Julius Jackson on Resiliency and Answering the Call for Community in USVI

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

Professional chef, author of the cookbook “My Modern Caribbean Kitchen” and a 2008 Olympian boxer representing the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI), Julius Jackson, knows a little about resiliency. Growing up on the islands, Jackson has witnessed several devastations caused by extreme weather, economic downturn and now a pandemic. However, he has always stayed close to the community and found innovative ways to help those around him.

Alongside his catering, speaking and celebrity guest appearances, Jackson works as head chef and manager at My Brother’s Workshop Café and Bakery in downtown St. Thomas. My Brother’s Workshop (MBW) is a nonprofit organization that provides mentoring, counseling, paid job training, education and job placement to at-risk and high-risk young men and women between the ages of 18-24. His job involves teaching students how to work in the food industry, serve customers and manage front and back sections of the bakery as well as attain diplomas online.

Student worker at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student worker at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

On a typical day, Jackson works with his students to create delectable pastries, sandwiches, coffee and breakfast bites that locals grab on their way to work in downtown Charlotte Amelie. The rum cake, seafood kallaloo and dumb bread are known to be some of the best on the island. “We had regular customers who got to know our youth and we had a good business going,” says Jackson. But for the past few months, the bakery kitchen transformed into a feeding center, cooking and delivering free meals to those in need in partnership with World Central Kitchen.

Stepping up in a Time of Need

Back in March, Jackson did not know what the effects of COVID-19 would be on the community. “Once COVID came to the island, the governor ordered a shutdown and we had to close our doors for a few weeks. It put a lot of economic strain on the people who were already living under the poverty level,” Jackson shares. He already knew of families who didn’t have enough food or money, and many elderly individuals who didn’t feel safe going into grocery stores. His team came up with a plan to discontinue normal bakery operations and instead cook and deliver free meals in partnership with sponsors and existing organizations. The Federal Government’s Department of Human Services also got involved and asked for MBW’s assistance in feeding people around the islands. “We reached a point where we were doing 700 meals a day,” Jackson says.

Employee prepping food at My Brother's Workshop Cafe and Bakery
Pictured: Student workers prepping food at My Brother’s Workshop Cafe and Bakery | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

Though the transition for students cooking at a small bakery to now making high-volume banquet meals was tough, they were able to learn new skills under the guidance of good trainers. Also, it took several weeks for some of them to feel safe to come down to work. The families were scared to send their kids, and some take public transportation to get to downtown. Jackson’s team arranged pick-ups and limited capacity in the kitchen to make them feel safe so they could come in and help with the grassroots efforts.

With the help of 78 community partners, board and committee members, staff, trainees and over 115 volunteers, MBW was able to serve 37,923 meals to the vulnerable population on St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix over a period of three and a half months.

Once the program ended and it was safe to reopen, the bakery returned to regular service with a new plan. They switched the menu to offer plates of food and specials that people could grab-and-go from a take-out window without having to come inside.

Answering the Call

The pandemic is not the first time that Jackson took a leadership role on the island. Similar to the COVID response, the leadership of MBW came up with a plan before hurricane Irma devastated USVI in 2017. Jackson recalls securing the bakery against flooding, getting curfew passes from FEMA and immediately springing into action cooking and delivering meals. Then a second hurricane, Maria, came and they had to close again. Jackson sent his wife and young son on a rescue cruise ship from St. Thomas to be with relatives in Canada while he stayed behind. “It was tough but necessary. There was no power, no flights, and lots of homes were destroyed. I couldn’t even say goodbye to them as I was standing in long lines to get gasoline so I could cook our next meal. I don’t think anyone saw me, but that moment was hard and I cried,” Jackson recalls emotionally. He and his team fed about 37,000 people during the four to five months after the hurricanes.

Julius Jackson and team in USVI
Pictured: Julius Jackson and team | Photo credit: MBW Cafe and Bakery

Jackson says that knowing like-minded people who have faith in doing great things together is what makes him resilient during difficult times. “If I was by myself, I wouldn’t have been as resilient. But there was a team of us that were confident that we could help serve others. We are passionate about the community and good at execution. We have kind of become the emergency response team here. That’s why I’m here,” he adds.

