “little pieces of Lebanon” for a small collection of home wares. This summer their selection of pottery, glassware, soaps and slippers — sourced from all over the country during a two-month-long visit — will be available to purchase at the boutique inside the Amsterdam canal house that Atiyah de Baets’s husband, the chef Joris ter Meulen Swijtink, inherited from his grandmother over a decade ago. Last year, after a renovation that included plumbing and electricity updates as well as the replacement and expansion of the kitchen, the couple opened the 17th-century townhome as Carmen, a serene three-room guesthouse and shop. When the adjoining property became available this year, they added a cafe, Carmen Kitchen, where Ter Meulen Swijtink — who trained at London’s St. John restaurant and is also the co-owner of the natural wine bar Café Twee Prinsen in Amsterdam — oversees a menu of unpretentious seasonal dishes inspired by the couple’s travels.
On a sultry Friday evening in June, Atiyah de Baets gathered 20 guests, each with a connection to Lebanon, in the garden at Carmen to celebrate the store’s new collection. She invited Toutia, the Paris and Beirut-based food design studio, to prepare the meal, as part of a three-day residency at Carmen Kitchen. “Their food is Lebanese with a global mind-set, which in itself is very Lebanese,” says Atiyah de Baets, alluding to her culture’s history of displacement and exchange.
The mood at the dinner was joyful, but also emotional: It had taken Atiyah de Baets and Khoury over four years to pull together the objects for the store because of Lebanon’s energy shortages and subsequent manufacturing delays. “You can’t make glass without gas,” says Atiyah de Baets. “And the money situation there is bad because of inflation. A lot of creative people have moved away.” Still, her sourcing visit to the country ended happily: “I got pregnant during that trip, which was for me a beautiful full-circle moment.” Her one-year-old daughter, Biba, made a fleeting appearance at the start of the party as guests were welcomed with glasses of Arak, an anise-flavored Levantine spirit. Once she was in bed, the party truly started. It only finished, at around 3 a.m., when the guests had devoured all the leftovers in the kitchen to a soundtrack of loud Arabic music.
The attendees: Atiyah de Baets, 32, and Ter Meulen Swijtink, 34, hosted 20 friends, family members — including Atiyah de Baets’s mother, Miriam de Baets, 61 — and “Lebanese people who are based in Amsterdam, who I admire and wanted to connect with,” says Atiyah de Baets. Among the group were Khoury, 33; the artist Najla El Zein, 40; and the photographer and art director Maxime van Namen, 27.
The table: “I’m not a flower person. We really wanted the food to be the decoration — in a nonperformative way,” says Atiyah de Baets, who covered trestle tables in simple white linen tablecloths, borrowed white napkins from the cafe and brought out an assortment of dining and occasional chairs from the house.
The food: Tracy Zeidan, 31, and Théa Nasrallah, 23, the sisters behind Toutia, prepared a buffet of dishes presented in earthenware bowls sourced for the Carmen collection from Assia, a village in northern Lebanon. They served slow-cooked lamb rolls, sumac- and cardamom-spiced chicken and roasted potatoes alongside a series of salads, a labneh dip with grated cucumber, okra with tahini, halloumi with tomato jam and sumac-coated goat-cheese balls. For pre-dinner snacks, there were cold mezes: kohlrabi with lemon, bottarga toast with za’atar, and eggplant with shiso. In addition to Arak, the food was accompanied by natural wines — a dry white from Campania, an orange from Puglia and a light red from Calabria — chosen by Carmen’s manager, Pamela Mann.
The music: The designer Cynthia Merhej, who runs the women’s wear label Renaissance Renaissance, which is partly based in Beirut, couldn’t make the dinner, so she sent a playlist of Arabic music in her place. “A couple of my friends wore her designs, so I felt like she was there in spirit,” says Atiyah de Baets. Songs included “My Mother” by the Lebanese composer and singer Marcel Khalife, “Soleil Soleil” by the Libyan singer-songwriter Ahmed Fakroun and “Yana Yana” by the Lebanese singer Sabah.
The conversation: A built-in concrete seating area that leads directly off the back of the house created an intimate atmosphere when guests arrived, and the sliding door to the kitchen was kept open to allow the conversation to filter through to the chefs. Guests remarked that the setup reminded them of terraces in Beirut, and Atiyah de Baets talked about its creation during the renovation. “There are a lot of seating areas in Lebanon made of raw concrete topped with pillows,” she says. “But the Dutch contractor didn’t quite get it: ‘A pit, with unfinished stone and wood?’ It was fun to see it in action.”
The recipe for Carmen Kitchen’s labneh eggs: To make your labneh, add a pinch of salt to some goat’s milk yogurt, wrap it in a piece of cheesecloth and hang it over a bowl to strain for at least 24 hours (“or more, depending on how thick you like your labneh,” says Ter Meulen Swijtink). Clarify some butter and set it aside. In a bowl, prepare a fresh salad of mixed leaves, mint, dill and thinly sliced spicy radishes. Make a dressing from a small dollop of Dijon mustard, some olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, then dress the salad. Cut a finger-thick slice of sourdough bread and toast it until the edges start to burn. (“It needs to be quite dark to make sure the labneh doesn’t make the bread soggy,” advises Ter Meulen Swijtink.) In a hot pan, heat some of the clarified butter, then crack in two eggs. Halfway through cooking, throw in a generous amount of za’atar, and spoon the hot butter over the eggs. Place a large dollop of labneh on the toast and smear it to its edges, then position the eggs on top and drizzle with the remains of the butter-za’atar mix along with some salt flakes. Place the salad next to the toast and enjoy a hangover-beating breakfast.