Caribbean Smooth Creates Rum Liqueur Ou-Oui! With the Female Consumer in Mind

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. October 2018.

The founder of Caribbean Smooth, a new brand of tropical spiced rum liqueur, shakes an unusually shaped black-colored bottle and pours me a taste of his guava-pineapple and passion fruit blends as we chat sitting at the bar of a Mexican restaurant near his home in Atlanta. “This is an instant rum punch,” he says mixing the two flavors and adding a splash of ginger ale. It is Ou-Oui!

Walwyn uses fresh pink guavas and pineapples from Central and South America and blends them with spices from the Caribbean to create a smooth liqueur that is easy to drink straight from the bottle. There’s no burn from the alcohol, just a little heat and a slight buzz. With 20 percent alcohol and all natural ingredients, there’s nothing else like this on the market.

Growing up on the island of St. Kitts, Walwyn picked mangoes, bananas, coconuts, sugarcane and guavas from his backyard, eating them fresh and juicing them for a sweet treat. “Even as a kid, I created my own juices, spiked them up with my dad’s brandy, not for a buzz, but because I enjoyed how it changed the flavor profile,” he recalls of his first experiments.

After his father migrated to neighboring St. Croix in 2010, Walwyn would make a passion fruit cocktail for his friends and family, which was fondly named ‘Nigel’s Punch.’ It was inspired by a rum punch he had tried at a beach bar (formerly Ziggy’s) in St. Kitts, that he considered the best in the world. Word spread and before he knew it, people were asking him to make this special recipe for their events. He made three gallons for the St. Kitts Music Festival’s VIP tent and the crowd demanded more. “The people of St. Kitts are the harshest critics of rum drinks, and that’s when I knew I was on to something,” says Walwyn.

Creating the Consumer Demand for Something New

Soon requests poured in from colleagues at CNN in Atlanta where Walwyn worked at the time. With the encouragement of friends, he said goodbye to his 25-year-long career in TV news to become a beverage entrepreneur.

It took three and a half years of research, product development and getting certifications to bring the taste of the islands to the market. “I hit many roadblocks while I was going through the process by myself. It was frustrating at times, but I knew I was learning and doing something new and exciting,” he adds.

When Walwyn was testing out his recipes, people would taste test and say, “Oh yea!” It was an expression he repeatedly heard,  so he decided to call the product Ou-Oui!

Bottles of Ou-Oui! Rum Liqueur
Photo: Caribbean Smooth

I asked Walwyn about the unusual shape of the curved black bottle with a lipstick mark on the logo, colorful round bottle caps and picture of a couple on a sunset beach. “Ou-Oui! is designed for women. Women like romantic, flavorful, smooth alcoholic drinks. They are put off by strong burning spirits like scotch, whiskey and tequila. It comes in an easy to hold, curved feminine glass bottle. The dark bottle is functional, preserving the freshness of the fruit by blocking UV light,” he explains. The bottle can also be recycled and used as a vase, lamp or candle holder.

Walwyn recommends using Ou-Oui! as a base to enhance any cocktail recipe. You can add it to cognac or whiskey, margarita or mojitos – it doesn’t matter. Create an instant rum punch by mixing two parts passion fruit, one part guava-pineapple and a splash of ginger beer or ginger ale and pour it over ice. Add to Champagne and make a healthier mimosa. Each Ou-Oui! bottle has 14 ingredients already, so there are enough flavors and complexity to boost your cocktail. Shake the bottle well as the real fruit tends to settle at the bottom, refrigerate once opened.

Ou-Oui! is manufactured in Florida and currently available at 200+ stores in Alabama and Georgia. It is available during select food festivals and Caribbean events.

With only a year after the release of the brand, Walwyn is already working on creating new flavors (mango is expected to launch in 2020) and raising additional capital to expand the brand nationally.

To see where Ou-Oui! is available, visit www.caribbeansmooth.com and also follow Walwyn on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

~ Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine

A day of thanks. Gratitude is the attitude wherever you’re from

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. November 2018 print issue. 

Before I moved to Atlanta in 1997, I had a picture-postcard image of Thanksgiving — a Caucasian family wearing plaid shirts gathered around a big table covered with a dozen delectable dishes. There was always a whole pumpkin and orange tones to signify autumn. I knew there was a cooked turkey at the center of the festive spread (though I had never seen or tasted turkey growing up in India), but that was all I knew about Thanksgiving.

It wasn’t until I was a college freshman, when an elderly couple invited me to their home on Howell Mill Road for a traditional Thanksgiving dinner, that I got the full picture. They roasted a whole stuffed turkey and served creamy mashed potatoes, green beans with mushrooms, whipped sweet potatoes, tart cranberry dressing, and pumpkin pie. Then they told me the story of Thanksgiving — in the 1600s, the Wampanoag Indians taught the Pilgrims, who had sailed to the eastern coast of United States on the Mayflower, how to cultivate the land, and in appreciation, the Pilgrims cooked a “thank you” dinner. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln declared “Thanksgiving” a national holiday, and ever since, Americans have celebrated Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November each year, when families and friends gather for dinner. What we ate at my first Thanksgiving dinner in Atlanta are some of the dishes typically prepared (most of which I had never tasted before). My hosts asked me to say aloud what I was thankful for, and the three of us dived into my first Thanksgiving meal.

Over the next few years, I discovered a group of international orphans (that’s what we called ourselves, those who were transplants from other countries) who had a potluck dinner party on Thanksgiving Day. Most of us were single students and young professionals. Each one would bring a dish representing their country. We had a globally-inspired feast!

