Thursday, June 19, 2008

New Deal Café hires culinary expert

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Susan Whitney⁄The Gazette
Abdul Karim Kmaiha (right), new chef and manager of the New Deal Café in Greenbelt, trains cook Jose Gomez of Hyattsville in preparing the new Mediterranean-style menu Monday.
Karim Kmaiha, 56, of Rockville cooked for more than 30 years all around the world before his ambitions landed him in Greenbelt earlier this year as the new manager and chef at the New Deal Café.

After months of hard work and unexpectedly lengthy renovations to the kitchen and air-conditioning, the New Deal Café is set to unofficially reopen Monday, with its grand opening on Wednesday, Kmaiha said. The café has been closed for three months for kitchen renovations.

In and around the kitchen since he was growing up in Lebanon, Kmaiha learned how to cook from his mom, beginning with the basics, like pasta and cake. Once he graduated high school in 1974, he went to cooking school in Lebanon.

After graduation from cooking school, Kmaiha traveled to Dubai, United Arab Emirates to work in a hotel, but only stayed for about 4 months because he did not like it there. He spent three years in Saudi Arabia cooking in a restaurant before relocating to Libya with an American company.

After three years in Libya, Kmaiha returned home and opened up his own bakery and hamburger shop. But the Lebanese Civil War tore the country apart and Kmaiha’s business failed. His cousin found him a job as a chef for Lebanese diplomats and before he knew it, Kmaiha had moved to the United States in 1986.

Kmaiha had previously worked at Lebanese Taverna for six years. A friend approached him earlier this year about managing and cooking at the New Deal Café. Kmaiha and wife, Maria Almeida, decided to take a risk and invest in the café, which was struggling financially and was in danger of closing last September due to looming loan debts.

Kmaiha knew he was taking a chance in investing in the café, but said he felt confident he could turn the place around. He and his wife hope with their hard work, the café will grow.

‘‘I have lots of hopes,” Almeida said. ‘‘We hope to do well and recoup our investment. Unfortunately, we have to be very realistic. The hopes would be to make it grow not only as a restaurant but as a venue for music for people to showcase their talent.”

The café, since its opening 1995, has served as a cooperatively-owned restaurant often staffed solely by volunteers and open only a few days a week. For those who have been involved with the café for years, a full-fledged restaurant with a complete kitchen is a dream come true, New Deal Café Board President Peter May, 39, said.

‘‘We hoped for professional opportunity to be run there with service and good food that will allow us to be able to focus on music and arts and events happening there without having to worry about day to day restaurant operations,” May said. ‘‘I see a great potential for success at the place and we are really looking forward to that.”

Kmaiha is taking the café in a new direction, with a Mediterranean-themed menu made up of the food Kmaiha loves. The menu features items such as salmon with shrimp sauce, beef, chicken, lamb and vegetarian kabobs and falafel.

Though Kmaiha is head chef and manager, Almeida will bake desserts and help in the kitchen. The café will also host live music four times a week and have a patio serving wine and beer outside.

‘‘I have a regular menu for everybody,” Kmaiha said. ‘‘Even the price is for everybody. I trust myself that I serve the good food.”

E-mail Kristi Tousignant at ktousignant@gazette.net.