Fadi’s Mediterranean Grill has been a Houston fixture for more than 20 years. Many of us are familiar with its buffet-style lineup of pita bread, hummus, a plethora of cold salads, kebabs and other hot roasted meat offerings. So I was surprised to be directed to a place on Highway 6 South for our interview with owner Fadi Dimassi. Long ago, the space housed a different restaurant that has long since closed. I used to live in the area, so I know that building had stayed vacant a long time.
Although there were cars in the parking lot and obviously people there, there was no sign that said “Fadi’s.” I wandered around to the side of the building, where Dimassi spotted me and led me to a huge kitchen that any chef would be thrilled to have. There’s a cold prep room, cold storage, a big stove and lots of counter space. Up front, the entire seating area of the restaurant has been done up with long tables covered in blue tablecloths and accented with silver candelabras.
This is Dimassi’s combination commissary and banquet hall. To control the quality and flavor of the food served at his four other Houston locations, the vast kitchen here is used to prepare cold dishes and to marinate meats, which are then sent to the other locations. The other locations do the cooking portion, but thanks to the controls in place, hummus at one Fadi’s is the same as the hummus at another Fadi’s.
At the banquet hall, Dimassi is doing something new: plated, seated dinners. For our interview, Dimassi was plating examples of the courses he’s serving for an upcoming seafood dinner, and you’ll see the beautiful result during the course of this two-part interview.
It’s a different, more formal side of his work that has perhaps been inspired by a remarkable choice he made a few years ago. Dimassi has been in Houston’s restaurant industry since he started helping his parents in their own restaurants at age 17. In his forties, Dimassi decided to pursue formal education in the culinary arts and started attending classes at the Art Institute of Houston. He graduates this semester.
In Part 1 of our Chef Chat with him, we’ll learn how he got started as a member of one of Houston’s first families of Mediterranean cuisine. Be sure to come back tomorrow to learn more about what he has planned for the future.
EOW: Are you from Houston?
FD: I'm originally from Lebanon — born and raised in Lebanon. I grew up in a restaurant-oriented family. We used to own a restaurant in Lebanon. So when I was in 17, I joined my parents and I found out that I loved to cook. We came here in 1990.
EOW: How old were you?
FD: When I came here, I was 17.
EOW: So you were a teenager in high school still?
EOW: How did your parents start up their first restaurant here in Houston?
FD: When we came here, we worked for a couple of restaurants — Droubi’s on Hillcroft and then I moved to Yildizlar on Kirby. I don't know if you remember it. I'm the one who started it. Then my parents opened Aladdin in 1995. It was on Hillcroft close to Richmond.
They sold it, went and opened the first Dimassi on Richmond and 610. At that time, I joined the family. Then I went to Yildizlar in 1996. My brother and my parents brought in a partner to open the [Rice] Village location. Then they went into trouble and the partner took over. Then he sold the Dimassi chain, after we took over to the current owner ten years ago.
EOW: What did your parents do next?
FD: Six months before my parents left Dimassi, I opened Fadi’s on Westheimer and Dunvale. So when they left Dimassi, they joined me at Fadi’s. We get a lot of customers from Dimassi's since my parents moved to Fadi’s. It was a success since then.
EOW: What made you want to stay in the family business and open your own restaurant?
FD: What makes me go out on my own? That’s a good question.
EOW: Did you ever think of doing anything else?
FD: No. When I came here, I found out this is my passion. I came with the American dream. I always dreamed of owning my own restaurant. I worked so hard on it and I built my customer base through the restaurants I just mentioned: Droubi’s, Yildizlar and Dimassi. So, people started to get to know me.
When I opened Fadi’s, it was a big success, especially after six months when my parents left Dimassi. Most of the customers moved to Fadi’s because the family had left [the] Dimassi [restaurants] already. So, many things played to my benefit, especially for somebody who started a restaurant from zero financially.
It was a big help for me to be busy. It usually takes a year to build a business. I was lucky enough to have my customer base. We started getting busy, and basically two of my friends loaned me the money, plus I built my credit. So it was a plus for me to [be busy] because otherwise I wouldn’t have had the cash flow to survive after six months.
EOW: I think that’s the case for most restaurateurs, unless they have a lot of capital.
