Ali Sabbah is no stranger to awards and accolades. As owner of Mazza Cafe, he has garnered countless “Best Of” honors for the Middle Eastern cuisine and hospitality generously dished up at his iconic Salt Lake City restaurant. And, although he doesn’t call himself a chef (more on that later), he was recently nominated for a James Beard Award as Best Chef in the Mountain region, which includes Utah, Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. That’s pretty heady stuff.
Mazza is also one of the longest-lived independent restaurants in Salt Lake City, having opened in the winter of 2000. Back then, the cafe served Middle Eastern fare on paper and Styrofoam with plastic utensils in the small space that was formerly home to Smoky’s Records and then to a bakery in the eclectic 15th & 15th neighborhood. It’s now a cozy, beautifully decorated eatery with white tablecloths, a full wine list, and, as always, award-winning Middle Eastern cuisine.
Although, Ali doesn’t call it that. When I asked him if he considered Mazza to be a Lebanese or Middle Eastern restaurant, he said that his cuisine is really Levantine. It’s a cuisine built around the sharing of food and flavors ranging from Turkey to Jordan, with Lebanon ― Ali’s home country ― smack in the middle.
As we sat down to chat, he said, “I’m getting ready to make a dish of chicken with olives and dried fruits ― more North African style ― a slow-cooked, braising kind of dish that combines savory, spicy, lemony, and sweet flavors. It’s fun!” He’s also quick to add, “I don’t call myself a chef. I’m just a cook. A chef, to me, is someone who has attended culinary school and has a degree.”
Elaborating on the “fun” factor, Ali says that “I’m really enjoying cooking again now that I only have this place [the 15th & 15th restaurant] and I’m only doing dinner.” This means he can spend more time in the kitchen developing dishes rather than focusing solely on the business operations, finances, staffing and such, that consumed so much of his time when he was running three different Mazza restaurants.
In 2007, Ali opened a second Mazza restaurant at 9th & 9th, and then, in October of 2019, launched a third Mazza in Sandy. The latter was a huge space, occupied formerly by a Training Table restaurant, that he wound up having to sink approximately $1 million into in order to meet his and his customers’ standards.
“We were just starting to turn the corner after six months and beginning to see a steady stream of customers at the Sandy location when the pandemic hit and restaurants closed for dine-in,” says Sabbah. Terrible timing. “It didn’t make any sense to have three restaurants doing takeout, so I decided to close the two newer ones and did takeout at the 15th & 15th location.” It was nearly ruinous financially, and Ali says he’s still recovering from the effect the pandemic had on his businesses. “But,” he adds, “we were all going through the same thing. Every restaurant owner was affected.”
He’s grateful for the community support he’s received over the 23 years that Mazza has been open. The year after he launched Mazza, 9/11 happened and Middle Easterners were quickly stereotyped as villains by many Americans. And yet, in the days that followed the attack, Ali says that there were lines down the block of people waiting to get into Mazza and to demonstrate not just their love for Ali’s cuisine, but for him and his family. “It was very moving,” he says.
Fast-forwarding back to the present day, Ali says “So here we are. This is it for me now. I’m happy. I’m enjoying the restaurant business again, but it sure wasn’t fun there for a while.”
As we wrap up our conversation, Ali asks “Que tal?” and greets an employee reporting to work in fluent Spanish. He then introduces me to Agustin, saying “He’s been with us since April of 2000, a month or so after we opened.”
It’s an expression of the type of loyalty that many of his longtime staff, as well as his enduring customers, feel toward Ali Sabbah and Mazza Cafe.
So, here’s to another 23 years of fantastic falafel, muhammara, kebabs, shawarma, lamb & rice dolaa, baked kafta, and many more magnificent Levantine delights from Mazza.
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