All Things Assyrian
Assyrian Woman on Fire
By Laura Hayes
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Chef Marcelle Afram. ( Darrow Montgomery)
After two years under Chefs Chris Morgan and Gerald Addison, Maydan owner Rose Previte is passing (the literal) torch to a new executive chef. Chef Marcelle Afram, who spent the past five years leading the kitchen at Bluejacket, will take over the live fire restaurant by the end of the year. Like Morgan and Addison, Afram will also be charged with heading Previte's first restaurant, Compass Rose, located a few blocks down on 14th Street NW.

When Morgan and Addison came on board with Previte three years ago during the research and development process for Maydan, they informed the restaurateur and her partners from the get-go that they would eventually move on to open their own restaurant. "The guys gave me a three-year notice," Previte jokes.

In starting her search for who could command the Michelin-starred kitchen next, she noticed Afram's Instagram account. Whenever the chef was off the clock from the brewery, she was cooking Middle Eastern dishes. At the REACH Opening Festival at the Kennedy Center Afram made lamb riblets, for example, and at the Arcadia Farm Dinner she made labneh and an Iraqi-style flatbread called barbary.

The pair got to talking and landed on why Afram was the perfect person for the job. "Everything we did was based on ancient patterns of migration," Previte explains. Maydan serves dishes inspired by the cuisines of Morocco, Tunisia, Oman, Lebanon, Iran, and beyond. Even its condiments are a tour of the region.

"The reasons the flavors go so well together is because we went to countries where we could understand where people came from bringing their peppers, their cinnamon," Previte continues. Before opening the restaurant she and the team traveled throughout the Middle East where they learned how to cook what Previte affectionately calls "grandma food." "Marcelle's whole family story is parallel to that entire region."

Afram's mother was born in Beirut, Lebanon and her father was born in Damascus, Syria. But the chef, who is from Silver Spring, can't fit her identity or ethnicity into a word or even a sentence.

"Nationality is kind of a Western concept when it comes to people who are from the Middle East," she explains. "It's much more ancient than nationality. In that weird way, it doesn't translate when you try to explain where you come from." She says her family considers themselves Assyrian and within that community, they say they're Syriac because they speak Aramaic.

"I've always thought of the fertile crescent as the homeland of hospitality," Afram says. "It starts by inviting people in via fire."

When you walk down an alley and enter Maydan the first thing you see is the restaurant's custom-built hearth. It doesn't intimidate Afram, even if she'll need a stool to reach certain areas. Early on in her career, the chef spent time on fishing boats in Spain. When the day's work was done they'd head in and grill pintxos (Basque tapas) over an open fire. "One of the first things I learned was how to control fire to cook food," Afram says.

Later she lived in a cooperative in Wisconsin where they too did the majority of cooking over a wood fire. "It's found its way throughout my career ... My ultimate dream was always to have an open fire be central to something I was doing, so this is a perfect fit."

At Bluejacket, she cooked over a live fire grill. Neighborhood Restaurant Group is sorry to see her go. "Marcelle is an extremely talented chef, an inspiring human being, and a great friend to me and to so many who've gotten to work with her," says NRG founder Michael Babin. "As fans, we're excited to see what she does in her new role. She'll always have a cheering section at Bluejacket and in NRG."

"They've been really supportive throughout the years," Afram says of NRG. "I consider them family."

Afram talks openly about the social anxiety that plagued her as she worked her way up in kitchens and faced adversity. When she started getting invites to serve food at culinary events, she would beg her wife to come along to serve as her buffer from the crowds. Slowly Afram gained the confidence to talk about her dishes. Now she seeks out opportunities to share the stage with other chefs and tell her story. Tonight she's competing in Capital Food Fight.

"You're Middle Eastern, you're a woman, and you're gay," she told City Paper earlier this fall. "You're also in a position of power and have the capacity to put yourself out there and see something represented that you've never ever seen represented."

Afram has high hopes for her new position. "As a chef, making delicious food is obvious. The less obvious part of our job is something we do on a daily basis. We're educators. What this restaurant is doing is telling a story about a part of the world that maybe people don't really understand. What better way to tell stories than with food?"

Maydan, 1346 Florida Ave. NW; (202) 370-3696.

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