Photo by Ron Jasin

December 8, 2010

Around the World

Ethnic cuisine in Louisville: A love story

Peering into a steaming, turmeric-scented mix of carrots, potatoes and onions simmering in a 24-inch-wide pot, chef Selamawit Deneke feels her mother is with her.

In the kitchen of Queen of Sheba, Deneke looks like a seasoned pro, efficient in movements, artistically attentive to subtleties in scents, heat and contrasting textures. She learned how to cook from her mother, whom she recalls walking hand-in-hand with through cacophonous, brimming Ethiopian street markets 8,000 miles away and three decades ago.

“Always,” she says melodiously, as her eyes mist over, when asked if she thinks of her mother while she cooks. “She is with me always.”

The American immigrant love story begins with food from the homeland, an ocean spanning a metaphysical bridge of memories encapsulated in a taste, a familiar scent, a texture from recipes transferred from mother to child for centuries.

Deneke is among scores of Louisville chefs and restaurant owners who not only learned about food from their mothers and fathers and grandparents in far-flung villages, but also learned to love their culture through their food.

“I always wanted to be a teacher,” Deneke says, pointing out a plethora of examples of Ethiopian art and information sheets in her restaurant on Taylorsville Road, just across from Bowman Field. “Now I teach about my country and my culture through my food and my restaurant. Everything here is home to me.”

An International Buffet

Louisville diners can choose from an array of international cuisine any day of the week — ranging from Persian food at Majid Ghavami’s Saffron’s on West Market to what some consider the most authentic Mexican food in the city at Santa Fe on Third Street at Central Avenue near Papa John’s Stadium.

Chef Chen Chao-ming at Peking City Bistro in Middletown left school after sixth grade in his mountain village in Taiwan to become an apprentice in bustling Taipei, and he now insists on old-school methods he finds lacking at most Chinese food buffets.

In the Highlands, diners can travel to Italy for the evening at the romantic and almost concealed Le Gallo Rosso, where chef Annette Saco channels the memories and recipes of her Sicilian grandmother.

Or on the frigid winter nights just ahead, you can take in the meaty sizzle at Koreana near Male High School when you use tongs to lay marinated raw beef, chicken or pork onto the gas-heated table grill.

But I wanted to know more than what was on the menu. I was hoping for a reason to sit with the owners over a bowl of steaming stew just like their mothers made and let them share their stories. I wanted to learn about their love affairs with the village kitchens, gardens and markets of their childhoods.

Of course, it isn’t always that romantic. For many immigrants, running a restaurant is simply a means to an end. It’s money to pay the bills, to save for a child’s education, a first American home, or to send money back to family in Michoacan, Mexico. At one Asian restaurant, the bemused owner seemed dumbfounded by the idea that there was any reason to open a restaurant besides profit. I drew two images on a napkin — a dollar sign and a heart. He laughed and put his finger on the dollar.

But as I probed, I did find love stories.

When I told Palermo Viejo owner Frank Elbl that we should end our conversation before his customers arrived, he brushed aside my attempted politeness. “No, no,” he said, brimming with enthusiasm. “I love talking about this. Come on, I’ll show you the kitchen.”

Frank Elbl — Palermo Viejo

On most nights, you can see Frank Elbl, his baseball hat pulled down — all business — standing between a blazing hot charcoal-heated grill and a gas stove whose oversized burners deliver a pulsing 500-degree, skin-roasting sauna. This past July, when temperatures neared 100 degrees, he wondered how he could stand it a minute more, let alone stand up at all.

“The restaurant business sometimes takes more than it gives,” Elbl says. But he isn’t complaining. “I really understand why some restaurants close. For me, I think it’s kind of my passion to tell the story that keeps me going. It’s my connection to Argentina and really wanting people to know it.”

Unlike others I interviewed, Elbl was born in Louisville. But he doesn’t conceal his salacious appetite for all things Argentina: its gaucho cowboys, pampas grass and sizzling carne.

“What do people know about Argentina?” Elbl asks. “A soccer World Cup? What else? Not much.”

