Originally published in the third print issue of Palestine in America. Subscribe here 

A Palestinian-American Chicago chef emerges from the underground

Najjar puts final touches on the third course, her take on chicken and waffles, which she served to 20 guests in a coworker’s Park Ridge home. PHOTO BY EMILY MOON

Abeer Najjar makes her bamia the way her mother did – her knife slicing through fresh okra, tomatoes sizzling in the pan. She grinds garlic with her grandfather’s mortar and pestle that her parents brought from Palestine in 1978. Raising an arched brow over her wide, crinkling eyes, she leans in and takes a bite. Najjar has made this dish many times before in her mother’s cramped kitchen on Chicago’s South Side – but this time, hundreds of people are watching.

This past winter, 30-year-old Najjar took her passion for cooking to the masses with her YouTube series “Abeer’s Day Off,” which so far consists of four 5-minute episodes produced by Chicago-based production company Revive. The easy-going, fast-talking chef from the South Side had always dreamed of starring on a network cooking show, but her auditions always ended with the same response: “You’re great, but you’re not what we’re looking for.”

Maybe this was true, Najjar admits; white America was not looking for an outspoken Palestinian-American chef who preaches self-love, snacks on set and lives with her mother, but she was determined to make them find her anyway through her cooking show and food blog AbeerNajjar.com, which she launched in 2014. In the months since the premiere of her cooking series, Najjar has revamped her blog, made plans to attend an international conference in Ireland and continued to host her popular secret supper club dinners in the Park Ridge neighborhood–her local claim to fame.

Abeer Najjar prepares dinner at her Huda Supper Club in Park Ridge on May 20. PHOTO BY EMILY MOON

Though such clubs are technically violating local health codes by operating out of a home, the underground suppers offer a personal dining experience without the expense of a brick and mortar restaurant. Named after her 62-year-old mother, Najjar’s “Huda Supper Club” features traditional Palestinian dishes with a modern twist using themes like “Palestine Meets America” and “Brunch for Dinner.” Najjar brings the same cultural blend to her Revive series, which Teen Vogue praised in a March story for Muslim Women’s Day, calling Najjar a “talented chef creating delicious meals that you’d want to make at home.” 

“People get really uptight about tradition,” she says. “Palestinians of course, too, because we constantly feel like our culture and our people are being erased.” Najjar treasures this tradition, and then flavors it. “If I’m opening up a pathway for people to still identify with their cultural food, just because I’ve changed a few ingredients, that’s pretty cool,” she says. “That’s what food is. That’s how food evolves.”

***

The day before her May supper club, Najjar tests out the menu in her Willowbrook, Ill. home, where she lives with her parents, her older brother Nader, his wife and their five kids. Her expressive brown eyes, usually bright with laughter, focus sharply as she works, but she can never stay serious for long – she’ll be cracking jokes one second, lamenting cultural appropriation the next. This week, she’s planned an elaborate four-course meal: manoushe, a Lebanese flatbread served with olive oil and za’atar, a Middle Eastern herb mix; buttermilk biscuits with sausage, soft-cooked eggs and gravy; chicken and French toast-encrusted waffles; and qatayif, a sweet dumpling commonly served during Ramadan, which Najjar prepares with a crepe, ricotta and fresh berries.  

 

Najjar does not follow cooking trends and she does not do fusion (which she calls a “hipster gimmick”). Instead, she follows old family recipes and trusts her gut. Last summer, this led her to a combination of Mediterranean and Palestinian cuisine: stewed tomatoes, eggplant puree and Italian herbs – topped with a fried egg, a mainstay of Palestinian cuisine. “Somewhere deep inside of me there’s an old Sicilian woman who loves mozzarella and spaghetti,” she says.

