NORMAN — Every day a chef opens his or her kitchen, they seek validation in dollars and cents, but when chef Waseem Ahmed opened his kitchen at Kebabish Bites, 283 34th Ave. SW, to a group of culinarians for a private dinner the validation came in the response.
Ahmed, a relative newcomer to full-service restaurant operation, bought Kebabish Bites months before the COVID-19 pandemic swallowed up normalcy.
With help from his brother, Hamza, Ahmed and Kebabish Bites survived a rough and tumble transfer of ownership that ended in a move.
"It was very hard, what we've been through," Waseem recalled. "Finding a new property felt like an impossible task."
But with the help of a regular customer turned fan turn friend, Kebabish Bites took over the space formerly occupied by Sear in Redbud Plaza. The Ahmed brothers have converted the space into an elegant dining room with intimate spaces and a private room/bar for special events.
The Ahmed brothers don't drink themselves, but have outfitted the bar with premium sodas.
Hard times not only gave the brothers time to outfit their dining room but chiseled confidence into the food.
About two week ago, he put that confidence to the test inviting a group that included some of the 405 diningscape's most celebrated chefs. Waseem eagerly welcomed Oklahoma's culinary Big Kahuna Kurt Fleischfresser of Vast and Western Concepts, reigning James Beard semifinalist Andrew Black, legendary burger meister Justin "Nic" Nicholas, 2019 James Beard Best Chef Southwest semifinalist Jeff Chancheleune, Food Network champ and Birdie's Fried Chicken owner Kevin Lee and La Baguette Bakery co-founder Rudy Khouri.
Added pressure came from serving chef Black, whose grandmother came to Jamaica with her family from India.
"People think I specialize in Jamaican food," Black said with a laugh. "I tell people I make the best Indian food in the city at home! I was raised eating curry, masalas all the traditional Indian dishes taught to me by my grandmother."
Ahmed served the party of 21 with graciousness and aplomb, featuring foods from Kebabish's menu, which is inspired by the flavor of India, Pakistan, Oman and Oklahoma.
The evening started with Panipuri, which is somewhere between a puff pastry and a fried dumpling — with a sunroof. Chaat masala lays the flavor profile for a mix of spices, onion and either chicken, mashed potato or chickpeas depending on the mood. The bite size noshes came with a broth for dipping that brought it together.
Then the Ahmed brothers presented a feast centering around Nihari, a traditional goat or beef dish embraced by Muslims in India.
"We only use halal meats," Waseem said. "I do all the butchering myself to make sure the meat is clean."
For Nihari, which Oklahoma will recognize as a variation on stew, the beef braised for more than 10 hours, allowing tendons to render their viscous fat into the residual gravy. Mankind has never been more thankful for the sopping and mopping powers of rice and naan.
The feast also included Chicken Tandoori, a Pakistani Chicken Pulao, and Anda Kofta, or Nargisi, which is a variation on the Scotched egg.
A feast of flavor and color, the table applauded chef Waseem when the dinner was complete.
Chef Black was impressed, telling me after, "This kid is going to make it. He has the skills, sure, and the knowledge from his culture, but there was passion on the plate!"
Waseem said response from guests validated his efforts.
"We've been here since March of this year and enjoying it," he said. "I think people are starting to know about us and the struggle we had. ...This pandemic has pushed down so much on everybody, but tonight was validation."
Even Nicholas, who attended despite a fear of turmeric, said the evening had changed his mind about Indian cuisine thanks to the lovely job Kebabish Bites did that night.
"A chef is like an artist, you have to use your old colors," he said. "All techniques, (all) your spices to understand how it goes. ... Every plate should be in a piece of art."
Waseem came by the philosophy by way of franchise fried-chickeneering. He ran a Church's Chicken for a couple of years, which he said was long enough.
"I couldn't eat fried chicken anymore, I couldn't even look at it," he recalled with a laugh. "That oil used over and over, and the smell. You couldn't get rid of it!"
But, he said, the experience fortified his passion for doing things right. Nowadays, he moves between his own kitchen and dining room with the confidence of a chef who owns his restaurant.
"I had to have my own place," he explained. "I am feeding my guests, there is a responsibility. I want to ensure my guests are getting quality ingredients that won't make them feel bad later. I want my guests to feel comfortable while there here and to trust I am taking care of them by making sure we do everything right."
Waseem's regular menu is not only influenced by cuisine of India and his home country of Pakistan, but also Oman, where he grew up. His food is an amalgamation of those countries, Oklahoma and his mother's influence.
He served me smoked okra in preparation for the event that was sensational, and showed his growth as a chef and eye for adapting to local ingredients.
Besides a vegetarian-friendly menu and halal meats, including beef, mutton, chicken and lamb, Kebabish Bites also serves shrimp and salmon.
"We are not a franchise so we have to make everything from scratch, and we have to go even you know get our groceries," Waseem said. "It takes a little more time, but we do things right."
Kebabish Bites is open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 4 to 9 p.m. Friday; noon to 9 p.m. Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday. For more information, call 857-7083.
This article originally appeared on Oklahoman: Norman chef curries favor with flavor at Kebabish Bites