FD: They don't make it. Even if they have the best food, you need this [startup] period, especially if it's a new name or a new brand. But if it's already established — like now, every time I open, we get busy the first week. I don't want it to get busy because you need time to adjust your employees, right?
FD: I get so busy after a month because at each location, I have 15 employees. Even if you train four of them, you still have ten who are not perfect. So, things happen. That's why there's a benefit of having the brand but [with the way] people look at me, I cannot make any mistakes anymore.
But to go back, when I first started [being busy], it was a big help. [It allowed] me to pay off the people who gave me the money. I was surrounded with good people, basically. I have to give my parents credit. They worked hard with me: my mom, my dad, my brothers.
EOW: Are they still working with you?
FD: Yeah, they're still working, not as hard as before, but they're present. Now that we have multiple locations, they're basically taking care of the one in Dunvale and Westheimer. Their presence is very important.
EOW: Your family sounds like they were some of the first people to bring Mediterranean food to Houston.
FD: Yes. Twelve years ago, it wasn't like now. We had to work so hard to get people in the restaurant. When they came in, that was it. Now it's more popular because of the health-conscious. It’s a trend. Everybody wants Mediterranean food.
EOW: Yeah, because of the Mediterranean diet and it is supposed to be very healthy.
FD: Which is the case: It is very healthy.
Two years ago, I joined the Art Institute [of Houston].
EOW: I did not know that!
FD: I'm graduating this semester.
FD: I was 45 when I joined. People were surprised in the beginning. Instructors were like, “What are you doing here?” I knew what I wanted. I always wanted a degree. I need to keep up with the current culinary exchange. For the last five years with the food shows and stuff, things are changing.
EOW: Yeah, there's more technology now.
FD: There is more technology involved, techniques — so many things. It's very important for me. Even though I learned from my parents and my family, there are so many new things. It's all about plating and new ingredients.
I wanted to know about other cuisines. So I put myself in the classroom. It was very tough. But my GPA is 3.8, so I'm proud of myself, to be honest. My family supported me. It was a journey.
EOW: I think a lot of people don't realize there's only so much you can learn being self-taught. At some point it really helps to have some formal instruction, and as you were saying, to be exposed to other cuisines and other techniques of doing things. I think that's terrific. Congratulations!
FD: Thank you.
EOW: You graduate when?
FD: This semester, and then that's it! I might go back for baking and pastry, just for me to know. I need to be knowledgeable about everything. If I'm a business owner, I need to know more than what my employees know so I stay in control. The minute they feel they know more, you lose control, in any business.
I just wanted to know everything about the kitchen, especially now with this [commissary] kitchen. It's not only the cooking deal, because this is a different setup. Of course, the target is to have quality control in all of my locations. As you know, when people start multiplying restaurants, they can lose it overnight.
The system and food quality control: These are the two key things and that's why I did this [centralized kitchen]. I knew if I wanted to do more locations, I need to stop, rethink and be organized myself where I can have one kitchen controlling all locations. It doesn't matter how much I train people. Cooking is not only training. The person has to have the ability. Even if I have recipes in place, I found out there's always 10 percent difference [if the cooking is done by someone else].
EOW: Yeah, someone always decides to put in a little more lemon juice or something like that. Now that you have the benefit of perspective, if you could have done things differently and gone to culinary school when you were younger, would you have?
FD: I didn't get the chance. I always wanted to have a college degree when I came here, but as I told you, I came here with probably five dollars in my pocket.
If a student comes to me and asks me questions, I tell them that there's an opportunity for everybody in this country. Whoever was born and grew up in a different country — they see the value of the U.S. because there is opportunity for everybody. We just have to work hard on it, have the passion and improve ourselves. Everybody can make it. I's totally different than any country in the world. If somebody has the passion and hard work, they can get to where they want to be here.
EOW: You're definitely a success story.
FD: Yeah. I always wanted to join college, but I opened a restaurant. I got busy; I was behind the line and it grew. I started from valet parking. I started as a dishwasher, then at the grill. It’s not just me anymore. Of course, it's me planning, but it's not like six years ago. Six years ago, I was cooking and serving people. Now I have a team around me.
EOW: You're more overseeing — although I see a thermometer in your jacket.
FD: Yeah, of course. I’m still involved!
EOW: It looks very much like you're still very hands-on.
FD: Oh, always!
Don't forget to come back tomorrow for Part 2 to find out about chef Fadi Dimassi's expansion plans!