How A Top Raleigh Chef Runs A Busy Kitchen During Ramadan

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Just before 8 p.m. on a Tuesday night, the Glenwood Avenue restaurant Vidrio is full with the night’s dinner rush.

The Raleigh restaurant is open seven days a weeks, and its ebbs and flows are connected to the bustling nightlife district and high rise apartments nearby and, on this evening, late business dinners.

Despite the rush and rail of tickets, chef Saif Rahman and a handful of other cooks take a moment to step off the line, a moment to pray and a moment to break fast.

In this final week of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, Rahman and thousands of other Triangle Muslims observe the religious holiday by fasting from sunup to sundown. During Ramadan, Muslims eat an early morning meal and forego food and water until the evening.

“Ramadan, for me, it keeps me grounded,” Rahman said. “When you’re in a busy restaurant and short staffed, it could throw your balance off quickly.”

It was Rahman’s turn to make the break fast meal Tuesday night. He prepared a tomato salad, hummus, braised lamb, pita and a fruit salad, as well as rooh-afza, a rosewater drink.

The meal was scarfed and savored in just a few moments, before the cooks had to get back on the line and finish the rail of tickets waiting to go out, Rahman said.

“When you’re not fasting you’re juggling so many things already,” Rahman said. “When you are, you have to remember, I have to keep it cool and be grounded and calm.”

Rahman breaks fast first by eating a date, often with a cup of coffee. The moment doesn’t last long, usually 10 minutes, but enough time to pray and snack and reflect.

“Ten minutes is a long time in a busy kitchen,” Rahman said.

‘IT’S A MIND ZAPPER’

On Tuesday, it was particularly brief. Kitchen crew members were actually delayed five or so minutes from breaking fast, Rahman said, as dishes were fired or finished.

“(Ramadan) is about sharing your food,” Rahman said. “At a certain point, you have to step away for a couple minutes while the salmon is cooking or the steak is grilling. You prepare so the two minutes isn’t going to change anything, then you’re back on the pass.”

For someone whose life is food, Rahman said Ramadan is particularly meaningful as a chef, rekindling his own relationship to food and his purpose in the kitchen.

“It’s like a mind zapper,” Rahman said. “The whole purpose (of fasting) is to make you understand what others are feeling, what others are going through.”

But the lack of calories and the pangs of hunger take a toll, he said, pushing Rahman both physically and mentally. Tempers can flare, but Rahman said he apologizes in advance.

“They haven’t seen me do this,” Rahman said. “I explain to them what it is, that I’m going to be fasting and that I want to apologize if I accidentally say something I don’t mean. ... When you’re fasting, people can get angry, frustrated, annoyed.”

Rahman said Vidrio has many new cooks in its kitchen, mirroring other local restaurants experiencing significant turnover during the pandemic.

“It’s the best feeling, you cleanse your body and soul,” Ramhan said. “It’s respecting your body and understanding how hunger goes, it teaches you humility and humanity. It’s not easy, but nothing is easy.”

As Vidrio preps for the evening’s service, Rahman can’t taste and sample the ingredients built into the menu’s dishes. It’s an act of faith, he said, putting the palettes of the other cooks in charge of dishes.

“When we’re cooking all day and tasting, they’ll say, ‘Let me taste it for you,” Rahman said. “They already know how I like it and what I’m looking for. My sous chef is super attentive to my needs.”

THE PANDEMIC YEARS

Last year, Rahman’s asthma was so severe during Ramadan, triggered by the cloud of spring pollen, that he would break fast sometimes to take medicine and water.

“It’s super amazing watching people come back out and eat,” Rahman said. “It seems like our restaurant is thriving. The last couple years, people were scared to come out. I understand that.”

Rahman’s family lived with the threat of COVID-19 constantly looming, along with other health concerns. His wife is a recent kidney transplant recipient, making her immunocompromised, Rahman said.

