This story was produced in partnership with the First Days Project.
Abe Hadjal, 50, comes from the Berber people of Algeria. He grew up in a small village near the Atlas Mountains where he studied cooking before traveling to study and work in Switzerland, Spain and France to escape the Algerian school system.
“The political system was set up to Arabize most people,” he said. “For the Arabs, that works for them but I’m not an Arab so for us it becomes a drag… You become a pillar of a political system which, as a kid or a teenager, you’re already against.”
Hadjal studied maps in Switzerland. After graduating he traveled and finally settled in Italy, near Venice, which re-ignited his passion for cooking. Then he left Italy when he was 21 and moved to Los Angeles in 1987.
“When you’re in your early 20s, at least in my case, I was not always settled or happy where I was,” he said. “So I just decided I’d leave with my diploma in my thirst for a better job, a better life, and adventure all mixed in one.”
Hadjal worked in landscaping before getting a job in an Italian restaurant in LA. A friend there told Hadjal how similar Seattle is to how he’d described Italy and France, so Hadjal decided to take the leap of faith. He worked two restaurant jobs in Pioneer Square and saved enough money to open a restaurant of his own.
“Having worked for mostly Italians, or Italian restaurants, I wanted to open an Italian place,” he said. “There is Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, Portugal. There is an influence there between cultures and Italy is the best to represent that; it’s the center. So there is pasta, there is spices, everything.”
Hadjal and his wife Connie have run the Ravenna restaurant Zouave for three and a half years. He describes his style of cooking as inspired by his travels in Europe.
“When you know someone or a family member who’d go overseas, they’d take picture of places they saw then they bring them and they show them to you,” he said. “For me, that’s the pictures I took; all those dishes I had or I cooked abroad I bring them back here.”
“Life is short. Empires come and go. Let’s have some food.”
Even with the uncertainty that comes with a new political landscape in the U.S. today, Hadjal is hopeful for his adopted country and the rest of the world.
“We got to this result all together,” he said. “Let’s all work together and progress and do something good for this country.”
He says that people are fundamentally the same no matter what country we live in, and expresses the importance of putting our misunderstandings aside.
“It’s okay to talk about politics and religion and debate,” he said. “Hey let’s fight each other for an hour or two. Pretend it’s a football match, you have your team, I have mine and when it’s over, it’s okay. Life is short. Empires come and go. Let’s have some food and share food. Let’s start with peace. Let’s start with communion. Leave the fight away.”
Hadjal still has relatives in Algeria and France, but made his choice years ago; America is the best.
“America allows you to cry and scratch and complain,” he said. “That works for me. Not every country will allow you do say that. Well, some places yes but you’re not necessarily getting away with it. Here that’s ok. That’s something many people would take for granted. To me this is the best country in the world. I don’t care if they kick me out tomorrow, it still is the best.”