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#CookForSyria & #BakeForSyria

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UNICEF NextGen projects are inspired directly by UNICEF’s fundraising priorities. Our NextGen supporters are motivated by the stories and information they receive from UNICEF about the world’s children, and ask themselves what more they could do to help.

In 2016, Serena Guen, Gemma Bell and Clerkenwell Boy came together with fellow NextGen members to fundraise for UNICEF UK’s Syria appeal. They used their unique professional skills, their incredible knowledge of the food and restaurant industries, and their fantastic networks to launch #CookForSyria.

What started as an intimate supper club soon snowballed. In the months and years that followed, the team published two best-selling cookbooks, hosted several successful events internationally, and helped to put Syrian cuisine and culture front and centre – all with the support of the world’s most celebrated chefs.

It’s no surprise therefore that #CookForSyria made a huge splash. The team and the concept were featured on the likes of Sky News, and every media outlet imaginable – from Stylist to Country and Townhouse, from The Guardian to The Evening Standard.

It’s our pleasure to introduce you to Serena. In her own words, Serena tells us how #CookForSyria came to be a must-have feature on bookshelves up and down the country.

At a glance

The ambition: to raise much-needed funds for UNICEF’s work in Syria, and to increase public awareness for the plight of Syrian children and refugee families in surrounding countries.

The action: #CookForSyria started as a supper club, where a group of foodie friends came together to celebrate Syrian cuisine and raise money. It soon became a global movement – with support from the world’s top chefs and restaurants. The #CookForSyria cookbook was published in 2017 – followed by #BakeForSyria in 2018.

The impact: Since launching in 2016, #CookForSyria has raised more than £800,000 worldwide. Supper clubs, bake sales and special events have been held in the UK, France, Hong Kong, Australia, USA, and beyond. With over 35,000 copies of the books sold, #CookForSyria & #BakeForSyria brought incredible Syrian inspired cuisine to households all over the world.

200+

Supper clubs & bake sales hosted globally

100+

Recipes donated by acclaimed chefs

10,000+

Specials served in top restaurants

The concept went from a tiny dinner with one chef hosting it to a really big event with lots of famous chefs involved - from Jamie Oliver to Nuno Mendes to Melissa Hemsley.

Serena Guen, NextGen

Hi Serena! Thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us about this amazing project and its legacy.

Please introduce yourself. How did you initially get involved with UNICEF and NextGen?

My name is Serena Guen, and I’m based in London. I am the Founder of SUITCASE, an experiential travel brand that consists of a magazine and also a content agency.

I studied at NYU, and I had some friends that were involved with UNICEF NextGen in New York. I loved the way NextGen made charity very accessible to a younger generation. It made it very easy for people to get involved and to give, and to do so in creative ways.

What is #CookForSyria?

#CookForSyria is a project that we started in 2016, with cofounders Gemma Bell and Clerkenwell Boy. I was on the committee of NextGen in the UK, and I really wanted to do something to make a difference for the crisis in Syria.

I decided to plan a Syrian inspired dinner. The response was just incredible.

Serena & Clerkenwell Boy featured in The Observer after winning Best Ethical Food Project in 2017
Pål Hansen/The Observer

We thought it would be really cool to gather the recipes from the chefs that were participating and put them on our website. Then we put them into a cookbook – and in eight weeks we had it on Amazon, and it became a best seller. It was amazing to see people at home cooking these dishes and helping to preserve a culture that was partially being destroyed by this horrible war.

Meanwhile, lots of people donating small amounts added up. The overall bulk of the campaign was made up of tiny donations. We would see children putting their pocket money onto our Just Giving page, and then their grandparents doing it because they were really inspired. It was little things like that that made it really, really special.

The movement spread around the world to different countries, to Australia, Hong Kong, France. A year later, we launched the #BakeForSyria campaign, co-founded by Lily Vanilli, who is a famous baker based in East London. She really led the charge on creating a cookbook featuring Syrian-inspired baking recipes.

We have sold out of the #CookForSyria cookbooks, but we still have some #BakeForSyria cookbooks for sale.

Lily Vanilli, co-founder of #BakeForSyria

#CookForSyria was sold in independent bookstores all around the world. Photo: One Tree Books

Pick up your copy of #BakeForSyria today from the UNICEF UK online shop

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What was your role in the project?

My role was project manager but we were all wearing so many hats honestly I have no idea! Technically I am also the editor of both of the books.

How would you describe the benefits of this project?

I think one of the coolest things I saw was an article in The Telegraph in 2017 listing food trends that were ‘here to stay’. And one of them was Syrian cuisine. It said that because of the #CookForSyria and #BakeForSyria campaigns, we are suddenly seeing Syrian dishes and ingredients on menus.

