By William Kennedy

Chef Ibrahim “Ib” Hamide started his first Middle Eastern restaurant, Casablanca, in the food court of the 5th Street Public Market in 1981. He soon realized it would take time and persistence for the food of his native Palestine to truly take off in America. Hummus and baba ganoush were not yet the grocery store staples they are today. “I encountered quite a bit of reluctance,” Hamide says.

Nearly four decades later, Hamide continues to share his passion for the cuisine of his childhood at Cafe Soriah, located on 13th Avenue. Hamide opened Cafe Soriah in 1993, and to this day, the award-winning Mediterranean restaurant continues to set the standard for fine dining in Eugene.

It wasn’t always easy. At Casablanca, Hamide would put out hummus and baba ganoush for customers to sample. Many were curious, Hamide remembers, pointing and asking him what it was made of. But when Hamide mentioned garbanzo beans, most people turned up their noses and decided to pass. “‘Hummus’ was not a household word by any stretch,” Hamide says.

Hamide’s original plans when he came to American didn’t involve cooking. He came to Eugene to study psychology and business administration at the University of Oregon. His first restaurant jobs were as a busboy.

“They would have a hard time finding me in the dining room because I would gravitate to the kitchen,” Hamide says. He recalls wanting to hang out with the cooks, and some were nice enough to take him under their wing. “There was some real old-fashioned learning,” he says.

Photo by Dominick Barbero

Growing up in Bethlehem, Hamide helped his mother in the kitchen. “She would entertain me by having me be her cook helper,” he says. “She would put an apron on me.”

Working with his mother, Hamide learned some fundamentals of food, like identifying spices and seasonings by smell. “She got me involved and interested in how different ingredients became a meal,” Hamide says, and after watching his brothers eat and enjoy the food he had just helped make, he was hooked on the process.

In addition to assisting his mother in the kitchen, Hamide’s culinary philosophies were influenced by life growing up on a family farm that was run in much the same way farms had been run for centuries, both in the Middle East and elsewhere. The farm was completely rain-dependent, with no running water or irrigation. The operation was also completely reliant on the labor of man and beast, with all the cultivating, growing, and harvesting done completely by hand. When Hamide left home for college, his family had no refrigerator.

Hamide’s family cultivated crops like cucumbers, zucchinis, almonds, figs, and apricots. He learned to make real sun-dried tomatoes by slicing the tomatoes horizontally, sprinkling them with salt, and leaving them out on a mat to dry in the hot August sun. His family also made bulgur wheat and clarified butter from lamb’s milk.

“All those things I learned by being on the farm, and they’re invaluable,” Hamide says. “I learned to discriminate and examine the food that comes into my restaurant—that comes from growing and harvesting. When I get produce, I look at the tomato and say, ‘That tomato’s not right.’”

Photo by Dominick Barbero

With Middle Eastern food now better accepted in America, Hamide expanded his menu at Cafe Soriah to include cuisine from throughout the Mediterranean region. That includes the Greek dish souvlaki (skewered and marinated beef tenderloin grilled and served with tabouli) and also Middle Eastern food such as lamb turmeric, which is lamb sautéed with mushrooms and garlic in a sauce of turmeric, white wine, and cream.

One of Cafe Soriah’s bestsellers, though, is a standby of traditional American fine dining: Steak Diane, beef tenderloin in burgundy brown sauce with mushrooms, scallions, Dijon mustard, and garlic.

Serving food in the Willamette Valley for as long as he has, Hamide has come to appreciate the produce of late summer and early fall in particular. “That’s my favorite,” he says, “late harvest when the tomatoes are ripe—that really excites me.” But he is also partial to the greens of early spring, “I love the arugula,” he says, “that excites me, and I put it on my menu.”

More than anything, Hamide values the relationships he has fostered while serving food to a community as long as he has here in Eugene. In his career, Hamide has catered weddings where the children from those marriages later came in to his restaurant for prom.

“Longevity has been a blessing,” he says, because for Hamide, those relationships are what life is all about. “There’s nothing better than that. There’s nothing more precious.”

Cafe Soriah | 384 W 13th Ave. | 541/342-4410