Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Conversation with Chef Zayat

You only need to take one bite of Chef Wissam Zayat’s renowned baklava at Manakeesh Café Bakery to know that he’s a great pastry chef. However, few are aware that the pastry he is most proud of isn’t his famous baklava but his madd crème cake, a semolina cake filled with sweet cream and pistachio. Even fewer know that his journey to becoming a master chef began when he was twelve years old, as an apprentice to a pastry chef in Beirut.

Thanks to the folks at Lokalty, I had a chance to chat with Chef Zayat and General Manager Abd Ghazzawi (who served as translator) over a steamy pot of mint tea. We discussed Chef Zayat’s experiences baking and cooking at their fledgling café-bakery Manakeesh. Even though Manakeesh has only been open for a year, it has already become quite a fixture in West Philadelphia, popular with locals, the Philly Muslim community and Penn students alike. It’s this melting-pot atmosphere, evident among both the clientele and the menu, that makes Manakeesh such a unique gem. And of course, there’s the food. Chef Zayat’s really, really good food.

Chef Zayat was recruited by the owner, a friend of his, before the bakery’s opening. Unlike other chefs, he was given free-reign over developing the pastry menu. The final product consists of both traditional Lebanese pastries, like shamiyaat, small date-filled cookies, and ma’moul , stuffed shortbread. However, he also developed his own creative sweets, like his popular powerbar, a honey-glazed cookie.

Most people, however, are only aware of his baklava which is sold not just at Manakeesh but in nearby grocery stores. Baklava, which according to legend originated in the Ottoman Imperial courts, is now found all across the Mediterranean, with specific regional variations. Even though Chef Zayat’s is made in the Lebanese style, it has its own distinctive taste. Ghazzawi told me, “we’ve had lots of customers who’ve gone back to the motherland, so to speak, and they eat sweets there and they eat sweets there and they say it’s still something that’s not comparable.”

Even though Chef Zayat is first and foremost a pastry chef, he says that through his experiences baking he’s learned to cook excellently as well and that this has been “the most pleasant surprise” of his culinary journey. He developed all the toppings for the manakeesh, the Lebanese flatbreads from which the café-bakery takes the name. He is most proud of the chicken tawouk topping, which is coincidentally the bakery's most popular flavor. Although for most of the year you can’t get the chance to try Chef Zayat’s home-style cooking, during the entire month of Ramadan the menu includes his own traditional Lebanese meals that are served after sundown.

Chef Zayat has also figured out how to “Americanize” some of the Lebanese dishes. Ghazzawi explained that “Chef had never cooked with sausage and bacon and turkey and stuff like that. It’s still halal food you know- it’s beef sausage and turkey bacon- but it’s something that we’re not really accustomed to.” Even so, Chef Zayat experimented and has combined these American ingredients into manakeesh toppings, for example his egg and cheese manakeesh.

I got to sample Chef Zayat’s non-Lebanese but still amazingly delicious crème brulée. It was a super thick, incredibly decadent custard with just the right hint of vanilla and a spot-on caramel crust. Delicious, as always. Abd Ghazzawi put it nicely, “we believe if it’s not something you would eat yourself it then it’s not something you should be serving others.” And trust me, Chef Zayat’s food is something you will want to eat yourself.

-Elliott Brooks

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