 

Najjar’s supper clubs have grown since their humble beginning in December 2014, when she prepared summer barbecue-inspired cuisine for only 12 guests. Now, she hosts the dinners at Airbnb locations for groups of 20 on the condition that each guest makes a “suggested donation” of $50. The dinners take weeks to plan and promote on social media and Najjar barely breaks even – but she isn’t doing it for the money; rather, she sees Huda Supper Club as an opportunity to feed people and connect over food.

A friend once told her, “You should make the dishes smaller so your profit margin will be larger.”

Najjar recalls grimacing and responding, “Please don’t say profit margin in my supper club.”

Najjar plates the second course in her “Breakfast for Dinner” meal: buttermilk biscuits with sausage, soft-cooked eggs and gravy. PHOTO BY EMILY MOON

***

Although supper clubs are common, these underground dinners violate local guidelines. According to the Chicago Health Department, anyone selling food to the public must acquire a retail food establishment license, zone their property and pass inspections. Despite the risks, Huda Supper Club fills a void in the Chicago food scene for many of Najjar’s guests.

Najjar keeps halal dietary standards, which can be a relief for her Muslim diners. She says it also makes her more comfortable – and that’s the point. “Every supper club is like eating at someone’s house,” she says. “You don’t feel that at any restaurant.

She welcomes guests of all faiths, but describes food as a spiritual experience. “There’s this concept of blessings in food,” she says. “Energy, blessings, God – whatever you want to call it, that’s real to us. That’s what I try to deliver in Supper Club.”

Today, she’s testing waffles. Najjar slathers brioche in an egg batter, fries the bread lightly, and puts it in the waffle maker to give it a warm, cinnamon-encrusted crunch. The first batch cooks unevenly, but Najjar is not worried. This is the most relaxed she’s ever felt before supper club, she says. Dressed in an old Hollister hoodie and gray sweatpants, she’s completely at home in the kitchen. Her long black hair in a messy bun, with nieces and nephews running in and out, Najjar alternates between manning the stove and joking with her 3-year-old nephew, Bilal.

“Do you want to try one?” she asks him.

“No,” Bilal says, pouting.

“No, why?”

“Because I just hate it!” He runs out of the room.

The rest of family is more receptive. Huda, Nader, and his daughter Maryam, 6, gather around the long oval kitchen table to try a heaping plate of waffles. A perfectionist like his sister, Nader examines each one. When he’s not teaching special education in the suburbs, Nader works as his sister’s sous-chef. He loves cooking – especially with Abeer.

“Family understands you best,” he says simply.

While the adults discuss the merits of different waffle makers, Maryam sneaks the waffles off the plate, finishing every last one.

***

Before she fell in love with food, Najjar cooked out of necessity. Her parents worked long hours, and the four kids often had to fend for themselves, crafting dinners from iceberg lettuce and 99-cent chicken breast. Najjar loved life in West Lawn – her Puerto Rican friends, the smell of tacos down the street – but she never got used to hearing gunshots at night. It was a life, Najjar remembers, for which her mother sacrificed everything.

Najjar’s mother, Huda, grew up in a United Nations refugee camp in Palestine during the 1948 Nakba, after the family fled their Jaffa home amid fighting. To feed her children, Huda’s mother cooked whatever she could find in the camp: greens, chicken, rabbit. When Huda immigrated to the United States in 1978 with her husband Bahjat, she felt like her mother, stranded in an unfamiliar place. “She tried her best,” Huda said. “I thought, ‘I want to try my best here.’”

Huda arrived in Chicago seven months pregnant, with no connections and no money. She had the baby, Najjar’s oldest sister, in Cook County Hospital. It was the first time Huda had seen a doctor – the first time she’d seen a hospital. The male obstetricians frightened her, but she didn’t know enough English to say so. “The nurses tried with me, but I couldn’t have the baby,” she says. She got a cesarean section instead.

Later, Huda went shopping at her neighborhood grocery store, searching in vain for Arabic ingredients.

“I felt like a blind person walking,” she says.

Still, there were small victories: she ogled the supermarket eggplants, which were bigger than any she’d seen in Palestine.