People have now learned to love and incorporate everything from za’atar to labneh, and you can still see that on menus today. I think that is so amazing.

And then obviously a benefit is the money we raised, and how easy it was for people to participate. If someone could donate £5 that was great. The accessibility of supporting was so important to me – whether that was someone buying an auction prize at a dinner, or sharing something they cooked from the book on social media.

What are you most passionate about this project? 

Again, the accessibility and how easy it is for people to get involved.

What inspired you to launch the project?

How dire the situation was and still is in Syria. I just wanted to do something. That sounds so silly, but I just got up and said ‘I’m just going to do this little dinner’. And it just snowballed from there.

Who else was involved in this project? How did you get them to activate around this cause? 

My two cofounders, Clerkenwell Boy and Gemma Bell were absolutely instrumental in everything from finding the chefs to curating the recipes to promoting the book. Gemma has a background in food/hospitality PR, and Clerkenwell Boy is a food influencer. Between them they know all the food industry in the UK.

#CookForSyria in the Evening Standard

We had so many famous chefs involved in the project, and I think the reason we were able to do that was because it was so easy to get involved (as well as Gemma, Clerkenwell Boy and Lily’s extensive address books!).

One of the coolest moments was in 2016, just before we launched, Gemma, Clerkenwell Boy and I were at the Observer Food Awards, one of the biggest food awards in the UK. Chef Angela Hartnett was receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award, and she used her speech to tell everyone to get involved with #CookForSyria because it was such an exciting project. That was really, really moving.

How did you engage your networks and community around the project? 

It was very easy, because the message was so clear – we wanted to help children in Syria and surrounding regions. Everyone could see how bad the situation was.

The asks we had for chefs and supporters were quite low commitment. Some people went above and beyond.

Some of the wonderful NextGen committee members at the #BakeForSyria launch in 2018

In November 2016, TimeOut published a guide showing Londoners the very best spots to eat Syrian cuisine in support of #CookForSyria

What was your proudest moment when working on the project?

The Angela Hartnett moment was very cool. And also when we became an Amazon bestseller on New Years’ Day in 2017 for #CookForSyria. It was incredible that #BakeForSyria also became a bestseller.

What is the major impact of this project?

The two main things are, the money that we raised for the children of Syria.

The second thing was also putting Syrian cuisine and culture on the map. A lot of people didn’t know that St. George, the patron saint of England, hailed from Syria. Learning about the cuisine and celebrating it and having those dishes still on the menu – that’s amazing to see.

Why is it important to you to support UNICEF?

UNICEF for me is such an important and incredible charity. I love it because it is one of the most transparent charities in the world. It focuses on children, you can’t argue that children are the future.

UNICEF’s aim in Syria is for these children to not become a missed generation and to have an education and be prepared for the future.

#CookForSyria had lots of great media pick-up, including Sky News and Channel 4 News

What advice would you give to someone looking to fundraise for UNICEF? 

I would say, first, nothing is too small. Just go ahead and start somewhere. You can always build bigger.

But think carefully about your approach. You want to make sure the majority of the money goes to UNICEF, and not to huge costs for the event. We were so lucky because so many people were excited about our idea and willing to support us in many different ways, our financial costs were therefore really low.

How can people support the project today?

I think by continuing to celebrate Syrian cuisine – and really simply buying the #BakeForSyria recipe book, which you can buy through UNICEF UK’s online shop for example, as well as some local independent book retailers.

The Project's Champions

This incredible project wouldn’t have been possible without the passion, determination, and commitment of

  • Clerkenwell Boy
  • Gemma Bell
  • Hortense Decaux
  • Layla Yarjani
  • Lily Vanilli
  • Linda Blank
  • Serena Guen
Swipe through our gallery to learn more about #CookForSyria & #BakeForSyria.
#CookForSyria hosted a pop-up in Seven Dials in December 2017, staffed entirely by NextGen volunteers.
In 2017 top London restaurants dedicated special dishes on their menus to raise money for #CookForSyria. Pictured here is the Bubble Dogs spiced mince lamb hot dog.
The Petersham was one of many London restaurants to host a #CookForSyria fundraising dinner.
It wasn't just restaurants that got stuck in. £1 from the sale of each tub of Honey & Toasted Almond Jude's ice cream went to the #CookForSyria campaign.
Recipes from both cookbooks were featured across social media, helping to spread the word.
The campaign benefited from incredible out of home advertising courtesy of JCDecaux - like this poster at a tube station, captured by Charlie Fryer.