In the Wild with Rawan Al Wadaa & Donald Charette from Rebels in the Kitchen

In our In the Wild series, we interview Canadian entrepreneurs to hear their stories and learn what they wish they knew when starting out.

Rawan Al Wadaa and Don Charette are the entrepreneurs behind Rebels in the Kitchen – a business that offers virtual Lebanese cooking classes and cultural ambassadorship. 

Learn how they grew their business during the uncertainty of the pandemic – and the importance of learning to pivot. 

 

What was the wild idea behind Rebels in the Kitchen? 


Don:
 

In general, neither of us wanted to work for others. That’s the root of it. I always knew I wanted to start a business with someone. 

 

Rawan: 

One day, on a trip to Montebello, we were sitting having brunch. We ended up talking with the chef who told us about a bed & breakfast with a café that was for sale down the street. They said we’d be perfect for it. So, on a whim, we went and got all the details and were really considering venturing into that.

 

Don: 

After crunching some numbers, we realized it wasn’t right for us at that moment financially. But that opportunity taught us that we were both very interested in working together. So, we thought – what are other ways we could work together with less startup capital? That’s when we landed on our first version of the business – food photography. 

 

 

Rawan: 

We chose food photography without even looking into the market. But to me, it was a way to take Don’s strengths and openness to picking up skills very quickly, especially when it comes to things like photography and videography. And for me, I already knew food and I can make it look pretty, so we thought, why not try food photography? We entered an Instagram food photography challenge put on by a food photographer in London and we won second place in the creativity category. 

 

Don: 

I guess the lesson is, for anyone interested in entrepreneurship, we didn’t start with a clear idea. Initially the decision was more emotional than studied. It was just the desire to be independent.  

 

Rawan: 

At the time, Don was in a very toxic work situation. He was done with it. He wanted to quit and find something else. I was working in the food industry – it was long hours without great pay.  A lot of people stay in the food industry for the love of food, but I can’t give my love of food to the landlord for rent.  

 

Don: 

We were both done with our jobs, so when the opportunity presented itself and got us thinking, we just chose to make it happen. We jumped into it, and figured we’d learn the rest as we go. 

 

 

How did your first idea evolve into what Rebels is today? 

 

Don:  

It didn’t take long to learn just how competitive the food photography landscape is. We were doing well but were still figuring out the best business model for our skills and the lifestyle we wanted to create. 

I knew how talented Rawan is. I know how amazing her food is. Food photography was one thing, but if we really wanted to capitalize on our skills, I knew we could do more if people could taste it. 

So, I did some market research into private chef or meal prepping opportunities in Ottawa and the financial potential of that.  We saw an opportunity there. 

 

Rawan: 

I was excited about the opportunity to cook for people again. One of the reasons I enjoy cooking is because I love watching people enjoy my food. That’s exciting for me – it gives me happiness and satisfaction. When they’re eating and humming and ooh-ing and aah-ing – I love that. But with the idea of becoming a private chef and doing meal prep, I wouldn’t necessarily get to see that. I’d just be cooking everything then leaving. I wouldn’t know if they’d reheat it properly, or even eat it. So, I started questioning it. And that’s when Don suggested we explore something a little more fun and innovative. 

 

Don: 

At the same time, we were seeing how Amazon, Uber Eats, and other food delivery services were expanding. So, we were kind of interested in getting into that market. But this was at a time where big companies were getting into it too, making it tough for a small business to compete.    

 

Rawan:  

We decided to pivot that idea.  Instead of cooking for people, we thought, what if we taught people how to cook? And not just for their own knowledge, but for entertainment. As a social activity. We created the idea of doing cooking parties in peoples’ homes. We’d show up, bring all the supplies, make it fun and interactive, and even clean up. All the host had to do was invite the guests. 

   

 

Don:

In a way, the idea was kind of based on an old school Tupperware party. You only needed to market to one person – the host. They’d invite the guests, then you’d have a handful of other potential customers who may want to host their own party. So, it grew from there – and it was growing. That was really where Rebels in the Kitchen was born. We found a way to turn our rebellious spirit of working for ourselves into a viable business idea.  

 

Rawan: 

Part of Lebanese culture is about partying and hosting and having a good, big laugh around the dinner table with a lot of wine and a lot of drinks and music. So, sharing that with others just made sense. 

 

Don 

And we were doing well, until the pandemic hit.  

That was about three months into it. We’d done a lot of classes – or in-home cooking parties as we called them – and we had a lot booked for the spring and summer. But when COVID hit, we had to give them refunds because we didn’t know what was going to happen, and for obvious reasons, people were no longer comfortable hosting parties at home.  We had to pivot again. 

