Food has always been at the center of Nujoud Makhlouf’s life. She remembers when she was 3 years old and her great grandmother gave her the opportunity to work in the kitchen. “She said to me, ‘you’re a smart girl. I know you know how to peel the garlic.’ She let me peel it, then gave me a mortar and pestil. She let me smash it. She was glowing. ‘Look! She knows how to smash garlic!’ That was my moment. My great grandmother told me I was good and that carried me through.”
Makhlouf also remembers being obsessed with her mother’s baking pantry. She enjoyed staying in there and spinning the lazy susan. “I loved the smell of spices and sitting amongst the different ingredients, taking out my Mom’s mixer and helping make all of our foods. I always had an obsession with food.”
She will have an opportunity to share her obsession with food as the new entrepreneur-in-residence at “With Love, Palestine,” Onondaga Community College’s teaching restaurant located on Syracuse’s North Side at 435 North Salina Street. The restaurant’s cuisine changes with the entrepreneur-in-residence. Previous cuisines have included Pakistan, Burma and Savannah, GA. With Love, Palestine will open Wednesday, July 18.
Makhlouf’s parents are Palestinian refugees. She was born and raised in Central New York. Throughout her formative years food was always the constant. She had four younger sisters and enjoyed cooking for them. She loved cooking with her father and learning new dishes from him. She also cooked regularly for friends from school. “Our door was always open and we were always cooking. The whole concept of ‘families that eat together stay together’ was inevitable with us. We were always eating together.”
After graduating from Liverpool High School in 1993 Makhlouf attended Syracuse University. She earned her degree and became a teacher. Eight years later she put her teaching career on hold when her twins were born. Two more children would follow. Makhlouf stayed home to raise them and continue to cook. “I knew I wanted to cook Arabic food for my children and my husband. I wanted to give them those flavors.”
Within the past year she gave substitute teaching a try but continued to have an overwhelming passion for cooking. At her church she enjoyed teaching and organizing cooking classes and events. “One of the last cooking parties I threw, I got a lot of positive feedback from people who had recently come here from Syria. They said, ‘I haven’t had anything like this since the old country! How do you make it? Can you teach me the recipe?’ It was a major affirmation.”
When Makhlouf heard “With Love” was looking for its next entrepreneur-in-residence she decided to pursue it, aced the interview and was selected. “I’m approaching this like a six-month internship. I don’t know why this door has opened for me but this is my opportunity and I’m taking it.
The With Love, Palestine menu will include Makhlouf’s chicken dish, flipped rice dish and vegetable dish. Customers will also be treated to za’atar. It’s similar to an artisan flatbread and the recipe includes wild thyme, toasted sesame seeds, ground sumac, sea salt and extra virgin olive oil. Makhlouf already sells za’atar at local farmer’s markets. Her other products include pink hummus infused with beet juice and handcrafted yogurt cheese which you can either put on top of something or use as a dip. She sells under the brand name, “Small Mountain Za’atar.”
The July 18 opening of “With Love: Palestine” will also signal the beginning of expanded hours. The restaurant will be open for lunch (12-2 p.m.) and dinner (5-8 p.m.) Tuesday through Friday.