Chef Chat, Part 1: Sophie Elhage of Skewers Mediterranean Café & Grill

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Sophie Elhage is the lovely 26-year-old chef and co-owner of Skewers Mediterranean Café & Grill. The sexy Lebanese fusion joint on Richmond is the Saturday-night hotspot for belly-dancing (and belly-pleasing food.) It's the first restaurant venture for Elhage -- who was previously a medical school student.

EOW: So when did you first start cooking?

SE: I was 13. I was living in Lebanon at the time, but I was born here. I'm half/half. We used to have so many people over in the summertime to stay at our house because we had a beach house. We actually had somebody that would cook every day. That particular summer, I started to cook because the cook we had got overwhelmed. There were like 50 people staying at the house and each person would wake up at their own time...she'd have to make breakfast seven times, lunch seven times, dinner seven times. Then she went on strike! So my mom basically laid down rules -- she was like, "I know you guys are guests, but 10 a.m.'s breakfast, 12 p.m.'s lunch, and 6 p.m.'s dinner. If you don't make it, you make your own food."

As kids, we never made it. So we always had to make our own food. That's how I started.

EOW: Did you cook for all the other latecomers too?

SE: Yes. So all the kids that were latecomers and the adults that were partying or woke up late, I would make them breakfast.

EOW: Lebanese food?

SE: Yes, but fusion too. Because we lived in America before moving back to Lebanon, I was exposed to Mexican food, Chinese food, Italian food. So it wasn't just Lebanese food. But Lebanese food was easier for me, because I was more familiar with how it should taste, and I was watching my mom and our cook make it.

EOW: So when did you go back to Lebanon?

SE: When I was 10. I went to middle school and high school there. I came back and went to college here, at A&M.

EOW: Where did you get the idea to start a restaurant?

SE: My cousins have restaurants, and my uncle has a restaurant. I've always been around it, and plus loving to cook. When I got married, I cooked a lot. I wasn't working for the first year, and I got extremely bored. I was used to always having a job or being in school or doing something. I thought, "I'm good at this. Maybe I should do this."

EOW: Tell me about this menu. Do you create these dishes yourself?

SE: A lot of the dishes are collaborations between me and Hadi [my husband]. I'll get an idea, and then I'll talk to him about it. He'll be like, "No, maybe we should do this instead of that." Then we'll try the recipe, and have other input.

EOW: Is your husband also Lebanese?

SE: Yes...we met in Houston, actually the first year I moved back.

EOW: What's your favorite thing to make here?

SE: I love making pastas. It's why I added three new pastas to the menu: a chicken pasta, shrimp pasta, and lamb pasta. Mediterranean food is really known for lamb, so that's something we really wanted to highlight with this new menu...[Lebanese people] always mix things up. They'll learn an Italian dish and put lamb on it. That's just the way we cook at home. The lamb meatball pasta, it kind of reminds me of a pasta my mom would make when we were kids, but she didn't used to put feta cheese in it. I took that idea and I made it into something a little more Americanized with the meatballs, because we never make meatballs. Also, the chicken shawarma pasta. I don't think anybody has done that before.

Check back tomorrow as we continue our chat.

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