Once I started working a corporate job, I discovered Thanksgiving was also a long weekend and a great time to travel (except you must deal with the crowds). My friends who had moved to Atlanta from elsewhere in the U.S. were always planning a trip home over the Thanksgiving holidays. Since my husband and I had no other home in the states, we started using this opportunity to take vacations. This is when I also realized you could get a Thanksgiving turkey dinner practically anywhere in the U.S., even if you were unable to cook it yourself. I remember having “turkey and fixings” at the Universal Studios cafeteria, at a diner in Gatlinburg, even 30,000 feet in the air onboard a Delta flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta.

I also discovered people would get up very early in the morning on the day after Thanksgiving to stand in line at Walmart, Best Buy, and shopping malls for “Black Friday” deals on electronics and clothing. I didn’t see the point in waking up at 5 a.m. to go shopping, but my friends informed me they got very good deals! I didn’t quite get the concept at first. You have just finished being grateful for everything you have but feel the urgent need to go buy more stuff. The only time I indulged in this custom was when Nordstrom gave out free pumpkin pies with every purchase (and you didn’t need to come early for that, or spend a lot).

Now that I have spent more of my life in the U.S., Thanksgiving has become an important part of my American life. I have hosted dinners at my home, cooking turkeys and dozens of sides myself, and invited international students and friends who find themselves alone. The holiday is more of a reminder to be grateful, than to overindulge in food or retail therapy.

Commemorating a bountiful harvest is not a concept unique to the Pilgrims, as some version of it can be found in other parts of the world. People across Germany, Grenada, Korea, Japan, Liberia, and Norfolk Island have been known to celebrate some version of a day of remembrance — of giving gratitude for a good harvest, of counting one’s blessings or thanking the labor force — by enjoying a feast with family and friends. Many cultures have parades, carnivals, music, and dancing to celebrate abundant food with appreciation.

Other transplanted Atlantans have brought their own perspective to this holiday of giving thanks.

An English Canadian who grew up in Toronto, Fairyal Halim was accustomed to celebrating Thanksgiving as a day to give gratitude, rather than in the context of a historical event. Our northern neighbor has been celebrating the holiday long before us and has similar cooking traditions, though they celebrate it in on the second Monday in October. A U.S. resident for almost three decades, Halim now celebrates two Thanksgivings with her family — a Canadian one in October, and an American version in November.

Says Halim, “To this day, Thanksgiving remains grounded in the recognition of our immense blessings of family, friends, and gratitude for it all. It is really a time to focus on all that we are blessed with and to not take it for granted. I make a point of reaching out to family and/or friends who may find themselves alone on Thanksgiving.” She remembers hosting turkey dinners for her son’s college friends who were unable to make it home for Thanksgiving. The turkey came from a halal (slaughtered according to the principals of Islam) butcher, as Halim’s family is Muslim.

For Halim, Thanksgiving emphasizes the coming together of different people and being aware of the abundance in one’s life. “As a Muslim, I find great resonance of values that are important to me in the celebration of Thanksgiving. It is the perfect synthesis of our North American culture and religion. The concept of gratitude and thankfulness to God is foremost for Muslims. They are to be ever mindful of their blessings, to not take anything for granted, and to give thanks by saying ‘Alhamdulillah,’ meaning ‘all praise is for God.’ Thanksgiving is not limited to just one day for Muslims,” she says. “It’s is an attitude of gratitude.”

Cali, Colombia, native Cesar Restrepo came to Cleveland, Georgia, to pursue a bachelor’s degree in music. “I knew that my brothers and family living in Miami celebrated Thanksgiving, but I thought it was just a break they had before Christmas. I also knew about the special prices on pretty much everything. For me it was just a mere shopping holiday,” he recalls of his first brush with the holiday.

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

PREPPING: Cooking the paella. courtesy of Cesar Restreppo

For his first turkey dinner, Restrepo was invited by a Colombian family who served him a typical American Thanksgiving dinner along with tamales, a customary dish at every Colombian holiday. He remembers taking a moment before the meal to express what each of them was thankful for, especially for the blessings this country had given them. Twenty years later, Restrepo continues the tradition with his wife and kids, cooking all day, inviting friends over, and reflecting on the good fortune they have in their lives.

“For me, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to gather with other immigrants and make them feel welcome in a country that is not ours but is kind enough to host us. It’s also an act of kindness and peace,” says Restrepo. Having grown up in a relatively poor country, he doesn’t like the extravagant feasts where a lot of food is wasted.

Content writer and blogger Lakshmi Devi Jagad moved from Mumbai to Atlanta in 2003. She, too, had no knowledge of the historic significance of Thanksgiving before arriving in the U.S., but she had heard about the incredible sales the holiday brought with it. “I believe Thanksgiving has been monetized for many years now!” she observes.

Over the years, it has become a day when she and her husband catch up with friends over a good meal and conversation, a quiet and peaceful time, Jagad says, for “a social gathering, a fun get-together, an opportunity to relax.”

Being vegetarian, Jagad must forgo the indispensable turkey and opt for an elaborate vegetable biryani, a layered Indian rice dish with saffron and nuts that is served with a side of cucumber and yogurt raita. “We prepare a huge pot of it as our version of the turkey,” she says.

Father George Mahklouf, an Orthodox priest from the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, has also integrated Thanksgiving into his annual rituals. “Whether Palestinians, Arabs, or other immigrants from overseas coming to America, many try to follow the traditions of the country they choose to live in. I lived in Yonkers, NY, then Long Island, and finally Atlanta. Wherever I went, Arabs celebrated Thanksgiving. Why? I don’t know, though most probably see it as a gathering of family and friends.”

