Baboush Chef Yaser Khalaf on How to Make it in America (It All Starts in Lexington)
When did you first become really interested in food?
Growing up, my mom always cooked a big breakfast and lunch for us. In the Middle East we eat different than here. There we eat the big meal at lunch. Dinner was just a snack. So every night my dad would take my brother and I out to give my mom some peace. We would walk around Kuwait City and often have the street food. I loved it.
What was your favorite street food?
Shawarma. It's just amazing.
Did you ever help your mom cook?
A little, but should would kick me out of the kitchen. It was tradition. She didn't want me in there, but I would sneak in and try things.
When you traveled, what became your favorite food?
Italian. Particularly in the south, like Sicily. The flavors there reminded me of where I was from -- a lot of lemon juice and garlic. I don't really like butter, cream and all the heavy stuff. I like the clean, pure ingredients.
So, back to Kentucky. You were studying accounting. How did you get into the restaurant business?
A classmate of mine from Syria said one day, "Hey, I worked in a restaurant and it's fun and everything. Let's open a restaurant."
When was this?
About 1990. It was my second year in college and I said, "You're kidding me, right?"
What kind of place was it?
Pizza and Italian food, but I told him, "We'll do it with a Middle Eastern twist. We'll do pizzas with feta cheese, cucumbers and stuff. But, we won't tell people it's 'Mideast.' We'll call it Greek or something like that."
With a lack of any knowledge on how to run a restaurant, you open a clandestine Middle Eastern-inspired pizza and Italian place in Lexington, Kentucky. How did it go?
Well, we opened, then in the middle of the deal my friend decides he wants to go back to Washington D.C. to finish his master's degree. And he said, "Ah, you can manage it. You'll be fine."
So, I took all of my classes early in the morning, and then would run to the restaurant to help. I worked literally six months from open to close without a single holiday or anything. It ruined my life. I couldn't travel anymore. I kept up my studies, but I was exhausted.
Was the restaurant any good?
Yeah, we actually did really well. Had a good lunch crowd. For college kids, we were bringing in good money, but I didn't know how to handle the money and that was very frustrating for me. I wasn't good at the business side.
The mayor of Lexington came to eat at our restaurant the first day it opened and I served her frozen lasagna. My friend told me that even though we made the lasagna from scratch we should freeze it. And I didn't know any better, so I did it. I had no clue. Then we'd hire people to help us and they all had their own ideas, too. Which is my first lesson about restaurants ...