When I meet Tarik Abdullah for the first time at his home in Hillman City, it becomes quickly apparent why Donna Driscoll, the Head of Casting for the production company that works with ABC’s “The Taste,” chose him out of thousands to be on the show this season. “He’s probably the coolest guy in our cast…DJ and a culinary hipster who is always reaching for the stars. Loves to teach kids how to cook and volunteers his time to do so.” Oh, and she adds: He was a private chef for Kanye West (more on that later).
He’s getting ready for one of the biggest moments of his life – his TV debut competing for the title of “America’s Best Undiscovered Cook,” judged by celebrity chefs Anthony Bourdain, Marcus Samuelsson, Nigella Lawson and Ludo Lefebvre. Yet while friends pour in just minutes before the show, and as the former Cicchetti chef prepares plates of his signature Mediterranean food, he stops to bend down and talk to my seven-year-old daughter, disappears for a minute, and comes back and lets her pick a beautiful beaded white bracelet from a jar of various colored ones. He, himself, is wearing several red and black beads on his thin wrists, a stylish short-sleeved light blue oxford-like shirt with a snappy white collar and a dark blue apron. My daughter is enchanted.
But let’s cut to the chase: About halfway into the two-hour season premiere of the show, none other than Anthony Bourdain chooses Abdullah for his team, and the 20-some guests at his home all contribute to a tremendous roar of shouts and applause. (The whole season has been taped over the course of three months, and the winner will take home $100,000. But, of course that information is top-secret.) Abdullah, who’s been full of smiles and relatively chill all night, tears up. And who can blame him? Getting greenlighted by Bourdain for your cooking is truly the holy grail of the culinary world. On the show’s audition, where 24 of the competitors get gleaned to 16, Abdullah’s lamb and bison patty has Bourdain praising his bold North African flavors.
Those flavors, stem in large part, from his childhood. Born to Muslim parents who moved to Hillman City when Abdullah was about 3, he says he grew up surrounded by Middle Eastern and Mediterranean friends, and thus, the food of those regions. “Mediterranean is my food and Cicchetti was a perfect vehicle for that (he worked there for four years before leaving recently to tape “The Taste.") But it’s his “Morningstar” pop-ups that he’s most passionate about, brunches that occur on Sundays in Hillman City, often at the Tin Umbrella, and which feature dishes like Harissa hash browns, Tabil scrambled eggs and spiced sausage and Indian Coriander Pancakes with toasted pecans, star anise compote and rose syrup.
The breakfasts were preceded by more extravagant late-night, email invitation only 13-course dinners with wine and art installations at friends’ lofts for $150 per person, and then by late-night, small-bite Caribbean pop-ups in Pioneer Square at La Bodega under the name Midnight Mecca. But it was those brunches that he says were the “winner, winner chicken dinner.”
His choice to bring his brunches to Hillman City are fueled by his sentiment for the area where he grew up as a kid and the fact that “there’s nothing really here in terms of restaurants.” When asked about his future plans, he maintains that despite his success on “The Taste,” he wants to keep doing the pop-ups and teaching kids. “Two things: I want to keep [the brunches] in South Seattle and have the best brunch in South Seattle.” As for the kids, he’s taught cooking classes at Coyote Central and will soon offer them in Hillman City. On the topic of kids: “Oh boy, yeah! I try to help them understand that you don’t have to do the norm. It’s ok if you’re not into sports. Kids want accolades so they tend to go to sports or entertainment, but with cooking, you can do anything you want and you constantly get accolades, even if it’s just a high-five in the kitchen.”
As he’s fluffing a huge bowl of couscous with his fingers and drizzling small nuggets of short ribs with a pomegranate molasses sauce he tells me more about his time in LA, where he worked as a private chef for Kanye West for several months in 2008, right after West’s release of 808s & Heartbreak. “I’d started a food delivery service for celebs and I delivered food to his stylist, who asked if I wanted to cook for him. I was the sous chef at Luna Park at the time. [West] gave me a tour of his house, which was pretty cool and I asked him about his eating habits. He said: ‘I just want healthy food. Can you do that?’” He could indeed.
If one can manage to impress West, it’s not such a stretch to imagine how one might also handle pressure on a major TV food show. “This is serious, but I’m not a competitive guy. But today I have to realize that seven or eight hundred thousand people might watch this tonight. Holy Smoke!” He pauses as if he’s actually digesting this reality for the first time. “I just treat it like I’m going to work, except I have four bosses instead of one.”
Speaking of those bosses, I try to get some dirt on them. After much cajoling, Abdullah finally tells me that “Ludo is the most animated because he’s so passionate. Samuelsson is really in it and Nigella is a little more smiley. Anthony is going to lay it on you with his wording, or he’s reserved.”
His own group of friends are a mixed bunch of people he’s known for more than 20 years or met recently. Some are from the cooking community, others from the art world because, Renaissance Man that he is, Abdullah also happens to be opening T Leatherworks this Sunday in Hillman City, a shop where he’ll sell handmade biker accessories. Yes, he’s a biker who likes to ride in style. Oh, and a DJ. He’d like to DJ his own pop-up brunches at some point but will settle for having a cellist friend play for the time being.
In between fielding calls from his family back east (who’ve already seen the show air) and getting reminders from his PR person not to talk about any upcoming episodes, he tells us all that “They say don’t trust a skinny chef, but I ride a bike and keep it lean and mean.”
After the room is fully cranked up on the excitement of seeing their friend kill it on TV, his attention falls back on my daughter, who’s clearly exhausted. “Do you want to lie down in the bedroom?” he asks her. “How about another cookbook to look at?” She gives him a sleepy smile and we say our goodbyes. There’s an hour left of the show, and I have the feeling this party is going to be carrying on for a while. But, then again, Abdullah has big plans for tomorrow. He’s leaving town on business that he’s not legally at liberty to talk about at present. What, one wonders, could be bigger than getting Bourdain’s approval on prime time TV? With Abdullah, any guess is as good as any other, but probably not half as interesting as whatever he’s got cooking.