While there is a second lockdown ordered in USVI, his goal is to keep the youth active and their minds engaged and perhaps restart the free meals program.

For daily menus and hours, visit https://mybrothersworkshop.org/ and Facebook.  Follow Jackson for current happenings on the islands and off on Instagram and Twitter.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Blending Caribbean and Italian Flavors with Chef, Entrepreneur and Philanthropist Nik Fields

Cuisine Noir Magazine. September 2020.

Chef Nik, better known as “Nik the Chic Chef “or “Foodie with a Cause,” has merged her passion for food and life.  Over the years, she has gained national recognition for her amazing culinary art skills having prepared cuisine for celebrities such as Jess Hilarious, Supa Cent, Angie Stone, Vivica Fox, Tisha Campbell, Tichina Arnold and Snoop Dogg. Fields is possibly the only Black chef with her own olive farm and a collection of infused olive oils and balsamic vinegars. In the past few months, she introduced a new line of syrups and is planning to open a retail store and café.

Fields grew up in Brooklyn, New York, with her Caribbean-American parents who instilled a love for food in her since she was a little girl. She earned a culinary arts degree and traveled to Italy in search of culture and good food. However, her parents discouraged her from working in the culinary field as they did not consider it to be a glamorous career. Fields earned a master’s degree in finance instead, worked at a bank and excelled in her field. She had a family and continued to show her love for food by throwing parties and family dinners.

Create Your Own Path

At age 43, once her daughter graduated from college, Fields decided to pursue her life’s dream in the culinary arts. “I already had the skills and just needed to brush them[up]. I needed confidence to face the competitive environment,” she says.

Chef Nik Fields
Pictured/Photo credit: Nik Fields

Fields also wanted to use her business skills and create her own path in the culinary world. Instead of working from the ground up, she co-created Chic Chef Co. in 2016. She purchased olive groves in Italy, produced olive oil and introduced 15 organic, salt-free and hand-mixed seasonings. “Think of it as a healthier version of Goya. It’s easy, delicious and doesn’t require any cooking,” adds Fields. She recently introduced a line of honey-based organic simple syrups under Chic Chef Co. that come in flavors such as mango lime, jalapeno and lavender vanilla. The products are available online and in select retail stores. Next, Fields is working on a line of sorbets.

When asked what does it takes to create one’s own product line, Fields says, “It takes a lot of testing, trials and errors. You want to pick a product you can stand behind. I have an appreciation for Italian culture and add my spin on it with my Caribbean background. That’s new and unique.”

Fields plans to open a flagship store in January of 2021 in downtown Phoenix, Arizona. The location will also feature a community garden, a restaurant called Chic Chef Co. Marketplace and Café and a private tasting room called Culinary Vibe where Fields will host cooking classes, private dinners and events.

Dish by Chef Nik Fields
Pictured: Rice dish by Chef Nik Fields | Photo credit: Nik Fields

Through her books, this culinary trailblazer also wants to teach others about reducing food waste, the importance of food sustainability and how food stimulates mood and sexual drive. Her third book, “The Chic Chef Approach Volume III: Waste Not Want Not,” releases in October 2020.

Returning to One’s Roots

Fields continues to give back to her cultural background in the Caribbean. Every year, she travels with her team to the island of Hispaniola (an island divided into the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), where they fund clean water programs and help villages build private wells. Her nonprofit organization, Waste Not Want Not (WNWN, Inc.), encourages households and restaurants in the U.S. to limit food waste. They hold seminars for kids and adults in Arizona to teach them about food waste and how to grow their own gardens. “My culture teaches me to help as many people as possible and not to discriminate among the community.” Fields says she plans to mitigate hunger by offering free meals to the homeless populations in Phoenix.

