Ramadan fast particularly challenging for restaurant workers

August 16, 2012

The author is a contributor to The Washington Post's local faith leader network.

How can someone who works in a restaurant observe Ramadan — which requires Muslims to fast every day from sunrise to sunset for an entire month each year? This is a question I get a lot. And it is one that is easy for me to answer — because the answer grows out of who I am.

Growing up, I attended an Italian school where I learned many Catholic rituals. By age 11 and in keeping with my own faith, I began to fast during Ramadan.  I don’t remember exactly what my father said to me at the time, but I know his words and values are inside me. To be honest, like many young people, I followed my own path — which meant that in my teens and 20s I did not always fast. Now that I am older, I realize how important it is to follow in the footsteps of my father and four older brothers. I learned from them that values and will are stronger than temptation.

Being in the restaurant business, it is difficult — if not impossible — not to think about food. For many of us who go into this industry, food is our passion. I started working in a restaurant when I was 17. My career began at Lebanese Taverna, where I was promoted from busboy to a general manager. From there I went to Marvelous Market, Guarapo and Caribou Coffee before coming to Figs Lebanese Cafe earlier this year.

At Figs, we are involved with food all day long — ordering food, going to farmers’ markets and organic groceries to select produce, and of course making, serving and promoting food. When I’m behind the counter, I’m talking with customers about food from the time we open until we close. And it’s not just the sight of the food. It’s the smell of chef Khadija Banouas’s native Moroccan recipes mingling with Lebanese and other Mediterranean foods she creates from scratch. I can practically taste my favorite dish – Chicken Shawarma with Garlic Sauce – as I write this.  I’d be lying if I said I don’t think about food all day long.

Our chef, who some customers call “Mama,” also observes Ramadan. Beyond having a great deal of discipline, think about what that means. She begins her day at 6:30 a.m. when she arrives to prepare all of the dishes we serve fresh every day. A veteran of the industry who has owned two restaurants, Banouas learned to cook from her mother in Marrakesh and attended a French culinary school in Casablanca. In other words, she’s a pro. Which means that during Ramadan, instead of tasting the food to make sure it is properly seasoned, she relies on her sense of smell, standards and measurements, and years of experience. That’s what makes her such an outstanding chef. In fact, in the past two weeks, in addition to serving our customers, we have catered four important events. No one noticed anything different about the food — nor should they.

Some customers have taken note of the fact that we have added dates to our food case this month. Because dates are an excellent source of fiber, sugar, magnesium, potassium, and have carbohydrates, they are traditionally the first food Muslims eat when they break their fast. Many customers have expressed their appreciation to learn something new about Islam, just as we enjoy hearing about their traditions.

It’s hard work owning and running a restaurant, and it’s hard work observing Ramadan. But both bring me great joy and remind me of how important community is in my life – not only this month, but throughout the year.

Saud Niori is the owner of Figs Lebanese Cafe in D.C.

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