Mahklouf says the story of the Native Americans and the Pilgrims is familiar to him. “It reminds me of our similar Palestinian story as native indigenous people of the land of Canaan who were displaced by Ashkenazi Jews coming from Poland, Russia, and other places in the world to live in our own homes and take over our businesses and orchards.” Mahklouf, who breaks his own Nativity Fast “in order to please people (at Thanksgiving)” for a feast he never celebrated in Palestine, says his thankfulness, like Halim’s, is not limited to the holiday. “We thank God and all who do us favors, without having a special day to thank God and others.”

Thanksgiving in the U.S. has traditionally been a historic celebration, with religious overtones for many, but today it is celebrated by immigrants from around the world, regardless of their religious or cultural beliefs or ethnic backgrounds, who have chosen to make the United States their home. The holiday may have evolved from a day of giving thanks around the dinner table to include watching afternoon football games and starting the holiday shopping season, but its essence — celebrating an abundance of food after a fall harvest, breaking bread together with others, and appreciating one’s blessings — has endured over time.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta

Where to Discover Persian Food and Culture in Atlanta

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. September 2018. 

“Get yourself a Persian friend. Just show interest in their culture, and the next thing you know, they will invite you over to their house,” says Samira Shakib Bregeth, an Iranian-American English teacher at Roswell High School and advisor for news and opinion website VOX. She and others I spoke with assured me that Persian people in Atlanta love to interact with people from other countries and welcome them to learn about Persian culture.

Bregeth has seen the Persian Festival in Atlanta grow from a few hundred to over 13,000 attendees, transitioning from Red Top mountain to Piedmont Park as its new venue. There are tents made to look like a bazaar with food, vendors, music, and dance, and it is always held on the first day of spring, which also marks Nowruz or Persian New Year. Festivities are held for 13 days at the Persian Cultural Center – Kanoon. These include a shopping festival that offers things Bregeth says are hard to make at home. “This is where you can buy things to put on your haftseen (ceremonial table) ),” she explains, “such as fruit, puddings, coins, candles, painted eggs — each symbolizing spring or renewal.”

Because their new year symbolizes the rebirth of nature, Persian families and friends spend a lot of time outdoors during this time. “You will see us at the Chattahoochee River enjoying picnics eating kotlets made with meat and potatoes; Persian sandwiches made with French bread, mint, and feta cheese; and lots of watermelon,” Bregeth says. They also make a bonfire and jump over it to get rid of sickness and to “burn away” the past year’s bad energy and welcome the new.

Leila Safay was homesick when she first moved to Atlanta in 2010. She, too, saw Kanoon as an opportunity to meet people from her community, and she enrolled her kids at the center for Farsi language and piano lessons. “We celebrate winter solstice, called Shab-e Yalda, by getting together with family and friends, eating watermelon, seeds and nuts, and predicting our fortunes from the poetry of Divan-e Hafez (a book of divination),” she explains. “Here people postpone the celebration to the weekend and host Yalda parties at their homes.”

Both Safay and Bregeth are happy to go out of their way for the Persian products found at the Super Global International market, a Persian grocery store that started in a strip mall and has expanded to three locations over the years. It carries imported products that are found in most Persian kitchens — saffron, cardamom, turmeric, loose-leaf teas, Persian rice, lavash bread, traditional cheese, pickled cucumbers, sweets, and more. Safay,  who left the country to be an independent woman and is now a successful realtor, says the spices and foods “just taste different, and make you nostalgic for growing up in Iran.”

When not cooking at home, both women like to go to Rumi’s Kitchen for a meal. “Everyone loves it, Persian or not!” says Bregeth. “It’s consistently delicious.” The establishment has grown into a hip restaurant that the Persian community is proud of, known for its quiet, intimate meals featuring favorites such as Zafron’s koobideh kabobs and ghormeh sabzi (an Iranian herb stew)

Leila’s 12-year-old daughter Jasmine, who was born in the U.S., gives me some tips on Persian etiquette: “We allow elders to talk first, eat first, and we show them utmost respect. We don’t address men and women by their first names, but call them ‘Aunt’ and ‘Uncle.’ Also, when you meet someone for the first time, you may shake hands and bow, but close friends air-kiss on both cheeks (mostly not to spoil one’s makeup),” she adds with humor. It is also customary to take sweets and flowers when invited to a home, and to call to thank your guests on the following day.

Making friends in the Persian community is easy. It starts with a passing conversation, a slight compliment, and ends in a dinner invite and long-lasting friendships.

Where to Experience Persian Culture in Atlanta

Grocery Stores:

Super Global International Food Market
11235 Alpharetta Hwy., Ste. 109, Roswell. 770-619-2966.
The go-to grocery store for Persian ingredients such as loose-leaf tea, flatbreads, and baklava, at reasonable prices.

Shahrzad 
6435-A Roswell Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-257-9045.
http://shahrzad.com
One of the oldest Persian grocery stores in Atlanta, founded in 1985. They moved from Doraville to Sandy Springs and sell herbs, spices, pastries, cold cuts, etc.

Restaurants:

Rumi’s Kitchen
Sandy Springs: 6112 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 404-477-2100.
Avalon: 7105 Avalon Blvd., Alpharetta. 678-534-8855.
www.rumiskitchen.com
Modern Persian restaurant popular with locals and out-of-towners. It has an open kitchen and an impressive wine list.

Zafron
236 Johnson Ferry Road N.E., Sandy Springs. 404-255-7402.
www.persianrestaurantsandysprings.com
Most popular restaurant among the Persian community, serving traditional cuisine in an elegant setting.