The pandemic has not slowed down Fields and her efforts to help everyone eat better, save money and drink clean water. She adds, “The downtime allowed me to have more focus than before. I learned more aspects about my business and [will] be ready for when the world opens up again.”

Learn more as well as shop with Fields at https://www.chicchefco.com  and follow her Instagram and Facebook for updates on new products and the opening of her flagship store.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

Jumoke Jackson, The Bishop of Biscuits, Releases Cookbook For Fail-Proof Biscuits

Cuisine Noir Magazine. June 2020.

New York City-based Chef Jumoke Jackson is a self-proclaimed “Bishop of Biscuits.” This private chef, caterer and speaker recently authored a cookbook called “Soulfull Biscuits: How to master the art of biscuits” that includes 50 ways to make biscuits, as well as jams and compound butter recipes.

Among his other accomplishments, Jackson graduated from the French Culinary Institute and the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City. He founded Entrée Metropolitan, a catering and event planning company in 2008 and has cooked for Grammy award-winning artists, politicians and celebrities. Jackson has been featured on ABC’s “The Chew,” “Fox & Friends” morning show, Travel Channel’s “Fiery Foods Challenge” and Food Network’s “Beat Bobby Flay” and “Cutthroat Kitchen.”

“I love biscuits! Coming from the South, I have always gravitated toward biscuits. Every time I have had them, I have loved them,” Jackson says about the flaky, buttery puffs that have always been a staple on his dinner table.

The 10 Biscuit Commandments

About a year and a half ago, Jackson ran a biscuit sandwich pop-up in the heart of New York at Urban Space by Madison Square Garden. His “Hot Buttered Soul Sandwich”  — a buttermilk biscuit topped with a piece of fried chicken, mac and cheese and sweet potato puree  — was hugely popular for the 40 days the pop-up ran. People wanted more of his biscuits but did not know how to make them at home, which is what led Jackson to write his cookbook.

Buttermilk biscuits by Jumoke Jackson
Picture: Buttermilk biscuits | Photo credit: Jumoke Jackson

The cookbook contains Jackson’s scripted “10 Biscuit Commandments” or principles that should be followed to make perfect biscuits. “People need to realize that biscuits are very delicate. You have to be gentle with them, treating the dough like a baby and not use brute force,” says Jackson. “You don’t need to overwork it like pizza dough.” He also says to make sure your ingredients are fresh and that your baking powder has not expired.

Another tip he shares is to keep all ingredients, especially dairy, always chilled and not at room temperature. Cold butter helps make the biscuits fluff up while baking. “Butter releases a burst of steam when hot and that’s what makes your biscuit magical,” he adds. Jackson also advises using good quality unsalted butter to control the salt content. The rest of his commandments or biscuit making tips and tricks can be found in his “Soulfull Biscuits” cookbook that is available in eBook format on his website and soon on Amazon.

Don’t Forget About Flavor

Jackson likes to experiment with different flavors and fillings. “Aside from the traditional buttermilk biscuit, my second favorite is sweet potato biscuit,” he shares. In addition, he is big on combining different herbs and cheeses to make interesting variations. Some of the biscuit flavors he has introduced include rosemary and parmesan, thyme and pecorino, cinnamon roll, blueberry and yeast biscuits. He shares that you can also stuff the biscuits with a surprise filling such as jam, brie and apple or blackberry compote. “Fill the raw dough with whatever you like as long as you handle it as little as possible,” he advises.

Jumoke Jackson with blueberry biscuits
Pictured: Jumoke Jackson with blueberry biscuits | Photo credit: Jumoke Jackson

There are two main ways to cook biscuits. The most traditional way is using a cast-iron skillet that holds heat better, resulting in a crispier biscuit. The second is baking biscuits on a sheet pan in a conventional oven that is more straightforward and does not make a huge difference in the quality of the final product.

During the recent pandemic, many people have taken to baking at home. Biscuits are one of the most popular treats to bake and Jackson has been keeping busy, teaching virtual biscuit making classes via Chefs Feedplatform. “Many people are intimated by biscuits at first, but once they figure out how to make them, it feels really good!”

