Photo by Kate Warren.

'Grandma Cooking' Is the Inspiration for Rose Previte's Middle Eastern Restaurant

"In Maydān, we’re creating a space for expats and exiles to feel safe," the Lebanese-American restaurateur says.

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Mar 23 2018, 2:00pm

Photo by Kate Warren.

When she was in junior high, Rose Previte wasn't allowed to buy lunch from the school cafeteria. Her mother wouldn't let her. To make matters worse, she insisted on packing pita bread for her daughter’s lunch every day.

It was the early 90s, a time when even pita bread was seen as a novelty, a sign of an outsider’s strangeness, back in that town in rural Ohio where she lived. And Previte certainly felt like an outsider. In a town where mostly everyone had blonde hair and blue eyes, Previte, the daughter of a Sicilian father and Lebanese mother, stood out like a sore thumb. The smells that radiated from the lunch bag in her locker didn’t help matters much.

Previte’s mother was born and raised in Detroit, a city with a giant Middle Eastern community. But in Ada, Ohio, two hours from Detroit, there was no way for Previte’s mother to access the Lebanese food she had known her whole life. And there was no way of sharing its glories with within their new community, either.

So the family worked towards a solution: Previte and her mother began catering Middle Eastern food out of their home, searing kebabs in their tiny kitchen and making batches of tabbouleh for 300 people at a time. By high school, Previte found that her family’s food was suddenly cool. Her schoolmates asked if they could eat her family’s house.

Previte made a name for herself as the restaurateur behind Washington, DC’s Compass Rose Bar + Kitchen, which she opened in 2014. She has structured her newest venture, Maydān, around the flavors she knows from her childhood, the food she’d cooked with her Lebanese mother.

Previte and her chefs, Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan, opened Maydān in November of last year after she and her team traveled across the Caucasus, Middle East, and North Africa last summer. Rather than dining at restaurants, they decided to go into the homes of grandmothers in those countries and learn how to cook from them. They felt it was vital to learn from home cooks, who could offer an experience they couldn’t get in a restaurant.

Previte's excursion wasn't an exercise in disengaged cultural tourism; the trip represented an attempt to meaningfully engage with her own past. Within that context, Maydān is something of a homecoming for Previte. The restaurant’s menu is filled with muhammara, taktouka, halloumi, fattoush, and koobideh—ingredients and dishes, Previte explained to me one day earlier this week over the phone, that she considers her “soul food.”

I spoke to Previte about the food memories she's retained from her childhood, her recent travels, and how these led her to mount Maydān in a city like Washington, DC, the locus of America's political discord.

Photo by Jen Chase.

MUNCHIES: Hey, Rose! What compelled you to open Maydān after Compass Rose?
Rose Previte: I was still feeling creative after Compass, you know? When the chefs and I started talking, I explained what was near and dear to my heart, my mission. It aligned with a lot of what their inspiration in their careers comes from, which is Middle Eastern cooking. So we decided to go to these places whose cuisine inspired us so much, to fully understand their cuisines. We spent last summer traveling around five countries and cooking with people.

I want to hear more about that experience. You’ve said you went into a bunch of grandmas' homes and cooked with locals in those countries. What did you learn from them?
I don't think there’s anything better [than cooking with locals]. We went to a lot of developing countries. There isn’t an established restaurant scene in many of the cities; there are food stalls and vendors, mostly. So we started in Morocco, then went to Tunisia, western Georgia, Lebanon, and Turkey.

The best place to get food [in those places] was in people’s homes. A lot of people find that part of the world very scary. When people think of the Middle East and North Africa, they think of the Arab Spring. Right now, they may think of ISIS. What was so cool for us was to be welcomed by strangers into their homes so warmly. The minute they knew that a group of Americans wanted to know about their food, they welcomed us.

For a lot of people we met, being a homemaker is a full-time job. For an outsider to see that as cool... well, you could just see the reaction. They were like, really? You want to learn this food? Sure! No one’s asked me about my food in a million years. They were so proud to share their culture with us, which reminded me, again, of my own mother, who years ago had said that food is how we’ll teach people about who we are. We started as strangers wherever we traveled throughout those regions, and ended up becoming friends after cooking together for a whole day.

Right. And when you were in Lebanon, you even ended up at your relatives’ place at one point, correct?
Oh, yeah. I’ve been to Lebanon a few times in years past, but I usually went with my husband, not anyone in the culinary world. So it was really cool to take the chefs to where my grandmother’s from—a tiny town in the West Beqaa Valley in Lebanon, near the Syrian border. We visited a relative of mine in that village who owns a farm and employs a Syrian refugee family to run the farm. Of all the hospitality we experienced throughout our trip, we couldn’t believe this family of seven welcomed us into their two-room tent like we were kings and queens. They were sharing everything they had, which was almost nothing.