Sufi’s
1814 Peachtree St. N.W. Atlanta. 404-888-9699.
http://sufisatlanta.com
Good option for in-towners craving kabobs, Cornish hen, and aromatic rice.

Divan Restaurant and Hookah Lounge
3125 Piedmont Road, Atlanta. 404-467-4297.
https://www.divanatlanta.com
In 2017, Iranian chef Peyman Rostami returned the restaurant to its traditional roots, adding a modern twist. He formerly cooked for the King of Oman and has a culinary show on Persian TV Channel 7.

Culture and Festivals:

Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta – Kanoon
3146 Reps Miller Road N.W., Norcross. 404-303-3030.
https://www.atlantapcc.org
To learn Persian language, celebrate Persian holidays such as Mehregan, Yalda and Nowruz, as well as special Province, Poetry, and Music nights.

Atlanta Persian Festival
Piedmont Park, 1320 Monroe Dr. N.E., Atlanta.
http://atlantapersianfestival.com
Annual cultural event held in spring at Piedmont Park showcasing music, ethnic food, crafts, and kids’ activities. Free to public.

Nowruz Party
Various locations.
https://www.eventbrite.com/o/bavard-entertainment-inc-15703065356
Ballroom-style ticketed event that brings together Persians, Afgans, Kurds, Turks, and whoever celebrates Nowruz. Parties organized by the Persian Cultural Center of Atlanta feature folklore dances, live performances, food, drinks, and more.

Services:

Joseph & Friends (hair salon and spa)
Five locations. www.josephandfriends.com
Started by Iranian immigrant Joseph Golshani, this multicultural, full-service salon has been around since 1989.

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta

From Tunisia, with Love

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. April 2018.

Chef Lotfi Chabaane spends each day at a retirement community called Parc at Duluth. At 60, he’s the place’s de facto spring chicken, telling stories, dancing, and cooking for the seniors who live there. What he’s cooking are Tunisian, Indian, French, Malaysian, and German dishes, but his patrons often don’t know that. Chabaane disguises so-called “ethnic” foods with familiar descriptions, and serves them to people who may never have eaten international food before. That’s his mission: to expose retired folks to brand new cuisines in the most accessible way possible. And thus, to share a bit of his own life.

Born in the small coastal town of Menzel Temime, Tunisia, located on Africa’s northernmost tip, Chabaane began working from a young age in order to help support his family. He lost his father at just five years old, and, as the eldest son, had to step up and hustle his way through busy markets selling his mother’s lemonade and brik, a traditional stuffed pastry wrapped in phyllo dough and deep-fried.

“I would work from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. and bring home 50 cents every day,” Chabaane recalls. His other chores included fetching water from a hand pump and buying food at the markets for his mom to cook. “She would send me back if I did not get the right cut of meat, which is why I came to know so much about food.”

Growing up in a house full of women, Chabaane learned to cook by watching them. He would dry pasta, tomatoes, and olives; cure meats; preserve lemons. He also made some money shelling peanuts, seeding peppers, and plucking chickens for the neighboring farmers. Life was not easy, but it laid the foundation for his future career.

After attending a presidential sponsored high school in Tunisia, Chabaane went on to earn a degree in engineering but could not find a job in his field due to the country’s unstable economy. Instead, he worked at a resort doing anything he was asked — busing tables, serving drinks, folding chairs. Then one day, he met an English couple who invited him to work at their hotel in the seaside town of Devon. Starting as a bartender, Chabaane trained at the Imperial Hotel in Torquay as a waiter, and then a maître d’. He enjoyed entertaining people with food, and became particularly fond of tableside cooking — flambéing steak Diane and crêpes Suzette, carving lamb, tossing Caesar salads. “That’s when I realized I could cook!” he says, with a laugh. He also realized that his new skill set could act as his ticket around the world.

Leaving Tunisia and moving to the UK had already been a culture shock of sorts. Chabaane didn’t speak English fluently and eating fish and chips didn’t satisfy his Northern African palate. But the cooking skills he’d developed, coupled with a strong ambition to learn about the world’s cuisines, got him a job on the Queen Elizabeth II cruise ship. As an onboard sommelier and maître d’, he sailed around the world three times. “I tasted caviar, foie gras, and smoked salmon for the first time,” he recalls. “I was the happiest person in the world!”

While Chabaane worked hard on the ship and was often seasick, he looked forward to tasting the cuisine at each port city along the ship’s route. “I would go to small local restaurants and eat the best paella in Spain, grilled octopus in Lisbon, tamales in Acapulco, and tandoori chicken in Mumbai,” he says. “I was building my knowledge of food and realized I wanted to open my own restaurant someday.”

Chabaane finally got a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, in 1992. From there, he snagged gigs at the Department of Defense in Germany, then a French restaurant in Florida. He catered alongside Oprah’s former chef Art Smith in Tallahassee, and headed the dining room at Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta. Eventually, he’d made a big enough name for himself to open two Atlanta restaurants: Couscous, a Tunisian bistro in Morningside, and Perla Taqueria, a Mexican taco joint on Piedmont Road. But after five years of running the two restaurants, Chabaane decided to close down both. There was a revolution going on in Tunisia, one that would eventually mark the start of the Arab Spring, and he needed to go back there to be with his family.

TUNISIAN CHEF: Chef Lotfi Chabaane of Parc Duluth. Photo by Erik Meadows.

TUNISIAN CHEF: Chef Lotfi Chabaane of Parc Duluth. Photo by Erik Meadows.