Leaning forward at a table — “exactly like the ones in Palermo” — he looks like a little kid boasting about a big fish he caught as he shares the story of how his Austrian grandfather and Spanish grandmother fell in love, married and, through a twist of history, ended up in the old section of Palermo, Argentina — Palermo Viejo.

It was in the late 1930s, as Hitler’s armies began their push through Europe. Frank’s grandfather, Franz Elbl, moved from Austria to Spain, where he met Rosa. They married, but Franz’s blonde hair and blue eyes triggered suspicion. They awoke one morning to see a swastika on their bakery window. An incensed mob gathered outside, and Franz and Rosa were saved by neighbors for whom they had often provided bread during hard times.

They escaped to what was then the Little Italy of Buenos Aires, Argentina. The restaurant they subsequently opened combined the Argentinean emphasis on grilled steak with the tomatoes, potatoes and garlic of the Italian inhabitants to create a fusion that became customary in Palermo Viejo.

Their son, Frank (the English version of Franz), came to the University of Louisville to study pediatric cardiology. He stayed, married a woman from Puerto Rico named Carmen, and they frequently took their sons Frank Jr. and Frederico to Palermo Viejo. It became a second home, Frank Jr. says, and from an early age, opening a restaurant like the ones near Grandma Rosa’s became his dream — his esperanza.

“Exactly, exactly, exactly like a restaurant in Palermo Viejo,” he says, gesturing his hand around the room, to the backdrop of tango music. “This is what I love.”

Herberto Rosenda Ucán Ake — Mayan Café

For Mayan Café founder and chef Herberto Rosenda Ucán Ake, his memories of the ancient ritual La Primicia seem like a recovered dream from a lost time. But the images and smells are real, as much a part of his childhood as the tortillas his mom grilled on a barrel lid his father coated with porcelain.

When a drought struck the Yucatan lowlands of the Mayan Empire 1,500 years ago, the people turned to shamans. It was still the same when Ucán grew up Mayan in the Yucatan Peninsula village of Kuntunil, just 10 miles from the famous Mayan pyramid Teotihuacan.

He was an industrious but bashful child his grandmother called Epi, so demure that he fell off his bicycle once when a pretty girl said hi. During the annual Primicia, he watched quietly as members of the village would form a circle. Men dug a huge dirt pit, then waited for the embers to glow before throwing in corn tamales, chunks of deer, pig meat and a butchered cow.

The men then covered the conglomeration with leaves, sending a billowing smoke to heaven as the shamans prayed for rain. Priests would place the succulent fire-scorched meat on an altar, as Epi and fellow villagers waited in line to have their bowls filled, marveling at what they had just witnessed.

“And then,’’ he says, “it rained.”

I sat recently with Ucán, whose nom de cuisine is Chef Bruce to fans of the East Market restaurant. He reflected on his odyssey from those shaman rituals to his daily life ritual today — he buys directly from farmers. He waxed nostalgic on stored images of seeing his mother in her kitchen, spending entire mornings preparing food for his dad and seven younger siblings.

The family was so big and the house so small that they ate in shifts; his mom never ate until everyone else was full.

“Sometimes I would wait until everyone was done and eat with her,” he recalls, blowing into a hot cup of coffee.

But life was difficult in his Mayan village, and soon economic necessity changed his life: At age 11, he quit school to join a construction crew.

“I never went back,” he says. “I wanted to, but …”

At home, life was all about food. He and his father harvested corn from their meager plots, then dried and transported the kernels to a mill. There were always a few pigs, chickens and turkeys around the house, and, of course, his granny’s chili pepper garden. “Every kind of chili,” he adds.

In 1987, Ucán moved to Louisville with his wife, an American who believed her ancestors were gypsies. Together they opened the Mayan Gypsy with a singular mission: He wanted to transform the image of Mexican food as fast-food plopped onto a hot dish.

He frowns and crosses his arms against his barrel chest. Ucán, a fireplug of a man, looks like he could either knock a door down or play gleefully with a child.

“I was running away from what I see in your average Mexican restaurant — refried beans from a can. I can’t stand that idea. Everywhere you go, it’s all the same — burritos, chimichangas. I wanted to show people what real Mexican food is all about, food like Mom made, but different.”

