Marcelle Afram says she’s going to need a footstool, or a stepladder, or something will extend her reach to every corner of a massive central hearth when she starts her new job next month as the chef at Maydan, the nationally adored restaurant off U Street NW that’s drawn lavish praise for theatrical live-fire cooking and condiment-heavy cuisine drawn from countries throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Washington City Paper reported yesterday that Afram, who has spent the past five years leading the kitchen at the Bluejacket brewery in Navy Yard, will soon make the jump to a restaurant that may literally and figuratively be the hottest in town. Washington Post critic Tom Sietsema reports that current co-chefs Gerald Addison and Chris Morgan are leaving Maydan, which just won its first Michelin star, to open their own restaurant in Navy Yard centered around a yet-to-be revealed cuisine.
Since opening two years ago, Maydan has been recognized by Eater and Bon Appétit as one of the best new restaurants in America. Afram, 34, tells Eater that she’s excited to cook what she considers to be “Middle Eastern soul food” and to collaborate with Maydan co-owner Rose Previte. Both women grew up with Lebanese mothers who worked as professional cooks and caterers.
“Literally we grew up eating the same things,” Previte says.
Afram is expected to start next month, train with Addison and Morgan, and push through the crush of customers anticipated for the holidays before making any changes to the menu.
“Nothing is broken,” Afram says. “It’s certainly a collaborative effort, and something I feel like I will assimilate in. ... My biggest concern is reaching the top of the fire.”
She will also take over as the chef at Previte’s first restaurant, Compass Rose, which will give her a chance to play with a global menu known for Georgian khachapuri and Bedouin tent-themed dinners.
At Maydan, Afram eventually plans to bring on dishes that represent her heritage. Afram was born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, but her mother was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and her father was born in Damascus, Syria. Her grandparents have roots in Jerusalem and Southern Turkey.
Afram says one of her hobbies is studying the diversity of flatbreads across the Middle East, and she could see herself introducing an Iranian barbari. While Addison and Morgan were interested in traditions from Arabian peninsula countries like Oman, Afram wants to focus on the countries of upper Mesopotamia.
Previte and Afram met on a panel a few months ago, and the restaurateur took notice of how Afram’s Instagram account was full of Middle Eastern dishes she was cooking at food festivals and events outside of Bluejacket. When the two met for coffee, Afram said the timing was right for her to trying something closer to her heart. Previte was confident in her instincts.
“I like to think I have a good gut,” she says. “Chris Morgan hadn’t been an executive chef back when I met him.”
Travel and research has been an integral part of developing the lauded menu at Maydan. Previte was already pitching a trip to Afram, but the chef cut her off.
“I suggested we could do it during the transition,” Previte says. “But she was like, ‘No, we have to get to work.’”
News of her new job was just one component of a landmark day for Afram. Last night, she won DC Central Kitchen’s Capital Food Fight, winning two head-to-head cooking competitions judged by Tom Colicchio, Andrew Zimmern, and Maneet Chauhan of Chopped. Later on, at the Tiki TNT bar, she was draped in an American flag and held two bright red boxing gloves while accepting hugs and cheers from well-wishers. At one point, a friend came by to comment on the whirlwind day. “The best day ever,” the chef replied.