Continued from Oh! Falafel!…Part I…
The next morning (last Friday) I went back to the restaurant at 8am to observe the morning prep and to talk to the owner, Mustafa Khader (“Khader”), about his restaurant.
As I mentioned in my last post, the restaurant is a family-run business. Khader represents the third generation in his family in the business. Khader attended culinary school in Switzerland, specializing in pastry. His first restaurant was in his native city of Jerusalem. He later moved to the US, where he opened up a restaurant in Chicago. Eventually, he moved to Utah and opened O’Falafel, Etc., which has now been open for about a year.
Khader’s food philosophy is that simple is better. He said a good cook should be able to open up the refrigerator and cook a delicious meal based on what is inside. He said a good cook should also be able to predict with good accuracy, what the end product will taste like. Khader also believes in using fresh, ripe ingredients. He explained that this played a large role in what he chose to put on the menu. He designed his menu around dishes that can easily be made year round without having to buy ingredients out of season (with the exception of using some hothouse veggies that are essential to so many dishes, like tomatoes and cucumbers).
The morning started with the preparation of the pita bread for the day.
The dough is made the night before, so that all that has to be done in the morning is to remove the balls of dough from the refrigerator, shape them, and then bake them.
Khader explained that he used to shape all of the bread by hand, but he now uses a machine which sends the balls of dough through a set of rollers that flatten and shape the dough into larger circles.
It takes him about thirty minutes to shape 250 pieces.
The dough is baked in a very hot oven, which causes it to puff up and bake quickly without losing internal moisture.
The same dough is also used to prep several other dishes served at the restaurant, including meat pockets (pita stuffed with ground beef and onions and sprinkled with oregano)
and cheese pockets (pita stuffed with cheddar and mozzarella cheese and sprinkled with sesame seeds), which are reminiscent of Italian calzones,
and Lahmeh wa A’jeen, an Armenian style pizza (beef minced with onions, garlic, tomato, tomato sauce, green peppers and Armenian spices on a pita crust).
Really, you can’t go wrong with Khader’s pita bread, no matter what you have on it. Believe me, I know. Throughout the morning I tried a variety of items on that wonderful bread. A piece filled with Jerusalem Salad (finely diced cucumbers and tomatoes in Tahina sauce seasoned with parsley, lemon, and a hint of garlic),
a piece spread with a bit of of Za’atar (a mixture of sumac, sesame seed and herbs frequently used in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas) mixed with olive oil,
and pieces dipped in a variety of dips, such as humous and yogurt cucumber mint salsa.
Of course because of the restaurant’s name, I could not leave without tasting the falafel. Khader handed me a falafel, adding a dollop of yogurt cucumber mint salsa which he called “the frosting.” I bit into it, and let me tell you, the restaurant definitely lives up to its name. The falafel was fabulously crunchy on the outside, and soft and delicious on the inside.
At one point over a cup of freshly brewed herbal aniseed tea, Khader told me about his mother and what an amazing cook she was. He told me how she would go out in the mornings to pick grape leaves for making Yalanji (stuffed grape leaves). She would go out and pick the leaves, bring them in, wash them, remove the center stalk/vein, lay each leaf out individually to dry, stack them in stacks of 25 once they had dried, then seal them in Ziploc baggies and put them in the freezer to be kept until they were needed. He explained that looking down at the top of a stack looked like you were looking at a single leaf because her picking/prep was so perfect that each leaf in the stack would be the same size. “Her food was perfect,” he said. “However, she could never have been a restaurateur, because it would take her six hours to cook for seven people.” Well thank goodness that she had a son, because I think that Khader has somehow figured out the secret of translating his mother’s perfect food into the restaurant setting.
Some of the food I love most is food that I have an emotional connection with. Some of my favorite dishes are linked to favorite people, memories, places I’ve visited, or places I’ve lived. After spending the morning in Khader’s kitchen, each item I tasted seemed to taste better than the last. The food was fabulous when I first tried it the day before, but after it had been imbued with the magic of its history and his stories, it seemed to sing. I hope that if you ever have the chance to go and eat his food, a bit of that magic will be there for you as well.
For some fun kitchen footage and to see what else is on the menu, check out the restaurant’s website.
Coming Friday: No holiday is complete without treats!