D.C. chef Michael Rafidi’s Beard Award is a ‘huge moment for Palestinians’

d.c. chef michael rafidi’s beard award is a ‘huge moment for palestinians’

D.C. chef Michael Rafidi’s Beard Award is a ‘huge moment for Palestinians’

When his name was announced Monday as winner of the James Beard Award for outstanding chef in America, Michael Rafidi didn’t leap out of his seat in celebration at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. The chef and owner of Albi in Washington gracefully walked down the aisle, a kaffiyeh around his neck and tennis shoes on his feet, and stood at the lectern to make a surprise announcement: He had lost the speech he wrote.

“I had a speech. I honestly don’t know where it’s at right now,” Rafidi told the gathered crowd.

It didn’t matter. Even without a script, Rafidi knew where he wanted to place the spotlight: First on his staff at Albi, “because clearly there’s no such thing as an outstanding chef without an outstanding team,” Rafidi said. Second on his grandparents, originally from Ramallah in the West Bank, and his mother in Maryland, who all “paved the way for me to be here tonight.”

Then his thoughts turned to the Palestinian people. He never mentioned Gaza or the million residents there who are expected to face death and starvation by July, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Rafidi just said, “This award is dedicated to Palestine, and to all the Palestinian people out there, whether it’s here or in Palestine or all over the world.”

Rafidi is one of those people, thought to be the first of Palestinian descent to win the Beard Award for outstanding chef (though that remains unconfirmed). His maternal grandparents left Ramallah in the years after the Nakba, the mass displacement and dispossession of Palestinians during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. His family still runs a bakery in Ramallah; it can trace its roots back more than a century. Rafidi was raised by his mother and her parents, who were his introduction to Palestinian food and culture as a child. Albi, the chef says, is “a tribute to my grandparents and the food I grew up with.”

That’s what his original speech was about, Rafidi said. The chef did eventually find the speech and posted it on Instagram on Wednesday.

“We are seeing unspeakable horrors in my homeland, we are seeing food being used as a weapon of war, to starve people and deprive them of their human rights,” Rafidi wrote. “The very land that for generations provided my family and millions with the ingredients and recipes that sustained life and made it possible for someone like me to stand on that stage is in danger and we must all speak out against it.”

d.c. chef michael rafidi’s beard award is a ‘huge moment for palestinians’

Albi chef Michael Rafidi.

Reached by phone earlier Wednesday, Rafidi said he is usually a man of few words, a disposition that aligns well with the Beard Foundation’s request to keep acceptance speeches short during the awards ceremony. The D.C. chef didn’t deliver the blistering paragraph about “unspeakable horrors” to the Beard audience Monday. He didn’t discuss the war in Gaza or the events in the West Bank. He was more restrained, but he said that raising awareness about these problems is part of his mission, just as important as spotlighting the food of the Levant, including Palestine.

“That’s the only thing I feel like I can do: shed light and show off Palestinian food and how great it could be, but also raise awareness on having people pay a little bit more attention to what’s going on in Palestine and Gaza as well, but also the West Bank,” Rafidi told The Washington Post.

The situation is personal to Rafidi. His extended family in Ramallah lives with the violence around them. “This has been going on for decades. But it is only getting worse in the West Bank,” he said. “I don’t know if you saw … the produce market that was set fire like two weeks ago. That was a few blocks from my family’s bakery.”

Rafidi is not someone who views awards as a kind of coronation of Palestinian cuisine in America. “I don’t know if I need confirmation from anyone on what we’re doing. There’s been a mission with me cooking this kind of food ever since Albi opened. I think whether I get recognized by James Beard or Michelin or anyone, I continue to do what I’m doing,” said Rafidi, whose coal-fired cooking in the Navy Yard holds a Michelin star.

“It’s incredible. Don’t get me wrong. I’m self-motivated on the cause. I’m excited about the food I cook,” he added. “Regardless of the awards, I think I have a mission of going down that path.”

Rafidi may be shy about making pronouncements about his Beard victory, but his peers aren’t. Reem Assil, the Palestinian American chef and founder of Reem’s, a small Arab street food chain in San Francisco, told The Post that she had collaborated with Rafidi in the past and witnessed firsthand “how magical his kitchen is.”

“What a huge moment for Palestinians to hold our heads up high with pride and hope in a devastating time,” Assil said in a text. “This accolade to Palestine shows he knows the power of his voice and his willingness to use it.”

Marcelle G Afram, the chef behind Shababi, a Palestinian-inspired kitchen that hosts pop-ups and private dinners, said he was “immensely proud” of Rafidi for his win.

“He’s done an incredible job of centering Palestinian and Arab hospitality, uplifting Palestinian foodways, narrative and culture,” Afram wrote in a text. “It’s exceptionally important right now for Palestinians to be uplifted, with the ongoing genocide on Palestinians in Gaza, to help continue to preserve, advance awareness and acknowledge our culture, joy and struggles.”

Rafidi hasn’t had much time to process his victory since returning from Chicago on Tuesday. He’s still deep in the process of opening two establishments in the Union Market area: a larger version of Yellow, his popular Levantine bakery and pizzeria in Georgetown, and a cocktail bar and bistro called La’ Shukran, which is Arabic for “no, thank you.” (He doesn’t have an opening date yet for the twin projects.)

But the chef does have a thought about what it means to be the second straight Washingtonian to win the Beard Award for outstanding chef. Rob Rubba won it last year for his mostly vegetarian restaurant Oyster Oyster in D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood. Rubba was onstage in Chicago to present Rafidi the medal.

“D.C. is the best. That’s it. I think it solidifies that,” Rafidi said. “We have a great dining scene here.”

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