Now that we have you ready to create your own biscuit magic, be sure to try Jackson’s buttermilk biscuit recipe.

To purchase a copy of “Soulfull Biscuits: How to master the art of biscuits,” as well as try over savory recipes by Jackson, visit www.chefjjackson.com.  You can also stop by and follow his Instagram page for upcoming classes, more food and a few laughs.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

What is Tibetan food? Find out at the only metro Atlanta restaurant that serves it.

Atlanta Magazine. Feb 2020.

At age 13, Kalsang Lama was already a skilled enough cook to prepare dinner for her family when they returned home from work each night. She grew up in a Tibetan settlement in Mussoorie, a popular hill station in northern India. Her parents were refugees who had fled religious persecution in Tibet, walking across the world’s highest mountains, the Himalayas, carrying just a few belongings with them. In Mussoorie, they worked constantly and spent family time reminiscing about their home country’s food and traditions.

Continue reading on Atlanta Magazine’s website…

A Modern Take on Sierra Leonean Cuisine: Here’s What’s Cooking in Maria Bradford’s Kitchen

Cuisine Noir Magazine. Nov 2019.

Maria Bradford is changing the way diners perceive African cuisine. She pairs her African-inspired modern savory street food snacks with English cakes and scones and caters them to a tea party in London. She mixes hibiscus with strawberries picked at her neighborhood farm in Kent and sells the “Passionately Bissap” juice bottles through her online store.

Bradford is a native of the West African country Sierra Leone that is typically associated with transatlantic slavery, Ebola, poverty and corruption. “I divert the conversation to food,” says Bradford, founder of Maria Bradford Kitchen, based in the UK. “I talk about my fun childhood in Sierra Leone, where I was surrounded by aunties and grandparents. Though I had a single parent, I was always around people.” Bradford points out that Sierra Leon is also known for welcoming people, beautiful beaches and great food.

Childhood Foods Reinvented

If you browse through Bradford’s Instagram page (which has 22K followers and counting), you can visualize the comforting, yet contemporary food she is referring to. Bradford did not want to present the stereotypical West African dishes, such as peanut stew and jollof rice. Instead, she is inspired by the street food she fondly loved as a child but was not allowed to eat, as her mother considered eating on the street to be rude. “I would use my taxi fare and walk back home so I could buy donuts after school,” she points to the inspiration behind her pumpkin drop donuts with cinnamon sugar. Her sophisticated dishes, such as fish untu (steamed fish balls) and lemongrass soup, morkor (sweet and savory banana fritters), cassava flatbread with pan-fried sea bass, use the flavors and ingredients from Africa and are presented with her own unique twist.

Bradford’s culinary journey started only a few years ago when she was cooking for family and friends. Her first catering gig — a cousin’s baby shower in London — motivated her to start her own business. She created an Instagram page, enrolled in culinary school, set up a catering business, and started a product line selling drinks and sauces.

Juices from Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

Bradford creates the Sierra Leonean-inspired drinks and chili sauces with seasonal, natural ingredients. “Again, I took from the beverages sold from bicycles on the streets and had my own take on them,” Bradford explains. With tropical flavors of coconut water, lavender, tamarind juice, ginger, hibiscus and mango, the different juice concoctions are great as cocktail mixers. She advises drinking them by themselves or adding a bit of brandy or whiskey for a special holiday treat. Passionately Bissap pairs exceptionally well with gin or prosecco. The products are available online on her website or by messaging her through her Instagram page.

Travel, Food and a Cookbook
Maria Bradford of Maria Bradford Kitchen
Photo credit: Maria Bradford Kitchen

When not cooking, Bradford is traveling and drawing inspiration from other chefs around the world. She takes cooking classes, cooks with local chefs, hosts pop-up restaurants and draws parallels between how people eat in Sierra Leone versus the rest of the world. In Javier, Spain, she went down to the fishing bay each morning and cooked with the locals. “Growing up, 90% of my diet was fish, as it was cheap and accessible, so I love to cook with fish,” she says. You can see many of her fish dishes in her picture feed. In Malaysia, she compares the chicken satay to Sierra Leone peanut chicken. Her latest travels took her and her family to a homestay in India, where she learned to cook from an older lady in Kerala. “It reminded me of my own family and how we love to invite strangers,” she adds.