 

It sounds like you faced several challenges – COVID being the big one. What kept you motivated enough to keep going and make these pivots? 

 

Don: 

The motivation factor is what keeps you going. I had previously started two other small businesses on my own in the music industry. So, I had an experience of a business, and my reasons were never rational. When you’re in the arts, whether it’s cooking or music, you’ve got to have something beyond the logic part of your brain motivating you. You need passion to kick in. It’s not something you can calculate on paper. You need a purpose that drives you.  

 

Rawan: 

My love and passion for food, and Don’s passion for running a creative business, that’s what kept us motivated. That’s what pushed us to keep pivoting. Because sometimes logic isn’t enough. 

 

How did that passion take you through the pandemic? 

 

Don: 

When you’ve got real passion, you’ll find a way to make it happen. At the time, virtual classes weren’t a big thing. That only happened a few months into the pandemic. We were part of that first wave of businesses bringing their services online. 

Without having a model to follow, we decided we’d try offering free classes on Facebook – just to gauge interest. 

 

Rawan: 

And to see if I was even comfortable giving a class in front of the camera. And figuring out things like – do I follow a script? Don suggested a script, but I knew that wouldn’t be natural for me. That type of structure isn’t really for me.  

 

Don: 

So, we had to figure out how to create a process that allowed her to be her. That’s where her richness is – her excitement comes through when she’s in the zone – she’s an artist.  We had to listen to each other – that’s important in business. And listening to yourself and being honest with what you enjoy and what your natural strengths are. 

 

Rawan: 

What I learned is that you also need to work on skills that are beyond your comfort levels. It’s a balance. Curveballs happen, things are thrown at you, and if you don’t learn or at least to attempt to learn something fast enough, you’ll fall behind. Learning how to work in front of a camera was difficult for me to adjust to at the beginning. But when you’re thrown in the deep end, you have to learn how to swim. 

We had to figure out a rhythm where Don would be behind the camera giving me cues – like which camera to look at – or where to put my hands if I was blocking something in view. And I talk with my hands a lot, so I had to be mindful of that.   

 

Don: 

And we found that rhythm. We’ve done well with virtual classes throughout the pandemic and continuing after.  

 

Has your plan changed at all now that the peak of the pandemic is behind us? 

 

Don: 

When we started, we said we’d dedicate five years to this effort, this adventure – we’ll give whatever it’s going to take. And at the end of five years, if we’re in a different place, we can make a new plan.  

The pandemic happened just in the middle of that. At a point in our lives when we’re starting to think about kids and financial stability, we’ve decided that Rawan will continue to evolve Rebels, and I’ve just completed education and started working full-time in cyber security. 

My working rhythm is different from Rawan’s. My familiarity with entrepreneurial life and risk taking has made me more chill. I don’t really panic with financial uncertainty. I’ve become used to it. 

 

Rawan: 

I run around like a headless chicken. I find it anxiety inducing. Don is the one who lays it out in front of me and reassures me. Becoming comfortable with uncertainty is something you need to learn as an entrepreneur. 

 

Don: 

And as a couple, it’s just as important to learn each other’s comfort levels and make decisions based on what will work for both of you, which is why we decided at this point in our lives, I’ll put my work ethic into a full-time position. And Rawan will continue doing what she does best. 

 

What does the future of Rebels look like? 

 

Rawan: 

Don’s busy with his other position now, so now I’m the one operating the laptop, lights, and cameras. I’m not technical at all, so this was another curveball.  

But I learn by doing and working with my hands, so the more I keep plugging and unplugging, I’ll get to the point where it’s mechanical and I remember everything. And I’m getting there 

 

Don: 

And she’s doing an incredible job. And I don’t just mean technically. I mean about growing the brand. 

 She’s the personality they remember. It’s not just about a great technical experience. It’s about heart and passion and Rawan has that. The gratification is immediate – the feedback’s been so positive. Her passion for Lebanese cuisine is what really sets Rebels apart.   

We’re developing a plan to grow Rawan’s brand even more as an ambassador of Lebanese cuisine in Canada.  She’s already done interviews with CBC radio and BBC, and she’s working with the Lebanese embassy in Ottawa. And now she’s working on a book!  

 

Rawan: 

Yes, we’re starting to think about other business models.   

Since the pandemic, we got back to in-person events. We helped manage a bed & breakfast in Luskville, Quebec, where we were having retreats.  While these in-person retreats were amazing, they were also a higher price ticket. 

My goal is to make the offering even more accessible to more people, and that’s what worked so well with online classes. So, we’re still figuring it out – how to share our purpose with more people.  