But eventually, Chabaane returned to Atlanta, a city that’s become his second home. As dining director and executive chef for Parc at Duluth, he spends his days conversing in multiple languages with the retirees, creating eclectic menus using fresh and often unfamiliar ingredients, and telling stories of his world travels over platters of chicken satay, French ratatouille, chicken curry, and black truffle risotto. “I am no longer a chef,” he tells me as he prepares to give the residents a spirited lecture on legumes. “I am an educator and an entertainer.”

In February 2018, Chabaane hosted a fundraiser for my Atlanta-based nonprofit, Go Eat Give, where he cooked homestyle Tunisian dishes such as spicy carrot salad, chicken tagine stew in a traditional clay pot, and vegetable couscous. In this way, the chef was able to recreate his childhood memories of eating big weekend lunches, sharing stories, and surrounding himself with people. Though some of the attendees were generally familiar with the region, none had ever tasted  traditional Tunisian food before, which stands apart for its European influences. Chabaane was proud to serve it to them.

“I have been cooking for over half a century,” he says. “Now I want to share what I have learned.”

Eat Like a Local at Atlanta Airport

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

Airport food doesn’t always have to be greasy fast food, pre-packed sandwiches, and run-of-the-mill chain restaurants. Over 100 million passengers fly through the world’s busiest Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport each year, and they have several options where they can taste local flavors. While most travelers don’t have enough time to step outside the airport and enjoy Atlanta’s eclectic food scene, they can get a pretty good glimpse of it inside the seven terminals.

Check out these local restaurants inside Atlanta airport.

Paschal’s (Atrium, A, C)

Step back in time and visit one of Atlanta’s classic restaurants since 1947. This soul food establishment is known for award-winning fried chicken, and the city location was a meeting place for key civil rights leaders and strategists including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his lieutenants.

Papi’s Caribbean Café (T)

Established by a Cuban refugee, the Cuban grill has a takeout counter to grab a quick ropa vieja sandwich with black beans and yucca fries. Sip on a mojito at the bar, enjoy Latin music, and pick up a fedora at the adjacent shop.

Verasano’s Pizzeria (A)

Jeff Varasano traveled the world for 10 years perfecting the art of making pizza, eventually moving from the Bronx to Atlanta and taking the local gourmet pizza niche by storm. The restaurant is consistently ranked as a top pizzeria in the nation.

Grindhouse Killer Burgers (D, T)

The local chain is rated one of Atlanta’s best for burgers and brisket chili. Build your own burger with a wide selection of toppings, or order a Hillbilly Style with pimento cheese and jalapeños, along with distinctive Georgia sides—Vidalia onion rings, fried green tomatoes, and sweet potato fries.

Goldberg’s Bagel Company (T)

This family-run deli started serving New York style bagels in Atlanta in 1972 and has several locations around the city. Serving 32 varieties of bagels and homestyle Po’Boys, along with deli salads, stuffed cabbage, and steamed corned-beef pastrami, this is one of your classic neighborhood Jewish delis.

The Original El Taco (C, Mezzanine)

Who doesn’t like unpretentious good Mexican food while on the go? Atlanta’s neighborhood taco stand is always a big hit with travelers, offering simple and fresh Oaxaca-style tacos, big boss burritos, and spicy quesadillas for lunch and dinner.

Fresh to Order (B)

This Atlanta restaurant chain serves gourmet salads, sandwiches, and entrees at casual prices. Co-owner and South African immigrant Pierre Panos is behind the concept of healthy fast food at affordable prices, which is why F2O is one of the most popular lunch spots in the city.

The Varsity (C)

If you can’t go check out the biggest drive-in restaurant in the world in downtown Atlanta, you can still get a taste of its legendary burgers and chili dogs. Celebrating its 90th year, the family-owned chain still uses the same recipes for almost a century that even President Obama and President George H.W Bush can’t resist.

One Flew South Restaurant & Sushi Bar (E)

One Flew South is one of the few upscale dining establishments at Atlanta Airport. The cuisine is defined as “southernational,” inspired by world travels and using fresh, local ingredients. Find everything from chicken noodle soup and Korean style burgers to good quality sushi here.

Jekyll Island Seafood Company (F)

The Jekyll Island-inspired restaurant offers a taste of Georgia’s Atlantic coast with fried crawfish, buffalo shrimp, grits, fresh oysters, and seafood gumbo served with southern hospitality. The only thing missing is an ocean breeze!

Atlanta Chophouse & Brewery (Atrium)

A classic steakhouse with hearty sandwiches and salads in a casual setting. This is where you can get a fantastic prime rib served quickly. Also, have a business meeting over craft beer in one of their private rooms.

Atlanta Stillhouse (T)

Experience a bourbon flight (32 to choose from), cocktails, and whiskey at the Jim Beam (one of the best-selling bourbon brands in the world) co-owned restaurant. Pair it with Southern-style deviled eggs topped with crispy bacon, or a side of brisket.

TAP Airport (A)

Owned by local Concentrics Restaurants group, the gastropub showcases a taste of Atlanta with dishes such as buttermilk fried chicken, hot boiled peanuts, and shrimp and Logan Turnpike grits. Try local beers on tap, or relax with a porch swing peach punch.

Lotta Frutta (B)

Who says you can’t eat healthy on the road? What began as a website about fruit facts evolved into a Pan-Latin fruiteria serving Mexican-style fresh-cut fruit cups, South American-style smoothies, Cuban-inspired sandwiches, Mexican paletas (fruit popsicles), and Ecuadorian ice creams.

Piece of Cake (A)

If you are craving something sweet, head over to one of Atlanta’s legendary bakeries, Piece of Cake, for rich slices of coconut, banana, and pound cake. They also have cupcakes, brownies, cheese straw,s and cookies baked daily.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

How the World’s Largest Drive-In Restaurant Has Operated for Nearly a Century

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

You know you are in the South when you hear men and women screaming “what’ll ya have, what’ll ya have?” as they move you down quickly through the line. If you don’t respond quickly, you’ll be sent back to the line. Sounds like a high school cafeteria? This fast food restaurant is close to it!