What I realized, being in my grandmother’s village, was how vibrant the remaining food culture is. I was so happy to share that experience with my chefs, who’ve done an amazing job recreating it in the restaurant. I was like, this is my soul food. That’s my grandma’s cooking.

Photo by Kate Warren.

If you had to pick one really memorable meal from the trip, what would it be?
The most memorable [meal] was actually in Georgia. I fell in love with Georgian food in Moscow, during a time when no one really knew about Georgian food in the States at all. A lot of the menu at Compass Rose was centered around Georgian cuisine, but I still wanted to bring it into Maydān, somehow. Especially because I wanted a lot of Iranian flavors [in the restaurant], too, but travel restrictions prevented us from going to Iran. Georgian cuisine is so influenced by Iranian cuisine.

During our trip, we were in the poorest part of Georgia, between wine country and Batumi. This expanse of Georgia has such an interesting food culture, though. We had a meal with a family; a wine importer’s wife’s family [hosted] us. They were honored to have us.

This family had a whole goat slaughtered for us and made us cook it over an open fire outside their home, along with a rib-eye steak—which is not a thing in that part of the world at all. Rib-eye steaks are like a hot commodity. We cooked everything over a fire and it came out beautifully. I can’t explain how magical it was—because of the hospitality, that dinner was really special.

How have you brought that sense of hospitality into Maydān? The feeling you get from home cooking is so special. I imagine you risk losing that integrity when you bring it into a restaurant.
Hospitality’s definitely at the heart of everything we do. We want to make global things local and make you feel very at home. Growing up working on my mom's catering business, I had people in the kitchen and in our home all the time. My family ate together every night. We rarely went out to eat at restaurants. People always came over. The only way our family could communicate was eating at home. The greatest gift you can give a guest, the highest honor, is to feed them. To my family, taking a guest out to eat was an insult. That’s a mentality I realize is not for everyone, but that was definitely the way I was raised.

In cities like Washington, you have a lot of people who are away from their homes. The majority of people who come into Maydān work for embassies of the World Bank or the State Department. They’re travelers. In Maydān, we’re creating a space for expats and exiles to feel safe. Last summer, a lot of the countries we wanted to go to were considered “banned countries” by the administration. We didn’t know that was going to happen when we planned the trip. Oftentimes, people from those places don’t feel at home in the United States, especially in Washington, DC right now. It’s my honor to make people feel comfortable in that space, to remind them of home.

Of course. One thing that stood out to me just as I was reading the description of Maydān was the fact that you said you were “telling the stories of voices that often go unheard.” Whose voices are those? Who doesn’t hear them?
I think it’s people from the countries we traveled to. The voices you typically hear on the news are not the voices of people that we met. Take this terrible refugee crisis in Syria. In Istanbul, we went to a bakery called Salloura. It had been around in Syria for about 150 years before reopening in Turkey, because they’d been displaced from Syria. But they still found a way to maintain their business away from home. We’re telling that story on Maydān's menu with Syrian food.

In Tunisia, we cooked with a woman named Raoudha Guellali Ben Tarit, the author of the first comprehensive Tunisian cookbook in English. She grew up kind of poor in Tunisia, with a mother who wanted to make French food because she wanted to appear educated. Her mother thought it was better than eating Tunisian, which this woman, Raoudha, realized later on was a mistake. So she’s now trying to popularize Tunisian food for Americans, not French food. And that was a story I wouldn’t have heard had we not gone into her home and she hadn’t proudly shown us recipes that came from her grandmother. She was proud of being Tunisian.

Those are the voices, the predominantly female voices, we wanted to highlight. In fact, Raoudha’s grandmother told us how it’s mostly men who run restaurants, which is true in many of the countries we visited. Women are not allowed to work in restaurants. Men aren’t the ones who cook at home, though. So you’re not really getting the same experience if you eat in a restaurant as you’d get by going into people’s homes. If you end up eating only at restaurants, you end up prioritizing the voices of men.

What power do you feel food has, to chip away at those prejudices?
Obviously I think food is so powerful, especially right now. I think in a time when there’s so much strife—and maybe every generation has this, but it feels especially bad right now—you have to let these countries be able to show themselves through food, to let them air their voices this way.

That’s why I named my restaurant Maydān. I first encountered the word in Kiev a few years ago. It is a word used throughout Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, in so many languages. Arabic, Farsi, even in Hindi. It means the same thing in each one: square, or gathering place. This is what we need—a place where people can just come together over food and drinks and solve their problems. Other parts of the world have gathering spaces like squares. You don’t see that as much here. The only place where you can really meet like that in the United States is a restaurant, which is why the first floor of Maydān is [structured like] a square with a fire in the middle. I want to encourage people to mingle and talk.

I truly believe in the concept of breaking bread at the table. We live in Washington, where I really believe people need to just sit down and eat together and not be so horrible to each other regardless of politics. In Washington, I’ve seen people disagree in the restaurant on the same night. But we have to get along. At the end of the day, we all need food.

Thanks for speaking with us, Rose.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and content.