This means more online brand building. More online offerings. More advocacy for Lebanese culture. And a cookbook. 

 

Don: 

Throughout it all, we’ve pivoted our model a lot. From food photography to in-home classes, to virtual, then to in-person with the bed & breakfast – now we’re at a point where we’re pivoting again. 

 

Rawan: 

As a brand, the spirit of Rebels in the Kitchen really encompasses who we are. It’s rebellious to take a path that’s so uncertain.  There are no rules or guidebooks to follow.   

As much as we’ve wanted to share that rebellious spirit with our customers, the brand and this name is really about Don and me. We’re not sure people will really relate to that as much, or understand it, especially for how we plan to evolve.  

As we move forward, and as we’re leaning more into my Lebanese roots and sharing the spirit of this culture, a word we’re really leaning into is nafas. 

 

Don: 

To be honest, I’ve never been prouder. The concept is so clear. It’s what I wish we had started Rebels with, because nafas in Arabic means “to have breath in the kitchen”. I’ll let Rawan explain. 

 

Rawan: 

In Arabic, specifically in the middle east, there’s a concept of a person in the kitchen who has something special about their cooking – not professional chefs or anything – but someone who just has that spark that makes their food so delicious. 

We say that they have “breath” in the kitchen. They have nafas. 

At the time when this came to me, I was listening to a lot of podcasts and getting more into the zone of talking about food and culture and politics. Because I’m heavily interested in this. And something clicked, and I came to Don and I said, I’ve got it. Nafas. 

It’s just so strong. It’s a brand name that takes everything we learned in Rebels and evolves it into something even bigger that more people can relate to. When they understand the concept of finding your naffa, it ties so well into the heart and culture of what we do. 

 

Don: 

It’s something we’re moving towards. Something that will replace the Rebels In the Kitchen brand. The cookbook will be nafas. We help you develop your breath in the kitchen.  

 

Rawan: 

And this is a rebellious thing to do because a lot of old school traditionalists would say you’re either born with naffa or without! And I say, it can be taught, like meditating. 

You need to allow yourself to breathe in the kitchen and be very present with the spices and your surroundings. When you are, you can produce a delectable dish, you know? That’s it. 

I’ve used Rebels to find my breath. I use cooking to reduce my anxiety and I find it therapeutic. I want to introduce people to that concept and empower them to do it themselves. It feels like a legacy thing – to plant a seed of nafas in someone’s kitchen and watch it grow long after we leave. 

 

Don:  

It’s the perfect bridge of so many truths. People love food and gathering. There’s a rising awareness of the importance of self-care and mindfulness. Seeing cooking as self-care, as a practice, makes so much sense. The food brings so much joy, but the cooking itself can also bring that peace. 

 

You’re masters of the pivot, and it sounds like that flexibility is part of what’s made your business successful along the way.  

 


Has entrepreneurship changed your definition of success? 

 

Rawan: 

For me, growing up, success was your bank account. If you have a lot of money in your bank account, you’re a successful business owner. But I really had to stop myself from thinking this way. It’s not about making a lot of money. 

My business is successful when it gets people talking about their experience. When they’re inspired. When they’re finding their flow in the kitchen, cooking dishes I’ve taught them, or experimenting with new confidence.  

I’ve had friends and past clients message me just to tell me how excited they were to try a new Lebanese recipe they found. And this makes me so happy. It’s raising awareness of my culture, which feels so much bigger than my bank account.  

 

Any final thoughts or words of advice for someone just starting out? 

 

Don: 

I’d say, it’s okay to learn as you go. Don’t wait to have it all figured out before you start. Learn along the way. Follow your passion, put work into it, and the rest will come.  That said, you do need to be aware of startup capital and expenses. That’s why we didn’t start with the café. We didn’t have the capital, but we got creative, and figured out a way to move in that direction. And who knows, a café could very well be in our future!  

 

Rawan: 

I agree. Learning as you go is important. Expect curveballs. Don’t be too slow to adapt.  

And for me, I’d say, stay true to your roots. Work on getting to know who you are and what makes you unique. That’s what makes your business stand out. It’s not about following trends or doing what everyone else is doing. It’s about leaning into what you’re most passionate about, then learning as much as you can to turn that into a business. And of course, learning to become more comfortable with uncertainty. Because entrepreneurship is uncertain.  

But if it’s truly important to you, truly a part of who you are and what you want to share with the world, the reward is worth the risk.

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Sarah Gencarelli

Sarah’s an awarded brand strategist, copywriter, instructor, and entrepreneur. Sarah works closely with founders and marketing teams to clarify and amplify brand stories.

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