The Queen of Lebanese Cuisine Reigns from the Finger Lakes Region
Written by Abigail Henson, photos by Alexandra Grablewski
It has always been a bit of a mystery that despite the stale adage “a woman’s place is in the kitchen,” the culinary industry has been largely defined by men. But the times, they are a-changin’, and Julie “Taboulie” Sageer has written herself into history through a journey of firsts: defying industry standards, breaking down cultural barriers and leveling social codes, growing organically as she goes.
Born into a tight-knit Lebanese community in Utica, NY, and raised with a family-first, every-meal-a-feast mentality, Sageer’s roots with her heritage run deep, but she would never have predicted one day being deemed “The Queen of Lebanese Cuisine.”
It was during a month-long sojourn to her mother country, Lebanon, in 2007 Sageer felt her god-given purpose became clear. “Being there with my Sitta [maternal grandmother], the energy, the food, the love—they arranged themselves like puzzle pieces in my soul. I knew I was called to be the voice of our culture and cuisine back here in America.”
Armed with a sharp knife and even sharper vision, she left behind her New York City life as a TV media personality and returned to the Finger Lakes, a region that echoed the Mediterranean with sumac-studded country roads, grape-leaf-tinged foothills and shimmering bodies of water. “It was absolute gold.” With her mother, “Mama,” by her side as master chef and mentor, Julie set an intention to get the most authentic culinary certification money couldn’t buy. She dedicated herself to learning the flavors, terminology and techniques of Lebanese cuisine until she was ready to teach.
“No other culinary school in the world could give me what Mama gave me” she says. “She is the ultimate gift.”
Although perfectly suited for TV and well versed with being in front of the lens, Sageer chose to teach her first cooking classes in person with the side-by-side approach that originally inspired her. Gathering in public libraries and areas not usually equipped for culinary education, she created comfortable atmospheres for introducing new spices to her students’ taste buds—like za’atar, a savory mixture of sesame, sumac, cumin and thyme—and practicing lesser-known dishes like mouhamarah (a hot pepper dip). Trendy dishes such as her namesake go-to, taboulie (a grain salad laden with lemon, mint and parsley) were paired with her traditional favorites such as kousa mahshi (finger-length squash stuffed with tangy tomatoes and savory ground beef).
While the variety of veggies popular in Sageer’s teachings continues to grow in popularity at the local farmers markets, a testament to this chef’s influence on our region, there are some ingredients she admits are still easiest to grab from her family’s farmette—a homestead of sorts, bigger than your average backyard garden, smaller than a farm. This acts as the backdrop of both her nationally syndicated TV show and award-winning cookbook, Julie Taboulie’s Lebanese Kitchen (granted the Gourmand World Award for Best Mediterranean Cuisine 2018) where we can catch a glimpse of her zipping in and out of the garden for fistfuls of herbs or one of the eight varieties of heirloom eggplants that Mama has planted for quick picking, never missing a chance to remind her followers that “fresh is best” and family is the most important ingredient.
Abigail Henson is a Slow Food chef and founder of LoFo, an organization that connects the community to local food in Upstate New York. She has appeared as a guest chef on “The Illegal Eater” (2014) and created for Phish the first 200-seat farm-to-table restaurant (Festival Ate).
Alexandra Grablewski is a food and lifestyle photographer and videographer whose work appears in magazines, advertisements, and over 60 cookbooks. Born and raised in New York City with a BFA from NYU, she resides in Brooklyn with her photographer husband.