On a slow Friday afternoon, as I scrolled through Instagram I came across Leen Al Zaben, a creative; chef, journalist, and photographer that I had never before heard of. Her page was filled with pristine images of food, well thought out typography and passion that literally emanated from her page, waking me up from my lazy Friday stupor. Like any amateur stalker, I liked almost every image on her page, sent her a plethora of comments, and of course a good many DMs. Concerned that my messages would fall unnoticed into the ‘requested’ pile, I followed up with some ‘please check your DM’ comments ;). Thankfully Leen got back to me in no time, having waded through all my fan mail.
Born and raised in Amman Jordan, Leen innocently enough spent her college years at McGill University studying Marketing and Strategic Management. She then went on to read French Civilization at Université Paris – Sorbonne (Paris IV). Coming back home to Amman hoping to settle into a job that would fulfill her, that fortuitously, didn’t quite happen. Trying her hand in a number of industries, there wasn’t anything that fit her well, and as with all creatives, she started to question herself and her journey. As the rest of her colleagues moved along in their chosen fields she as creative had the embarrassing task of explaining to everyone; when asked, that she still hadn’t found what she was looking for.
I always say that creativity is a lot like flight.. you can either fall flat on your face or you can soar, and it’s not all about talent, which is imperative of course; but a combination of things, most importantly a support system. For Leen, this support came first and foremost from her mother. Seeing Leen struggle at the traditional desk job, her mother would consistently encourage her to explore creative outlets. Another source of support was from Leen’s boss at Jordan Media Institute, Rania Barakat. Serving as her mentor and teacher, Barakat really set the bar for her on a professional development level. “Rania was the first person who taught me how to “work”. She is so intelligent and her work ethic is so amazing. Just being around her taught me so much. She was also such a patient teacher. When I would make mistakes she gave me the space to solve them myself and to think critically. She had a way with things and it taught me so much.” Said Leen of Barakat. At the same time, Leen was fortunate to find herself in the company of some renowned names in the world of journalism, namely the late David Klatell – Dean of the Journalism School at Columbia University, who kindly mentored her and encouraged her to apply to graduate programs in writing/journalism, which she did, culminating in a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Oxford.
At this point, you are probably thinking, wow isn’t she lucky.. she found a great mentor, was introduced to an actual Columbia professor, and got accepted to Oxford! Not so I argue.. she is persistent… She has tenacity, and she can hear that nagging voice (aka intuition) that tells her, keep on moving.. keep on asking.. keep on trying. Another myth I will need to debunk is that creatives wander this earth with a wonderful smile on their faces and a sense of serenity in their hearts, after all, they are blessed with creativity, probably in a number of disciplines. If I have ever seen a tormented soul, it is most likely that of a creative. That’s why a support system is so important… I saw that same confusion as Leen spoke to me of her early years as a professional. She had so much to share but no one to share it with. These periods are traditionally full of the great highs of promise and the great lows of disappointment.
2010 was the start of Leen’s professional journey as a food journalist. She chose writing as a creative outlet, and food as its content, minting her food blog: Culeenary. According to Leen, “I chose to document food because it was a connector. I wanted to work on something inclusive, and to me, food was something everyone had in common regardless of background, ethnicity, education, etc’. What ensued were four years that Al Zaben describes as “the most amazing for me professionally. I found liberation from the restrictions I thought I had when it came to my career. I was finally doing something I enjoyed and it didn’t feel like work. For a while, I didn’t realize it had become a career because I was having so much fun and that wasn’t something I had associated with ‘work’.”
During those four years Leen’s journey took her on various projects, all food-related; from writing, recipe development, menu development for restaurant concepts to photography. When I think about those four years, I imagine a flower blossoming, not only becoming a thing of beauty but also giving to others in the form of scent. Creatives are those rare people that also give, not just take. I mean unless you are a self-less therapist, most people’s work involves getting the job done. In the world of creativity: exchanging, sharing, and learning from each other is pertinent to the growth of a person.
I believe that it is the vehicle of writing that allowed Leen to succeed on so many different levels. In order to be a successful creative, you need to be able to merge a number of elements. In Leen’s case, she learned to write, then she chose what to write about and then supplemented it with a much needed visual element, that of photography; creating a trinity of talent that allowed her to succeed.
In 2014 Leen married and moved the San Francisco with her husband, with no pre-planned work it was in fact an adventure, one that allowed Leen to grow exponentially in her line of work. I always say, there are those that look outwards and those that look inwards, Leen and her husband looked outwards to San Francisco, not giving their back to Jordan but traveling to bring back to their country exposure and new ideas. As Leen talks to me about this phase in her life, her eyes glisten with pride. Very shy by nature, it took a lot for her to stand up and introduce herself to a top-notch executive at a conference she had attended. It turned out to be a single, uncharacteristic move that would catapult her to a thriving creative world of food, photography, and writing at the cooking technology startup company: June. Perhaps one of the greatest things about working for a startup is their openness to new ideas. Nothing is set in stone yet, and it was this experimentation that allowed Leen to flourish. Three years later, Leen was introduced to a world-respected photographer Maren Caruso. A food and product photographer with a unique eye and aesthetic. Serving as a mentor and collaborator to Leen for over 2 years, Leen credits Caruso with her education in photography. A generous soul; Caruso spent countless months mentoring Leen, teaching her all about the artistic process and how to tell a good visual story. A quick glance at Leen’s Instagram page and blog and you see a very distinct style of photography, one that Leen believes Caruso helped her define.
Again, how lucky Leen was right?
Wrong! Often times people can only see a professional relationship as a firm employee/employer formula, but there is so much grey in-between. These shades of grey allow for flexibility and growth, collaboration, and a healthy exchange of knowledge when and where it fits. Leen never actually worked with Maren, but she did assist her, learn from her and collaborate with her on various occasions. It was perhaps Leen’s ability to see those shades of grey that helped her gain the wealth of knowledge that she credits Maren with sharing.
In 2019 Leen and her family; now husband and daughter Haya left San Francisco for a work opportunity in Tokyo Japan. Little did she know that her first few months in Japan would take place in COVID 19 lockdown, forcing her once again to recreate her method of communication. First writing, now videography, perhaps not the method of choice for a shy person, but Leen credits the audience’s enthusiasm with her staying the course in virtual workshops. For the past few months, Leen has been offering courses in bread-making and even edible flowers which I find particularly interesting. Choosing to give back to the people of Lebanon after the August 4th explosions, Leen is offering a 3-tiered course aptly titled: Bake for Beirut, with 100% of proceeds donated to support the Lebanese people. There is no price tag on the courses, what you choose to offer is a direct donation, which is a terrific idea!
I really can’t imagine a more fertile ground for discovery and creativity than Tokyo.. I am filled with anticipation and enthusiasm as to what Leen will achieve during her time in Japan. All I know for sure is that it will always benefit Jordan in some form or other, and will raise the bar on her creative path, one that I can’t wait to ‘taste’. Given the dedicated mother that Leen is, I am convinced she will be inspired by her maternal journey is some form or another. Could it be fermentation? A book she was knee-deep in when we spoke last week. Time will tell, all I know is that it will be totally original, authentic, and positive.