Coming home from work was a ritual that became a different sort of cleanse. He would sit in his car and use a disinfectant spray before going inside. Then take a shower and spray again before hugging his wife and daughter.

“We were extremely cautious,” Rahman said. “I wouldn’t go eat somewhere for the longest time, I was scared to. Friends knew what we were going through. We had a team of people constantly cleaning (Vidrio).”

BORN TO DO THIS

Rahman was born in Bangladesh and grew up in New York City, where his father drove a taxicab. His family moved to North Carolina when he was in high school, he said, after missing easily accessible parks and gardens and looking to escape the expense of the city.

Rahman’s culinary education came in two parts. First he learned love, watching his grandmother and mother prepare meals in a clay oven.

“She wants to cook and see you happy,” Rahman said. “That’s what drew me to cooking, how it makes people happy. It’s the most essential thing in people’s lives.”

The ambition would come later. Rahman discovered a different side of cooking through food magazines and the internet. He said he would get caught skipping classes in high school to hang out in the library learning about the chef rock stars of the day online: Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsey, Raymond Blanc. He once got in-school suspension for reading about his heroes.

“I was completely in love; it was artistry,” Rahman said. “I didn’t know that level of food existed. It was serious, it was that pursuit of excellence. I knew this is what I was born to do.”

Rahman’s father developed health issues and wasn’t able to work. That’s when, at 14, Rahman got his first restaurant job, working as a dishwasher in a Mexican restaurant, he said, to help support the family.

“Life got hard,” Rahman said. “I couldn’t do what others did. I couldn’t just stop and go to culinary school or go through Europe and work in Michelin kitchens. I didn’t have the money needed to do that.”

Instead he tried to figure it out on his own. He learned knife skills by mimicking the cuts he had seen on cheap vegetables. He said he heard Raymond Blanc say to be repetitive, so he spent a weekend cutting 200 pounds of onions.

“My mom was so mad,” Rahman said. “That’s when she showed me how to garden.”

Eventually the dream of avant garde kitchens faded into a more sensible reality. Rahman moved back to New York and started working on Wall Street, aiming to become a stock broker. He was making good money and sending good money home, he said.

But that world of wealth would sometimes intersect with the top tier of the culinary world. Rahman said he would be invited to restaurants helmed by famous chefs like Daniel Boulud, but never eat the food, saying he wasn’t hungry when he actually couldn’t afford the extravagance.

‘MY LIFE CHANGED AFTER THAT MEAL’

Eventually he set some money aside and made a reservation at Marea, a two Michelin star Italian restaurant near Central Park. He ordered a dish of mafadine pasta, long ribbons of crimped noodles, topped with shaved truffles. The chef at the time, Michael White, walked through the dining room and shook hand with diners. Rahman said he came back to Raleigh almost instantly.

“I was extremely unhappy,” Rahman said of Wall Street. “I had pushed my goal aside. My life changed with that meal.”

Rahman eventually did try culinary school at the Arts Institute in Durham, but found his years of chopping onions and making sauces had already pushed him out of the classes. He started working in restaurants, including a stage, or kitchen internship, at Grace in Chicago, a now-closed three Michelin star restaurant.

The opening of the 21c Hotel in Durham brought Rahman back to the Triangle.

Rahman was Vidrio’s opening chef when it debuted on Glenwood Avenue in 2017. He left the restaurant when his wife got sick to care for her and their newborn daughter. He returned just before the COVID pandemic.

“You have to make those decisions in life,” Rahman said. “It’s God first, then family, then the farmers. ... The sun rises the next day. You put your chef’s coat on and your best foot forward.”

This year, Rahman was named the Chef of the Year by the North Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association, having won a statewide cooking competition last fall.

He said this Ramadan follows two difficult years, but that he believes he’s become stronger.

“In this industry, as an immigrant and a Muslim, living in the pandemic world and respecting my faith, my team is still able to cook at a high level at one of the top restaurants in the city,” Rahman said. “It makes you stronger and more attentive to your faith.”