Gazala Halabi is without a doubt the best known female Druze chef, and perhaps the only one, in New York. She has two restaurants – Gazala’s Place and Gazala’s – and every time I go by them, they’re full of diners.
“I come from Daliat al-Carmel, a place I love very much, but everything there is so limited for a woman. I never had it easy and so what I did is considered a real revolution,” she says. “I’m a divorced Druze woman, living and working in New York, raising two kids alone. I’m more independent than many American women and I’m proud of it,” she goes on, adding: “I really don’t know how I did what I did, I didn’t have it easy in marriage, with the kids or in business. If I was able to do what I’ve done here with two restaurants, any women with strong willpower can do it,” she says.
Success in business has nothing to do with gender or nationality, Halabi believes, but how much you’re willing to give of yourself. “Believe me, men would find it hard to do what I did. I worked seven days a week for long hours – there were nights when I only slept an hour; I didn’t see the kids much. I had to be strong. Even when I was tired, I didn’t show it. I worked sick. I gave of myself, that’s simply the secret of my success.”
Followed her husband
Halabi arrived in New York in 2001, two months before the attack on the Twin Towers. She had met a Druze man in Israel, who lived in the United States, and they decided to get married and live in New York. It wasn’t easy; the family was so against it that her father and brothers didn’t attend her engagement parties. Her mother was in the hospital, and only her sisters took part in all the ceremonies around the marriage. “It took them years to get over it,” she says.
We’re sitting in her new restaurant, Gazala’s, on the Upper West Side. A song by Israeli singer Pe’er Tasi is playing in the background. Last time it was Idan Reichel. From time to time there are songs in Arabic. “It’s true that Druze women are supposed to stay close to their families but in this case I followed my husband. I came here in the most legitimate way there is. I was the little one at home and they treated me that way. My mother wanted me to stay a little girl. I loved the village but I didn’t find myself there.”
Halabi wonders aloud whether her success stems from her desire to prove to her family that she made the right decision to move to America. “The truth is that I had guilt feelings about my family in Israel. Here in New York it wasn’t simple. I didn’t know English at all. I cleaned my apartment and then cleaned all the steps in the building. I thought that’s what is done. I cooked a lot, and knocked on the neighbors’ doors and offered them food because I thought that’s what was done. I quickly learned that in New York you don’t just knock on a neighbor’s door and you don’t clean the steps of the whole building. That’s how I learned. Slowly.”
Suddenly, a celebrity
Halabi began her business career in 2005. “I started catering from home. I made ma’amouls [filled pastries] that were a big success. After that I decided that I wanted something more regular and a year later I opened a restaurant in the East Village. It failed. I didn’t have workers and I didn’t know what I should be doing. I closed after six weeks and I thought I’d never open another restaurant. But a year later, in 2007, I opened the restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, which is still there. There were only 28 places. Suddenly Time Out and the Daily News wrote about me and then a reporter from the New York Times. When they told me that they had written about me in the New York Times, I didn’t really understand what it meant, but suddenly the phone didn’t stop ringing. People stood in line outside. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I was under pressure, exhausted from work. At one point I had to close the restaurant for a few hours to calm down. The idea that people were standing in line outside put me under a lot of pressure.”
Halabi opened her second restaurant on Columbus Avenue on the Upper West Side in 2010. She was walking down the street and saw an empty restaurant she thought would be perfect. That one was also a hit, but it closed in 2015 after the building changed ownership and she was offered a deal to vacate. “I felt tired and I wanted to go back home. I had saved money and I thought: ‘I’ll build myself my dream house in Daliat el-Carmel and I’ll live near my parents.’ The thing is, it’s not accepted for a woman to build a house in the village. I gave management of the project to a woman relative who’s an engineer. I brought a contractor, also a relative, and it turned into a nightmare. They really treated me disrespectfully. I have lots of feeling for the family and the village, but there in the village they denigrated me. We set a price with the contractor and the price kept going up. I decided to fire the contractor. In the end he sued me and it was a nightmare for a year and a half and left a bitter taste in my mouth. Then I decided not to go back. I wanted a house in my village, with security. I was fair with people and they weren’t fair with me. I asked myself what will happen to my daughter when she grows up. They’ll disrespect her because she’s a woman? I don’t need it. So it’s true, women aren’t treated respectfully here either but it’s much better than in the Druze village. So thanks you, I’m staying here. There has never in Druze history been a woman who wanted to build a house with her own money without the help of her parents or husband.”
Halabi returned to New York. The next step was to open Gazala’s, the restaurant on Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side, which she did in August. “It was a quiet opening. Lots of people came. I didn’t expect such success,” she says.