Steven Ton — Basa Modern Vietnamese

I visited Steven Ton in the restaurant he and his brother Michael created on Frankfort Avenue, in between Zen Garden and Zen Tea House, both founded by his Aunt Coco Tran, a devout Buddhist who donates a portion of her profits to help the needy.

As I listened to his story, two words came to mind: Prodigal Son.

Like many immigrants to America, young Ton labored valiantly to not be Vietnamese, to run away from the cultural heritage clung to with equal stubbornness by his parents as they attempted to create a new life in America after the Vietnam War.

Ton is the mercurial sort, his boyishly enthusiastic thoughts and memories darting about rapidly in no particular direction. Though nostalgic, he does not remember some important events and places in his own life story.

He has no recollection, of the chaos of the final days in 1975 before the Viet Cong overran Saigon. Ton was 2, and his father, a soldier who fought alongside Americans, was on the run with his family.

He doesn’t remember his stern, battle-hardened father commandeering a sampan and spiriting his family away, a step ahead of certain execution, or of being adrift in that boat with 20 family members and no food or water in the South China Sea. His mother told him how things seemed hopeless before the crew of a Japanese commercial vessel picked them up, then dropped the family at a refugee camp in Guam, an American protectorate.

But he does remember the misery of being the “Vietnamese kid” growing up in a small oil refinery town in South Texas. He remembers walking on a sidewalk hand in hand with his father one afternoon when a pick-up truck trolled by slowly as teenage boys in the back held up their middle fingers. He remembers seeing a parade with white-hooded men carrying burning torches when a dispute erupted between local Gulf Coast shrimpers and Vietnamese shrimpers.

There was one Vietnamese boy in the neighborhood, but as a teen, Ton kept a safe distance, instead surrounding himself with American peers.

But in the Vietnamese world that was his home, there was no escape. His father insisted on speaking Vietnamese in the home, and his family upheld all traditions, most of which revolved around the kitchen.

One of his deepest memories is of a special dish his mother made — it featured stewed fish in a clay pot.

Ton’s father wanted him to attend West Point and become a military man, but it was a path he would not follow. Determined to escape the oppression of small-town Texas xenophobia, Ton enrolled at the University of Massachusetts and began studying to become a dentist, even though he hated the classes. It was during his senior year that he felt compelled to take a course on the history of the Vietnam War.

When the class ended, he thanked the professor.

“Finally,” he says, “I found out who I was.”

Ton, whose ancestry is Chinese, began to understand his parents and the importance of food.

“My parents didn’t say, ‘I love you.’ They said, ‘Have you eaten yet?’”

He turned toward the food business, working at restaurants in North Carolina and elsewhere. He rose in management and came to Louisville to help start Proof on Main, thinking he was just passing through. He decided to stay, and in 2007, he and Michael started Basa.

Inside the bustling restaurant, there is the aroma of the same clay pot fish from Ton’s childhood. The fish, common in both Kentucky and in the Mekong River Delta, always makes Ton remember his mother. In English, the fleshy, whiskered river fish is called catfish. In Vietnamese, it’s called basa.

Ahmet Kunt — Istanbul Palace

It was just after 8 p.m. when Ahmet Kunt offered me Quaker State-dense Turkish coffee in a small porcelain cup inside his new restaurant near the corner of Bardstown Road and Eastern Parkway.

Sometime around 2:45 a.m., as I regretted that second tiny cup, I could not stop thinking about Kunt’s story of leaving behind his tiny village. In my half-dreamlike state, I conjured Eastern Turkey, on the coast of the Mediterranean where his father and grandfather ran a bakery, and where he toiled as a child.

The village is called Ezrin, the home of Turks and Kurds, and possibly the descendents of Noah, at the foothills of the Mt. Ararat in the Eastern Anatolia region of Turkey close to Syria.

On most mornings, young Ahmet would wake at 5 a.m. to help fetch wood for the family brick-oven bakery.

How many generations of his family have been baking bread?

“At least four. Who knows?” he says, picking up a pot. “More coffee?”

