Occupation: Falafel king ' plus owner and chef
Where: King of Falafel, 453 W. Gilman St.
Why you should go: Great place to eat well, before you fast ' Ramadan's next week (Sept. 24), and Yom Kippur starts at sunset Oct. 1. Try an assortment of appetizers like falafel, baba ghanouj and m'hamara. Yum.
You're the bona fide falafel king?
I just invented that name when I opened my restaurant. I make a lot more than falafel, but in Kuwait, where I'm from, we eat a lot of it ' it's like hot dogs and burgers here. I like Egyptian falafel best. In most places they only use chickpeas, but the Egyptians also use fava beans. That gives it a little extra kick. And they add vegetables to the mix, so it's green inside. That's how I make mine. Sometimes the color surprises people.
How did you come to open a restaurant in Madison?
I first tried cooking in '95. I was in Indonesia visiting a friend who worked in the Kuwait embassy. I was there three months, and I missed my food! I called my mom all the time to ask her how to make this or that. I especially missed her fish with rice. I tried making it and made a big mess, but I learned how to do it right when I got home. That was a good time, cooking with my mom in the kitchen.
I discovered I really liked it. I worked on becoming a real Kuwaiti cook. I'd ask everybody questions about their recipes and go home and experiment in my kitchen. I'd go camping with my friends in the desert and grill kebabs for them. I got better and better.
Then I came to the States to go to school in computer science. I was busy learning English and studying, and I worked at a car dealership for a while. But I was cooking for my friends, and they encouraged me to open a restaurant.
So I did, in 2004. At first I was afraid I'd be harassed. My family keeps telling me to come back to Kuwait. They think I'm not safe in the States. But Madison is different. Lots of my customers are Middle Easterners, but many of my regulars are Americans, too. I like it when they ask about my food, or how to say something in Arabic, or they have questions about Islam. I'm very comfortable here. I'm not afraid to stay.
Where do you get your recipes?
Some are from home ' the red lentil soup is my mom's recipe. But I pick from across the Arab world ' Syria, Lebanon, Egypt ' we all use the same basic ingredients.
I don't use cookbooks. I create a lot of recipes in my head. Like, my m'hamara is kind of Syrian, but I played with the recipe.
What's the restaurant scene like in Kuwait?
These days the shawarma shops are going nuts with special sandwiches. It's a competition to create the most popular new thing. Sometimes they give it a Western twist. There's a famous sandwich named for the Stealth Bomber ' we call it a Shaba. It's chicken shawarma, and they put garlic, fries and a pickle in the pita with it. It tastes unbelievable.
I have some sandwiches of my own, and I keep inventing new ones. But I'm competing on quality, not on weird combinations!