“Whenever I find okra, or something, it’s like a holiday for me,” Huda says. “It’s like my country.”

When Huda went to work as a nanny, the kids started making dinner. Najjar, just six years old, invented her own salad dressing: juice from minced olives, herbs, olive oil, and mustard to emulsify. She’d play “restaurant” for her three older siblings and spent evenings cooking with Huda, learning her secrets.

When Najjar was in high school, the family moved to Westmont, Ill., a small suburb west of Chicago. At first, Najjar said she felt “shell-shocked.” She couldn’t sleep. She had no friends. She missed being around other people of color. That first year, a high school friend remembers bonding with Najjar over food. Najjar invited Rabia Yaqub, now 29, to a Ramadan dinner at her home.

“The fact that she was so young and could prepare all these traditional dishes – I remember being in awe,” Yaqub says.

In college, too, Najjar was different. Between night classes, six a.m. shifts at Whole Foods and stints at three universities, Najjar took six years to complete her bachelor’s degree in psychology. She couldn’t pay for graduate school, so she fell back on what she knew: food. She decided to start a blog, featuring everything from old family recipes to musings on “30 things I learned by my 30th birthday.” Writing candidly about her life and culture, Najjar reinvents old favorites: her signature shawarma tacos, with smoky, slow-cooked steak and tahini crema; a sausage-and-eggs “breakfast pita” recipe borrowed from her mom; ful mudammas, a traditional dish of slow-cooked fava beans, which Najjar calls “the unsung hero of a proper Arab breakfast.”

But on the cusp of 30, Najjar still worried about her future. “Maybe I didn’t choose to follow my passion hard enough because I have a lot of subconscious insecurities,” she says. “I didn’t see anyone cooking [on TV] who looked like me. By default, you’re like, ‘Can I even do this?’”

Then in fall of 2016, documentary filmmaker Alex Myung spotted Najjar on Instagram. Myung profiles people of color breaking stereotypes for his website, Revive, and Najjar’s story struck him immediately. “The way she acts, the way she dresses – her story is very hip-hop,” Myung says. “She’s challenging the narrative.”

Myung shot a short documentary on Najjar’s cooking last fall, and the two self-described “creatives” bonded over art and music. While working together, they recognized a shared vision that led to a new project: “Abeer’s Day Off.”

“During the short documentary, the month we spent together, we talked about the future,” Myung said. “The focal point of our conversation was representation, on us not being able to see our heroes upfront, being amazing people.”

Najjar told Myung her dream of hosting a cooking show – how as a kid, she acted out episodes with her siblings – and Myung realized that Revive could help make this dream a reality. When he called one day, offering to do the show, Najjar was ready. “I’m gonna ride or die for everybody,” she said. “Why am I not doing that for me?”

Revive did not receive grants or other sources of funding to create the series, so the team rallied together to produce the show in a friend’s kitchen-turned-makeshift studio. On her days off, Najjar filmed with Myung in a friend’s house on Devon Street on Chicago’s North Side. She stocked up on recipes and outfit changes, trying to calm her nerves. Unlike at her network auditions, she and Myung used popular cooking shows as reference for “what not to be,” with some caveats. And slowly, Najjar felt some of that old panic start to subside.

So far, “Abeer’s Day Off” is in its first five-episode run. Revive hopes to secure funding for a second season, but Myung wants Najjar to go further – he’s even suggested a network television show.

Though Huda imagined a different path for her daughter, she’s been there every moment, watching. Abeer’s family packed the January premiere of “Abeer’s Day Off” at a Hyde Park screening. Months later, Huda was still rewatching episodes.

During a quick dinner at the Willowbrook Panera, Huda’s eyes linger over Najjar’s five-foot-one frame like it might disappear.

“I feel like I am not good enough to encourage her,” Huda says. “But these days, I encourage her from my heart.” Her eyes mist, and the generous wrinkles beside her eyes tighten.

“You have been more supportive recently,” Najjar says, glancing up from a kale salad.