Halabi describes her restaurant as Druze-Israeli. True, there are a few typical Druze dishes like labaneh, Halabi kabab and Druze pita baked on the traditional saj. There are also typical filled Druze cookies and ma’amouls, but that’s it. All in all, the menu at Gazala’s is very familiar to an Israeli diner: humus, falafel, labaneh, Turkish salad, tahini, humus masabakha, “cigars,” qubbeh, stuffed grape leaves, shawarma, lamb and various types of kabab. Sometimes she brings coffee with cardamom from Israel. The menu is Gazala’s version of Middle Eastern fare and for desert she offers a dish she learned at home called ush a-sarya, which is actually a Lebanese dish that her grandmother used to make and brought with her from the Land of The Cedars.
If you ask Halabi what the most popular item on her menu is, she’ll tell you it’s bourekas, although bourekas are not exactly the signature dish of Druze cuisine. In 2008, Time Out New York put Gazala’s bourekas on their cover and since then, the appeared in the Daily News and the New York Times. Halabi makes them on site with her special fillings, including labaneh, cheese and spinach and even dried tomatoes.
On the menu is a photo of her parents, Gad and Joara, but the truth is the parents in the picture don’t come to New York often. They visited her twice, once when her son was born and the second time when she opened her Columbus Avenue restaurant in 2012. “My mother helped in the kitchen but she didn’t get along in the city. She didn’t understand how I could sleep with ambulance sirens in the street all night. She needed the quiet of the night in Daliat al-Carmel.”
Halabi has an expressive face, sometimes hard and other times sensitive on the edge of tears. She says you don’t want to fall into her hands if she’s angry. She does everything in the restaurant. She’s the omnipotent boss, noticing every detail while at the same making a thousand ma’amouls, while catching up on things with her family in Israel.
Halabi was raised in a household with five sisters and one brother. Her brother, Salim, runs the emergency ward in the Carmel Hospital in Haifa. “I think my sisters would want to be in my shoes. They don’t see how hard it is to live here, that it’s hard to raise children with Druze values in Manhattan. I have two kids, a boy and a girl, age 15 and 14. There were days when I saw them only when they were asleep. Now they’re teenagers but as children they saw themselves as Israeli Druze even though they don’t speak Hebrew or Arabic, but only English.”
One day when I came to dine at Gazala’s, she wasn’t there. She called from her car. “I’m on my way to Washington D.C., she said. “There’s a demonstration being organized by Druze who live in America.” It was hard to hear her. A few days later she told me that the Islamic State had abducted 30 Druze from Syria and had killed one man and a pregnant woman. “So we decided to protest. We gathered 500 people near the White House to protest. Maybe it would help. People don’t know but the Druze suffered a lot in the civil war in Syria. They killed 300 people in one night in the area of Suweida. People don’t talk about that suffering,” she said.
While Israel roiled over the nation-state law, Halabi looked on from the sidelines. “I see Israel as a wonderful country, but today I also have the opportunity to live in New York and be an American. That doesn’t mean giving up my roots. I didn’t come out against the community. I didn’t come out against the religion. All in all I’m the good girl of the family. I travel to Israel in a bit of an unusual way. I buy a ticket at the airport and head out. In Israel I have no problems except one: the airport. When I come into the country there’s no problem but when I leave – that’s where the problem starts. I have an American passport and an Israeli passport. So do my children. The thing is that security treats me like a terrorist. My father is a wounded Israeli army veteran from the Yom Kippur War. My uncle, Yihye Halabi, is a brigadier general in the army. So why do they treat me this way? I’m Israeli Druze and proud of it. I don’t deserve this treatment by security and at passport control,” she says.
Surrounded by Israelis
In New York Halabi has good ties with quite a few Israelis. “When I opened my restaurants, and I’ve opened four so far, 90 percent of my guests in the first couple of months were Israelis. Israelis always came to me when I needed customers. My first workers were demobilized soldiers from Israel. My girlfriends are Israeli Jewish women,” she says. She recently hired a manager, Guy Goldstein, who has worked in a number of Israeli restaurants, so she can devote herself to the kitchen.
Her plans for the future? Halabi says she might open another restaurant in New York, maybe even a few. It’s hard to know. One doesn’t always make long-term plans. She works according to her gut feeling. If she finds the right place, it will happen. And yes, she has another plan: to open a restaurant in Israel. Not in Daliat al-Carmel, but in Tel Aviv. Nothing concrete, but it certainly could happen. With Gazala Halabi, you can never know.