“A cookbook is definitely coming at some point,” says Bradford, but currently she is focusing on renting a commercial kitchen where she can host frequent supper clubs as she continues to positively showcase the flavors of West Africa.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir Magazine. All rights reserved.

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.”

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. 

When Curiosity Turns to Love in Tanzania

For Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

I arrived in Dar es Salaam with Grace Odogbili, a Nigerian-American chef and caterer from Brooklyn. Having worked with New York’s top restaurants and caterers, Odogbili started her own business, Dining With Grace, in 2010 to offer people a chance to savor regional cuisines of the African diaspora. She teaches nutritional culinary arts workshops in Brooklyn’s public schools, introducing underserved communities to healthier lifestyles.

This was the first trip to East Africa for both of us. For the next several days, we explored the cuisine and culture of Tanzania, like a local, with a local. “When I started The African Table, a monthly pop-up dining series in 2013, I hosted “A Night in Zanzibar” dinner at a Brooklyn art gallery where we had a multi-course Tanzanian inspired meal with live music. That’s where I met Justa Lujwangana, who had recently started a Meetup group namedCurious on Tanzania (COT). She was my featured guest and since that day we decided we must go to Tanzania together, ” says Odogbili. Lujwangana is a Tanzania-born African who has lived in Uganda and New York. She also founded COT as an experiential travel company.

Grace-cooking-at-COT.jpgWe headed to Lujwangana’s house in the quiet suburbs of Dar which she calls “the COT house.” The two-story bungalow, with its five bedrooms, beautiful garden and spacious living room and kitchen, is a private guest house listed on Airbnb. Dressed in a brightly colored cotton dress called a kanga, Luiwangana welcomes us to the place she calls home for a few months each year. “Karibuni Tena!” (meaning welcome to Tanzania) she exclaims with a big smile. This is a greeting we got accustomed to hearing many times during our visit. Over a breakfast of smoked eggplant and tomato stew, steamed cassava, chapatti and ginger tea, she tells me how she started COT. “I wanted to give people the opportunity to hear the untold stories of Tanzania and go beyond the safaris,” she explains about bringing groups from New York to Tanzania on dance, music, sporting and culinary tours.

Lunch-in-Dar.jpgTogether we explored the cosmopolitan big city. During the day, busy streets clog traffic as street peddlers walk up to cars selling everything from chopping boards and wood carvings to fidget spinners. At night, restaurants and bars are alive with women dressed in long flowing Western dresses and men in sharp Western wear sipping on cocktails, enjoying the summer breeze. We frequent several upbeat neighborhoods, watch live music and enjoy late night dinners.

The next day we board a ferry to the island of Zanzibar, Lujwangana’s “second home.” Everyone seems to come greet her as we walk through the narrow cobblestone streets of Stone Town. We stay at the Mizinghani Seafront Hotel, a historical building that was originally built for newly married royal couples for their honeymoons.Ornate wood doors, wool tapestry and mosaic floors speak to the hundreds of years of Portuguese and Omani influences left on the island. The island is also home to a small Arab and Indian population.

Grace-tasting-Swahili-pizza.jpg

Our main reason for being here now is the Stone Town Food Festival. A celebration of local flavors featuring over 30 restaurants offering special prix fixe menus, it culminates at a two-day street fair at the island’s gathering spot, Forodhani Gardens. We pay anywhere from $1 to $5 for a tasting and feast on fried sardines, fish balls, beet salad, hummus, pita and more.  Odogbili and I are intrigued by “Zanzibar Pizza” signs that several food vendors display. Minced meat, bell peppers, eggs and cheese are stuffed into a crepe thin like pocket and fried with ghee. Served with hot sauce and mayo, it is not a traditional pizza but a popular local street food no less.