“I used to be scared that you’re gonna be away from me, that these things will take you away.” Huda looks at her lap. “I’m selfish, I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. You can come to Ireland with me. You think I’m gonna move out or something? Or just travel?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hey now,” Najjar grins, “I need you for your recipes.”

***

After an 8-hour shift at the Park Ridge Whole Foods, Najjar speeds home to Willowbrook. The Najjar home is brick with neatly painted shutters, two kids’ bikes sprawled across the front lawn and a small plastic swing hanging from the tree. It’s a full house, but never full enough. “There’s always a seat at the table for anybody in my mom’s kitchen,” Najjar says.

When the family moved to Willowbrook in 2015, they were the only Muslims on the block. Some of the older residents protested the construction of a nearby mosque, which opened this April behind the family’s house. Najjar’s brother Nader remembers one Willowbrook woman – Najjar’s neighbor – pleading at a town meeting: “We have to stop them. They’re gonna be bringing their caravans down the street. They’re gonna do their night prayers.”

There are now five Muslim families on Jamie Lane, but Najjar says the neighbor still calls the police when Najjar parks on the street. “She doesn’t want to open up her eyes,” Najjar says.

During the week, Najjar works as a non-perishable items buyer at Whole Foods, a position she’s worked up to since joining the company at age 17. She can’t quit, although she cringes at the sight of some of their merchandise (the culprit: a bag of small packaged bags of almonds). Meanwhile, Myung texts her every week, asking, “When are you going to do it? When are you going to quit?”

Najjar has always done things in her own time. At 30, she’s still single. It’s not a big deal to her, or to Huda, who refuses to set her daughter up with the Arabic men her friends recommend. But within their suburban Muslim community, the neighborhood gossips call her an “old maid.”

One calls Huda up in the afternoon, with an offer from her son.  

“Well, what’s he like?” Huda asks.

“What’s your daughter like?” she retorts.

“What do you mean? She’s very sweet, she’s talented.”

“No, but is she chubby? Is she skinny? Does she wear a Hijab, does she not? What does she look like?”

Huda’s mouth tightens. “We’re not interested,” she says, her tone clipped.

Najjar, who’s never cared much for matchmaking, was delighted. “I was like, ‘Hell yeah, Mom. You’re such a badass!’”

***

It’s 7:30 p.m. in Park Ridge, and Huda Supper Club is open for business. Najjar has set the tables with tea lights, IKEA utensils and fresh tulips. As the guests trickle in, mostly young black and brown professionals from Chicago, they take their seats and talk politics.  

Back in the kitchen, Najjar and Nader dance to throwback hits from Kanye and Drake. Prepping the flatbread and minding the gravy, Najjar sings to herself, “Started from the bottom now we’re here.” She’s equal parts home cook and mid-rant Gordon Ramsay: demanding perfection on each plate, but still relaxed in the kitchen, looking effortlessly composed in her denim button-down, lavender hijab and favorite Nike sneakers.  

PHOTO BY EMILY MOON

Before each course, Najjar walks into the room to introduce the meal. The room goes quiet, save a few shouts of support.

“Go Abeer!” calls her friend Antar Hanif from Los Angeles.

“That’s my fan girl voice,” he says to his neighbor. “I’m a fan.”

Najjar offers her guests a place to pray if needed, and then they eat. Najjar knows many of the diners, but gives just a quick nod and a shy smile. Tonight is about the food.

Najjar’s friend Yaqub came to the supper club with her sister. She says Najjar has come a long way from those high school dinners. “I felt so proud of her,” she says. “She’s so passionate. It’s a form of love.”

After four hours of cooking, Najjar felt exhausted. But the next morning, she got up to make a third round of French toast waffles – this time for her mother. Najjar may be a chef, but family comes first. Besides, she says, recalling the inspiration for her show, “It’s what you cook on your day off that matters. This is what I love to do.” 

PHOTO BY EMILY MOON

 

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