With James Beard-nominated chefs, award-winning restaurants, and a myriad of international eateries, the dining scene in Atlanta has changed dramatically over the last few years. But one thing has remained constant for nearly a century—The Varsity.

The legendary hot dog stand was founded by a Georgia Tech student, Frank Gordy, in 1928. Gordy opened the first location across from Tech’s campus in downtown Atlanta and called it “The Yellow Jacket” after the men’s college basketball team. As demand for his messy beef chili dogs, greasy onion rings, fried fruit pies, and frosted orange milkshakes (aka F.O.s) grew, he took the concept to Athens, Ga. and renamed it “The Varsity.”

The Varsity in downtown Atlanta is the biggest drive-in restaurant in the world, covering two city blocks. The multi-level car park can accommodate 600 cars. No one can miss the V-shaped red neon signs with a ‘50s college tailgate feel and barhops dressed in red jackets while driving past Atlanta on I-75. Inside this huge space, it is always loud and busy, as you would expect during recess. The seating downstairs is made to look like classrooms where you can enjoy your tray of burgers, fries, and drink seated at your desk.

In the 1950s and ‘60s when drive-in culture was trending, The Varsity parking lot was not just one of the best fast-food restaurants; it was a place to socialize with friends and go out on a date. “Where else would one eat in Atlanta? It is an experience, an institution!” says Robert Howarth, a semi-retired real estate professional who was a regular at The Varsity when attending Georgia Tech during the ‘70s.

The fast food chain now has seven store locations (including two at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport) and four food trucks in Georgia, and it remains family-owned and operated.

Ashley Weiser, marketing director and granddaughter of Frank Gordy, attributes their success to having great food at a great price consistently over the past 90 years. “Not much has changed over the years and that is one of the things that makes us special. We still serve the same menu items, using the same secret family recipes,” she says, referring to a plain hot dog costing $1.59 and a hamburger at $1.89. Though the menu has gone through very little changes, recent additions include triple stack bacon cheeseburgers and two salads.

While gourmet farm-to-table hamburger restaurants are popping up around the country and fried food is getting less trendy, The Varsity is serving original recipe chili-dog combos, pimento cheese sandwiches, and sweet peach iced teas. “Food trends always come and go but we remain the same and that is what people love about The Varsity. Our business remains steady no matter what new trends in food service appear because we offer delicious quality products and that will never go out of style,” says Weiser.

Even President Obama and President George H.W Bush have stopped by to eat chili dogs at The Varsity in Atlanta.

You clearly don’t come here when you’re on a diet. The biggest draw to The Varsity is nostalgia. People who grew up in metro Atlanta have been eating at The Varsity for generations. They have celebrated birthdays, shared family meals, or had their first kiss at the drive-in. Many of them come back year after year because they want to walk down memory lane and feel like a kid again. Of course, the food is good too.

Weiser recalls, “The Varsity has been part of my life as long as I can remember. I had my birthday parties there as a child, worked there in high school and have great memories of visiting my dad and grandmother at our Atlanta location while they were working. I’ve always loved The Varsity and its long history in Atlanta and how much it means to people.”

Header image courtesy of The Varsity.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

A Tuscan-American Love Story: How Cooking and Dancing Brought This Atlanta Couple Together

For Chowhound. February 2018. 

An American girl travels to Italy, meets a charming Italian man, gets married, and together they live happily ever after. It sounds like a cliché love story, right?

Well, it happened in January 2009 when Meredith Hall, a resident of Atlanta, met Luigi D’Arienzo (who goes by Gigi) during a milonga in the medieval city of Siena. Gigi and his friends hosted and attended a tango social each month held in different towns around Italy. They would often cook for 80-100 people and enjoy evenings filled with drinking local wines, dancing, and meeting new people. “The first moment I saw Meredith was emotional. I wanted to dance with her. I didn’t think of anything, I just wanted to be with her. And then it was the best dance I had ever had!” Gigi recalls.

Since then, the couple has been dancing and teaching others around them how to savor the good life with their family-run Italian café in Atlanta and curated culinary trips to Italy.

Gigi D’Arienzo, Tuscany at Your Table; photo by Alessio Medda

Tuscany at Your Table commenced as a home-based cooking school offering small groups a chance to experience regional dishes from around Italy, honing on Gigi’s background of running an agro-tourism farmhouse in Tuscany. “Each week we would tour a different region of Italy through our palates,” Gigi says, teaching Italian food lovers how to cook carbonara from Rome, chickpea soup from Tuscany, and migliaccio (ricotta cake) from Naples. Those who wanted to dive deeper into the country’s rich culture embarked on trips to Sicily and the Amalfi Coast with the young couple.

After over 100 cooking classes, the city demanded more of Gigi’s original recipes demonstrated in a southern Italian accent with his sweet wife baking crostadas by his side. They rented a storefront in the trendy Virginia-Highlands neighborhood, known for funky boutiques and notable restaurants.

More Romantic Italian

Gigi now spends his days making homemade pastas, simple sauces, and delicately layered paninis, while Meredith specializes in desserts. The menu changes daily and is based on seasonal ingredients. Soups, salads, and pastas can be bought by servings or weight to take home for dinner. There is also a storefront selling Italian imports such as olives, chocolates, wine, cheese, prosciutto, and ceramics. While there’s not much room to dine-in, Tuscany at Your Table becomes a neighborhood hangout in the evenings.

Cooking classes, wine tastings, and tango nights are what draw singles and couples into the shop. Regular customers come in each week and meet new people from the community. They bring friends and celebrate birthdays over Italian food and wine. Often, Gigi and Meredith offer an impromptu tango lesson and everyone starts dancing. Perhaps someone else will also find their lover at one of these events.

Gigi & Meredith, photo by Rosemary Calli

Food is an integral part of Gigi and Meredith’s life. Though they work together and have a newborn baby, they take time to have a romantic meal at home from time to time. Gigi prepares orange and fennel salad, champagne and strawberry risotto, and molten chocolate cake, paired with a bottle of Lamùri (meaning love) a fine ruby red wine from Sicily. “We work well together dividing our responsibilities and are compatible at home and work. Even though we are busy, we are happy!” Gigi claims and offers to share his romantic secrets at a Valentine’s day cooking class.

Keeping with Italian tradition, on Feb. 15, Tuscany at Your Table will celebrate San Faustino, or “Singles Day” as it is known in Italy, with a cooking class only for singles. Typically, unattached men and women go out for drinks, dinners, and dances in Italy as a retort to San Valentino.

When recounting her time in Italy and what led to start her business, Meredith says, “What do I not love about Italy? I love the countryside, the people, and the language. I went with the excuse of learning the language, but discovered beautiful architecture in quaint historic cities, and warm, fun-loving people. I love that the food varies from region to region and there’s so much variety. That’s ultimately what we want to share through Tuscany at Your Table here in Atlanta.”

Header image courtesy of Rosemary Calli.

~ Written for Chowhound. February 2018. 

‘Refugee Cookies’: How a Syrian Woman and Her Family Turned Hardship Into a ‘Sweet, Sweet’ Business

For Chowhound. January 2018. 

Khaled and Ruwaida had a deep-rooted life back in Damascus, Syria. They owned two apartments and a few electronic shops. Khaled worked, while Ruwaida took care of their two kids. But political unrest forced them to leave their home country and walk across to Jordan, where they lived as refugees for four years. They lost their assets, sold most of their possessions for survival, and arrived in the United States with almost nothing. One of the few things they could carry with them—a wooden cookie mold from Syria that belonged to Ruwaida’s mother and grandmother—became the foundation of their future.

Once the family arrived in Georgia in 2016, refugee resettlement organization New American Pathways and Holy Trinity Parish helped them settle in. Initially, they relied on the help of the community for food and shelter. Amanda Avutu, one of the volunteers who has now become a close friend of the family, says, “I wanted to help stock their kitchen for them when they arrived at their new apartment but was totally lost! I went with an arbitrary shopping list to an Indian grocery store not really knowing what Syrians eat,” referring to how little knowledge she had of the country’s cuisine.

Not knowing English and having no transferable working skills, Khaled turned to minimum wage work, while Ruwaida baked cookies for her neighbors, the only way she could say “thank you” for their generosity. Little did she realize; her small sweet tokens would lead her to start her very own business and support her family.

Photo by David Naugle

The idea of “Sweet, Sweet Syria” was birthed during a neighborhood music festival where Ruwaida sold 45 dozen cookies in three hours from a friend’s porch. “Refugee cookies! Refugee cookies!” her 10-year old son yelled from the porch. It was the first time Ruwaida (now 29) had received money for her work and it took some getting used to the idea of being the first Arabic businesswoman in her family. “I was so excited and my kids seemed so proud of me” she says, smiling shyly.

“We Syrians think about food since the time we wake up,” Ruwaida says, and recalls fond food memories of her home country. She has been baking traditional Mamool cookies since she was 12 years old. Her mother taught her how to make the shortbread dough, season it with orange and rose water, and stuff it with dates, pistachios, chocolates, and coconut. The recipe has passed on through generations. It’s a 10-step labor intensive process and good quality ingredients are crucial. The cookies are delicate, flavorful, yet not too sweet.

Photo by David Naugle

“Do you want to work?” Ruwaida’s new American friends asked, and sought permission from her husband to be sensitive to her conservative cultural background. He immediately said, “Yes, but only in the house.” With much help from a Google translator, her advisors helped set up her website, took her for English language lessons, and enrolled her in a business accelerator program.

Since they did not have an outlet to sell, Avutu would sit at a neighborhood coffee shop to meet with customers and deliver the cookies they ordered through word of mouth. “I felt like a smuggler of cookies!” she laughs. The owner noticed this and signed up for a weekly order and gave Avutu a corner at the shop to meet with customers.

Next, they bought a tent, table, and sandwich board and headed to the farmers markets. The entire family was positively motivated when they saw people from all walks of life enjoying their homemade delights. They started receiving messages from people across the country who were eager to try the cookies, and they shipped the cookies via UPS.

Photo by David Naugle

Ruwaida’s friends also started a crowdfunding campaign to help her rent a commercial kitchen. She now supplies cookies to local coffee shops and farmers markets in Atlanta, and takes online orders ($10 per dozen). Her husband/sous chef assists in running private Syrian dinners at friends’ homes that serve as a place for cross cultural exchanges. The kids get a chance to see other American homes and share their own backgrounds.

In less than two years since their move to the US, Khaled and Ruwaida are loving their new entrepreneurial lives and eventually want to open a small brick and mortar Syrian restaurant.

“The cookies are not sweet themselves,” Ruwaida explains. The sweetness she is referring to is the recollections she has of Syria. She wants people who taste her cookies to have a positive experience, and not associate the country with only death and destruction. So, she named her business “Sweet, Sweet Syria.”

Header image courtesy of Sweet, Sweet Syria.

Written for Chowhound. January 2018. 

First Look: Rose + Rye

For Creative Loafing Atlanta. December 2017. 

Seewai Sayavong welcomes me into a 12,000-square-foot Victorian mansion overlooking 15th street. “Tennessee Williams has lived here!” she says. Upon further research, I find that no one is quite sure whether this factoid is true or not, but the building, often referred to as “the castle,” was indeed a residence for many Atlanta artists back in the day. Sayavong, who hails from Laos and was once general manager for Thai fine dining concepts Nan and Tuk Tuk, gives me a cheerful tour of the newly renovated space. It’s clear she enjoys her new gig as assistant manager for Rose + Rye quite a lot.

For owner Thaddeus Keefe, who also owns the atmospheric 1KEPT Kitchen + Bar, the national historic site was an obvious choice for his new restaurant. “There’s always an artistic overtone to the concepts we create,” says Keefe, a writer and painter himself. “This is more about the painter and the muse which plays intricately to the history of the building.”

The space spans four stories, each with original hardwood floors, dramatic stone walls, and contemporary white and dark merlot contrasting furniture. The ground level, known as “the Grotto,” serves as a bar and lounge area where Keefe plans to showcase Atlanta artists and project classic black and white movies, keeping true to the building’s origins. One can totally picture a bunch of aficionados standing on the large patio overlooking Woodruff Arts Center, drinking wine and talking about the latest exhibits. On our tour, Sayavong also shows me the bedrooms upstairs; each is marked by a state emblem and all are now open for private parties of various sizes.

DSC3414REMADE CLASSIC: Chicken mole with braised chicken thigh, crispy rice cake, and wilted kale.JOEFF DAVIS

Rose + Rye boasts a vibrant cocktail menu with select wines and cocktails named after the works of Ernest Hemingway: Garden of Eden, Men Without Women, A Farewell to Arms. “We wanted to open with drink names that referenced Hemingway out of respect for the great one,” Keefe says. “As our drink list changes and evolves, you’ll see additional authors’ names and pieces of work involved.”

My server, Kat, recommends True at First Light ($14), a vodka mojito with champagne bubbles. She tells me that the staff gets a free drink at the end of each shift and this one, both solid and refreshing, is a popular choice. If you are not a whiskey drinker, the signature Rose + RYE ($13) may convert you. Delicate rose water, spicy star anise, and bitter orange peel balance off the edginess of the rye.

Despite its male ownership, Rose + Rye is run by an all-women culinary team, from its executive chef to its general manager. “It happened naturally,” says Keefe, noting that he saw a unique opportunity to showcase feminine talent and diversity in an industry often ruled by men.

DSC3592DRAMATIC ENTRY: Midtown’s “castle” was built by Ferdinand McMillan the early 1900s.JOEFF DAVIS

The seasonal menu pulls from the culinary team’s various backgrounds. Executive chef Lindsay Owens has been in the restaurant industry since the age of 15 and recently moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis, where she cooked at the Lynhall, Tilia, Unideli, and Creamery Café. Her French toast entrée ($14) is a play on a breakfast classic made with pickled chanterelle mushrooms, Parmesan cream, and tarragon on slices of country bread pan-fried with cream, garlic, black pepper, and vinegar. “I love to try new techniques and flavor combinations,” Owens says. “I play with food until it tastes great.”

Sous chef Anu Adebara draws on a Nigerian upbringing to bring her own spin to classic dishes. For her chicken mole ($22), she uses corn tortillas, a nice balance of fresh and dried spices, and tomatoes to make a rich chocolaty sauce, which she serves on a bed of crispy rice cakes. “I grew up eating West African cuisine, but I didn’t want to scare people off with the strong spices,” she says. “So, I created dishes that are approachable yet still stay true to the integrity of the dish.”

DSC3434FROM THE SEA: Seared yellowfin tuna, haricot vert, cured olive puree, and smoked yogurt.JOEFF DAVIS

The braised duck ($14) appetizer is an upscale take on typical barbecue, marinated in sherry vinegar and three kinds of peppers (pasilla, guajillo, and ancho chili) and served atop crisp polenta cakes and pickled red onions. The combination of spicy, sour, and sweet illustrates Keefe’s “yin and yang — rose and rye, get it?” theme well. Glazed pork belly ($14) is tenderized with soy sauce for four hours and complements the accompanying Parisian gnocchi. Together, the pork fat and velvety dumplings melt in my mouth like savory profiteroles.

Seared snapper ($26) is a bit overcooked and has little flavor, but the rehydrated cherries add a pleasantly sweet touch. Seared tuna ($28) offers the unusual flavor combinations of olive paste and yogurt.

DSC3364WOOD AND STONE: The Rose + Rye team recently renovated the historic Midtown building, creating a series of bars and dining areas.JOEFF DAVIS

Desserts, made in house by pastry chef Charity Everett (formerly of 1KEPT and Revel Pastry Company), also buck tradition. Buttermilk panna cotta ($9) is a bit runny but has surprise fig jam on the bottom that you can sop up with house-made rosemary cookies. A dark chocolate tart ($13) with bacon fat popcorn is bold and bitter with a nice crunch.

While Rose + Rye’s menu is still coming into its own, the restaurant’s concept inspires.

“It’s extremely empowering to have people that understand food in a way a woman understands it,” says Adebara. “It’s like a sisterhood where we take each other’s’ opinion seriously and thrive in a creative environment.” Adds chef Owens, “We’re a take-no-crap team and get things done. I love everything about it!”

Rose + Rye, 87 15th St. N.E. 404-500-5980. www.roserye.com

~ Written for Creative Loafing Atlanta. December 2017.