In the morning we head to the island’s oldest vegetable market for produce and then to the home of a Swahili family for a cooking class. All of the female extended relatives and neighbors gather to greet us and give us a change of traditional clothes for wearing at home, which is custom. Odogbili instantly takes charge of the outdoor kitchen while all the women chop, shred, and fry food over a charcoal stove. “Cooking with the Swahili women felt like being home with your tribe of sisters. Everyone must play their part so we can all eat together. It felt like nothing was rushed, it was life and it was sweeter when done in community,” she recalls. After several hours of cooking, we sat on the floor eating with our hands and sharing laughs and stories.

The turquoise blue waters of the Arabian Sea are dotted with dhows, traditional wooden sailing vessels operated by skillful sailors. On one of the days, Lujwangana organized a special sail to one of the most beautiful sand banks off Stone Town and a picnic on the beach. Surrounded by white sand and crystal-clear water, we feast on grilled lobster, prawns, calamari, fish, accompanied by kachumbari salad, French fries and steamed rice. We take turns swimming and snorkeling.

No visit to Zanzibar is complete without a visit to a spice farm. At Jumbo Spice Farm, we get to understand why Zanzibar is named the island of spices. Cardamom, cloves, black pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg – practically all of the spices I had ever heard of can be found here. We also got a chance to make our own masala chai blend and received beautiful handcrafted floral gifts and had a delicious farm-fresh lunch. “I’ve used the masala chai spice blend for everything from curries, desserts, dry rubs and more. I make an amazing carrot cake with masala chai cream cheese frosting. It’s delicious,” Odogbili says tempting me a few weeks after our trip.

We end our tour with a safari at Selous Game Reserve, one of the largest animal reserves in the world, where we stay at a tented camp overlooking a river and spot zebras, giraffes, buffalo, impala and a lion. Here, we had a chance to interact with Maasai tribes and bushmen, learning about their traditional dances.

“Tanzania is truly a beautiful country with so much rich history,” says Odogbili and I agree. It offers everything from beautiful beaches, quaint hotels and indigenous art, to diversity of flavors from Arabic, Portuguese, African and Indian traditions. With warm hospitable people who are always smiling and dancing, it is impossible not to fall in love with Tanzania.

Enjoy these recipes for Masala Coconut Caramel SpreadBoiled Cassava w/ Kachumbari and Spicy Beet & Coconut Salad courtesy of Grace Odogbili. For more information about Dining With Grace, visit www.diningwithgrace.com and for Curious on Tanzania, visit www.curiousontanzania.com.

Written for Cuisine Noir Magazine. January 2018. 

 

First Look: Amara

For Creative Loafing Atlanta, December 2016. 

Amara is easy to spot, thanks to its electric blue and white sign. A Persian rug welcomes diners into the spacious, modern-industrial interior with pendant lights dangling from a high vaulted ceiling. A glass-backed bar with yellow chairs is central to the space, where one can watch people stopping by after work, or even a workout, to grab a drink and a bite with a soundtrack of international jazz, rap, and techno beats. The sleek sunken dining area leads to a semi-open kitchen where executive chef Bhavesh Patel (Spice Market, Table 1280, Morningside Kitchen) is hard at work creating a singular array of Indian-inspired American cuisine.

Located just past Inman Quarter at the intersection of N. Highland Avenue and Inman Village Parkway, Amara is the first collaboration between Patel and restaurant owner Sandeep Kothari, the man behind Midtown’s sleek Indian eatery, Tabla. Amara is like Tabla’s equally modern but more casual and capricious little sister. “We want people to be able to walk to Amara and stop by for cocktails and sharable plates before they move on to the next place for the night,” Patel says.

Growing up in England, Patel would watch his grandmother slowly simmer traditional Indian dishes while hiding under the kitchen table. His culinary curiosity carried him through Indian, American, and international restaurant kitchens. “I wanted to elevate international cuisine to a higher concept by adding spices and using modern cooking techniques,” he says, noting that the idea behind Amara was to make Indian food more approachable.

DINING DOWN UNDER: Amara's glass-backed bar and sunken dining roomDINING DOWN UNDER: Amara’s glass-backed bar and sunken dining roomPhoto by JOEFF DAVIS.

Amara’s menu is familiar yet original, offering generously portioned tapas and entrees. It’s fusion, but not in the derogatory sense. Patel presents bold flavors, merging French, Italian, and Indian cooking techniques with a passion for experimentation — derived, perhaps, from his three science degrees. He incorporates a variety of proteins typically eschewed by Indian chefs, such as pig ear, foie gras, mussels, and pork belly, and fearlessly blends ingredients from the East and West. Think jaggery-tamarind glazed hangar steak, sweetbreads in sambal sauce, or idli (steamed rice cakes) stuffed with wild mushrooms.

Brussels sprouts “bhel” ($7), a twist on the classic Mumbai street food, becomes in Patel’s hands a vibrant slaw of fried Brussels, sweet potatoes, black chickpeas, yogurt, and tamarind sauce. Traditionally a sweet or savory vegetarian dish from the state of Gujarat in India, the pulled goat ghugra ($9) at Amara is a crispy empanada stuffed with tender shredded goat meat and served with house-made mint chutney.

The beet and coconut samosa ($8) resembles a phyllo-wrapped Greek spanakopita, but instead presents delicately flavored diced beets seasoned with black mustard and curry leaf. Grilled octopus tentacles ($14) are soft and succulent, served with a salad of cucumber and tomatoes (typically referred to as kachumber in Hindi). Gnocchi ($18), a popular Italian pasta dish, finds itself blended with Indian paneer into light and fluffy rectangles that pair exceptionally well with a Thai-style curry of coconut milk and lemongrass.

GO FISH: Pomfret with pickling spice and herbal condiment

GO FISH: Pomfret with pickling spice and herbal condimentPhoto by JOEFF DAVIS.

The blending of cultures can be found in all sections of the menu. Warm Indian naan ($5) is topped with fragrant truffle oil instead of the usual butter or ghee. Unusual flavors of ice cream ($8) are prepared in partnership with neighboring shop Queen of Cream and include gulab jamun (fried doughnuts), tooti frooti (mixed candied fruit), Parle G (a nostalgic Indian cookie brand), and Ovaltine. Chocolate chai pot de creme ($8) is a full-on mouth party with its intriguing combination of salty popcorn, sweet caramel, buttery nankhatai cookie crunch, and rich creamy molten chocolate.

House cocktails pair well with Patel’s eclectic dishes. The Smoking Gun ($10) contrasts strong mezcal against sweet pineapple and spicy bitters, while the East India ($8) eases cognac into smooth dark rum. From German Riesling and Napa Valley chardonnay to Argentinian Malbec, the half page wine selection spans the globe. Beer lovers can choose from more than a dozen local and imported brews, including Indian Kingfisher, SweetWater, and Second Self ($5 each). There’s also a good selection of international nonalcoholic beverages that follow the restaurant’s theme, including homemade lemonade mixed with berries, a Cucumber Derby with ginger and soda, Mexican Coke, and the beloved Indian cola Thums Up.

VEGGIE HEAVEN: Brussels sprouts VEGGIE HEAVEN: Brussels sprouts “bhel” with garbanzo beans, sweet potato, tomato, boondi, and tamarind dressing. Photo by JOEFF DAVIS

Purists, beware: Amara is not another Indian restaurant serving traditional Indian fare. Instead, it’s a place where there are no set rules. But it works. Patel has carved a new niche for himself in his fearless fusion of ingredients, spices, and cooking methods from all over the world.

While there, I overheard an Indian family at an adjacent table. The younger diners were trying to persuade their elderly parents to keep an open mind. “It’s not Indian food, but try it,” they said. “You will like it!”

Amara. 870 Inman Village Parkway N.E. 470-305-7405. www.amaraatlanta.com.

For Creative Loafing Atlanta, December 2016.