Looking back, Kunt is as proud of his homeland as, say, the father in the comedy “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” and that made me laugh.

“Let me tell you about the pomegranate,” he says. “We put it in a big vat to make the sauce. We stepped on it wearing plastic shoes.”

There were jams from apricots and the ritual feasts to celebrate the Muslim holiday Bayram. The walls of his flagship restaurant on Goose Creek Road at Westport Road include photos of his family. The menu is derived from the food he knew as a boy.

“While other children played, I made dough.”

But that was childhood, and as he grew, his dad and grandfather made one thing clear about his future: “I was picked not to be a baker,” he says. “I was the one who would go to college.”

And so Kunt set out for college, leaving behind his village and traversing a treacherous mountain pass to reach the coastal resort town of Alanya.

Upon graduating with a degree in the field of hotels, restaurants and tourism in 2000, he began looking for work across the globe. Within a few weeks, he was scanning a map to find Lexington, Ky., where he had landed his first job at the Radisson Hotel. After a few years, he relocated to Louisville and opened his own business.

Although thousands of miles from home, he fondly remembers his village and, especially, his family. He relays one particularly vivid memory of his grandmother, Nazmiye Babanne, whom he accompanied to the barn each morning to milk the cows, even though he didn’t have to.

Why did he awake before dawn to help with a chore he wasn’t required to perform.

“I wanted to be with Grandma,’’ he says. “Would you like some dessert?”

Selamawit Deneke — Queen of Sheba

For epicureans, the dinner in the movie “Babette’s Feast” is a feast for the eyes. The 1987 film is set in an isolated 19th century town on the coast of Denmark. At first, the harshly judging and aging Protestant inhabitants are leery of the feast being prepared by the serene and competent Babette, who came to them from France without revealing her identity as a famous Parisian chef.

As the stolid citizens gradually realize the meal prepared by Babette is a reflection of her kind heart, a worldly military general who is visiting samples a special dish featuring roasted quail; he remarks that few chefs can transform a meal “into a kind of love affair” that makes “no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite.”

As I came to know Selamawit Deneke, I believed I had met a real-life Babette. Her food was a gift from her soul. Only a few minutes into our first meeting, her eyes misted at the memory of her mother when I told her the idea I was exploring.

“Always,” says Deneke. Her mother is always with her.

Unlike Chef Ucán, the oldest of eight, or Chef Tan at Basa, who ran away from his heritage for years, Deneke is the youngest of 11 and has all of her life embraced her Ethiopian culture with pride.

In one of the world’s most desolate and impoverished nations, Deneke was privileged, living between the palaces of two former kings in the inland capital Addis Ababa. Her family had two servants and a driver.

She recalls holding her mother’s hand and walking to the market every other morning, watching her mother and other relatives spend entire mornings preparing food, and the constant presence of cousins, aunts, uncles and neighbors in her busy household.

Huge gatherings evolved around food and her mother’s kindness. On those days, her mother stood over a clay pot as big as a small dining table, preparing the food. These gatherings often revolved around festivals related to her church, the Orthodox Christians of Ethiopia.

The food prepared during her childhood is reflected on the menu at Queen of Sheba. “Every single thing is what I had growing up,” she says.

But the tranquility of her childhood dissolved when Deneke was 16, at which time her mother died and her family scattered. She moved to New York City, then Washington, D.C. While visiting a relative in Louisville, Deneke met a man who would eventually become her husband and the father of her two children.

Although she has always longed to be a teacher — specifically, to teach French — she is happy with what she has accomplished. “And now I use my restaurant to teach about Ethiopia.”

As we talk, business picks up at the restaurant, and she is called to duty. Before parting ways, I ask what she hopes for her future. She stops what she is doing and answers:

“Every morning, I get up at 5 a.m. and meditate. I think about my mom. I always say, ‘What would you do if you were in my place?’ There is always this voice. I hear her.”

So, what’s next?

“When my children are on their feet, I will return to Ethiopia,” She responds. “I will teach in a village. I don’t know which village. I will teach children. I will finally be a teacher.” 

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