Meet Chef G., a Culinary Master With an Incredible Story

Published on : 7/19/22
  • Those lucky enough to dine at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco are in for a unique experience this month — getting to know their new executive chef, Ghazwan Alsharif.

    He brings a big personality, huge heart, mouthwatering culinary skills and an unbelievable story.

    Chef G., as he’s known, is a former Iraq War translator who has survived arrest, interrogation, disownment and exile. Not to mention coming out as gay in a culture that can be rejecting at best, fatal at worse.

    His life story was featured in a riveting 2018 documentary, From Baghdad to the Bay. Connected by the International Rescue Committee, which facilitated his immigration, filming was supposed to take a half hour, Alsharif says. Instead, filmmaker Erin Palmquist followed him for 10 years.

    It has changed my life a lot, he says. It’s sharing a story for others, to inspire and say ‘Don’t give up and be yourself. Stand up for yourself.’ I’ve done it to change lives.


    Leaving Iraq

    Alsharif’s life changed forever when he became a translator for U.S. troops in Baghdad during the Iraq War. The son of a diplomat and grandson of the Iraqi defense minister, he spoke English well. But his family belonged to the same tribe as Saddam Hussein; helping America was dangerous. After his home was bombed and sister injured, his family disowned him for their own safety.

    He had to move to a U.S. base, where he had many friends, including (now retired) U.S. Army Col. Robert Nicholson, who credits him with saving his group’s lives.

    But despite his service, U.S. military police shockingly arrested Alsharif and accused him of spying. They held him for 75 days in a small cell. He was handcuffed, blindfolded, beaten and waterboarded during interrogations, he says.

    He had no incriminating information to share. But it was during this terrible experience that he came out for the first time, he recalled on film. One day, they pushed me to a level. I said ‘Yes, I’m hiding something. I’m gay!’ When you no longer have something to hide … that’s what changed me to who I am.

    Col. Nicholson was finally able to secure his release, and Alsharif was exiled to Jordan as a refugee. He remained there for three years, until 2008, waiting to be allowed into America.

    He left behind his family, his wife from an arranged marriage (who later divorced him) and his young son.

    I always wanted to come to America even after I was treated so badly, Alsharif wrote, on the IRC website. I always loved that song called ‘San Francisco.’ This is my city. It’s my country now. I’m an American citizen now.


    Becoming Chef G.

    In Iraq, Alsharif had owned a restaurant and catering business. But men were not supposed to cook, just supervise.

    Since I was a kid, guys go play soccer in my country and I was the only kid who went to the kitchen, he remembers. I was lucky because I was spoiled. My grandma was a big cook and she inspired me a lot.

    In San Francisco, he became a pastry chef and moved up to supervise large kitchens and cater big events. He dreamed of becoming a celebrity chef and won spots on Guy Fieri’s Grocery Games in 2014 and 2015.

    He joined Sodexo in 2016, running kitchens at the California Academy of Science and Channing House. In 2019, he left to work for Facebook, but returned this year to SodexoMagic, a partnership between majority owner Mr. Earvin Magic Johnson and Sodexo. Now, he oversees a small staff, catering and a cafe for about 1,700 employees.

    He also runs his own catering business, Plates, on weekends and holidays. And he founded an organization for Middle Eastern LGBTQ+ people called ASHEq.

    It means love, he says. Through ASHEq, he hosts dance parties, complete with belly dancers. We started with about 30 people involved, and we’re now up to 600.

    His goal? Express yourself. Love yourself. Be yourself. And have fun!

    Alsharif says when he first started filming the documentary, he wasn’t ready to be out. But in 2012, the killings of six gay men in Iraq motivated him to speak up.

    He loves his family, who grew upset seeing pictures of him in gay clubs on Facebook, he says in the film. But he needs to be himself. I don’t want to die in a lie.

    Now, he has come to peace with his identity. His family knows he’s gay; they just don’t talk about it. The same for his son, who he has happily reconnected with after many years. He loves his dad, and it doesn’t matter if his dad is gay or straight.


    On the Menu: A Food Story

    This month, at the intersection of Pride and Sodexo’s celebration of active duty, veteran and reserve employees, Chef. G. steps into the kitchen at the Federal Reserve Bank.

    SodexoMagic General Manager Mark Wallace planned a weeklong introduction with movie posters, biographical materials and a food story menu with iconic dishes from Iraq and the Bay.

    We’ll start with baba ghanoush, hummus, tahini and shawarma and end with a San Francisco bouillabaisse, he says. And of course, the light and airy deconstructed baklava that won Alsharif the job, made with whipped mascarpone cheese and rose water.

    Wallace says he’s already seen how skillfully Alsharif mentors his staff, tailoring instruction for diverse learning styles. He definitely takes his time with each employee and he’s very patient with them.

    He says he’s looking forward to experiencing an ASHEq dance party, and to helping Alsharif shine.

    As for Chef G., he’s happy to return to SodexoMagic, where he feels supported and celebrated. I made rainbow cupcakes, he says, laughing. They were well received by the clients.

    I make a lot of people happy with my food.