Palestinian-American chef Michael Rafidi is redefining Arab-American gastronomy

4 min read
28 July, 2023

"Some chefs are loud personalities; others let their cooking speak for itself. Michael Rafidi is in the latter camp," Washingtonian wrote in their profile of Albi, which was ranked #2 in the magazine's annual list of the "100 Very Best Restaurants." 

The Palestinian-American chef's restaurant, Albi, ("my heart" in Arabic) has been redefining Arab gastronomy in Washington, D.C and the fine-dining establishment, where Michael Rafidi elevates traditional Arab recipes often with a contemporary twist, has been awarded a Michelin star as well. 

"Albi is a sterling example of open-fire cooking at its best... Rafidi's dishes are full of surprises as he weaves in the flavours of the eastern Mediterranean with a myriad of local ingredients"

The Michelin Guide raved, "Albi is a sterling example of open-fire cooking at its best... Rafidi's dishes are full of surprises as he weaves in the flavours of the eastern Mediterranean with a myriad of local ingredients."

While Washingtonian gushed, "...he seamlessly melds ancient coal-fired cookery with Arabic ingredients (there’s a glossary at each table) and fine-dining mastery." 

Anyone who has dinned at Albi can attest to its refinement and novel preparation of classics, such as the halva labneh featured in a recent seasonal menu. Stunned by the subtle sweetness, I immediately opened my phone to try to find any supplier of halva labneh, but apparently, only Michael thought to make it. 

Desserts at Albi [photo credit: Rey Lopez]
Desserts at Albi [photo credit: Rey Lopez]

And Michael is not resting on his laurels: The companion YELLOW cafe has opened in the tony Georgetown neighbourhood. He has also added a charmingly cosy cocktail and sweets lounge to Albi called Saha and next year will debut the “Bistro-ish" Cocktail Bar and restaurant La’ Shukran.

Michael first learned to cook at home with his Palestinian family, and we asked him about the role food plays in cultural identity and much more below:

The New Arab: Food is a way to communicate culture and narrative. Do you see Albi as part of this trend? 

Michael Rafidi: Food has always been used to communicate culture. I opened Albi to communicate mine: to celebrate my family’s traditions and heritage. Many of the dishes on the menu, like our sfeeha, are inspired by my grandparents’ recipes. Our approach is definitely modern, and the menu rotates all the time depending on what’s in season locally. But we try to stay away from trends, and really focus on uplifting the wood-fired cooking of the Levant. 

Albi's famed Sfeeha [photo credit: Rey Lopez]
Albi's famed Sfeeha [photo credit: Rey Lopez]

Do you think food can disarm people's prejudices? Can it humanise people? 

Food is a point of connection. At both restaurants [Albi and YELLOW] we aim to create experiences that foster that connection. At Albi, our tasting menu, Sofra, is served family-style so people can relax over a shared meal. We want our service to be intentional and polished but really welcoming and inviting. At YELLOW, we don’t allow laptops so that our guests can talk to each other and engage with their community. 

Albi and YELLOW’s menus are also both about introducing people to flavours, techniques, or ingredients they might not have experienced before. At YELLOW, for example, we make traditional viennoiserie — croissants, kouign amann, danishes — which people are familiar with. But we incorporate Levantine flavours like sumac and orange blossom. 

Za'atar & Labne, Soujek & Cheese, and Egg Croissants
Za'atar & Labne, Soujek & Cheese, and Egg Croissants

Your restaurant is quite successful, well-reviewed, and Michelin-starred. It is one of many new Arab spots getting attention. Do you believe we are at the start of a boom in Arab cooking in the US?

It’s amazing to see such interest and investment in Levantine cuisine, especially over the last few years. I think there are a few things at play.

Firstly, food media has started spotlighting non-western culinary voices – food of the African diaspora, East Asian cuisine, and Arabic cooking. There are also lots of first and second-generation chefs who, I think, are really eager to share their families' traditions. And it’s easier than ever to access ingredients from around the world: you can order sumac online and cook with it at home.

Book Club
Live Story

Let's back up for a moment. In an Instagram post, you showcase a family shop, which looks like a bakery, in Ramallah, Palestine. Has food always been salient in your life? Why did you become a chef? 

I learned to cook in my grandparents’ kitchen. They immigrated to the US in the late 1940s. My brothers and I spent much time with my grandmother when we were growing up watching her prepare traditional Palestinian dishes. My grandfather also owned restaurants in the D.C. area, but it was my grandma who introduced me to cooking. I often call her if I’m working on something new at Albi and can’t figure it out. 

Our readers are probably very interested to know where you like to eat. What are some Arab/MENA restaurants that you recommend?  

Chef Marcelle Afram is a Palestinian American chef here in D.C. who runs Shababi, a Palestinian rotisserie chicken pop-up. It’s one of my local favourites.

At Albi, we recently wrapped Habibi Sofra 2.0, our annual guest chef series. I got the chance to cook with Chef Reem Assil, the author of Arabiyya and who owns Reem’s California in San Francisco.

Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications