Abraham Salum's restaurant always seem to be filled with happy guests, despite its odd location. He runs a clean, consistent, open kitchen at his namesake Salum, located in a tiny shopping center on Cole Avenue, a spot many people said couldn't possibly be a worse spot for his eatery.
The journey to that little shopping center was long and dotted with opportunity and cause for celebration. Salum is a favorite among local chefs, and you'll often find many of Dallas' finest kitchen masters in the dining room. But that's not all Salum has to celebrate -- recently, he became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
"The whole process took 10 years and probably about $16,000," Salum says. "The most difficult part of that process is getting a work visa. I had to prove that I had extraordinary abilities. With the help from my lawyer and a lot of good friends writing letters I was able to make it. Some of my clients from Parigi wrote nice letters that helped."
Regulars at Salum will vouch for his extraordinary abilities in the kitchen.
Like many talented chefs, Salum's love of good food was instilled in him by family at an early age. In Salum's case, that meant standing at the knees of his grandmothers as they prepared dishes from varied cultures, using the freshest ingredients available.
"I was born and raised in Mexico City, and I am half Lebanese and half Italian," he says, explaining his path to becoming a chef. "With these three cultures, I was always around food. I recall my grandmother making octopus for us, and lots of fresh seafood. We also ate the classic Lebanese foods like kibbeh and tabbouleh."
Though he seemed bred to be a chef, it wasn't his first choice for a career. At university in Mexico City, Salum studied marketing, although he soon decided he would rather cook than do public relations or sell computers. Instead, he sought out a three-year internship at a Mexico City hotel, where he chopped onions and made stock.
"First I had to convince the chef to give me the internship, then I rotated through all the kitchens. Sometimes I was peeling potatoes for days on end. It was a lot of work and not very satisfactory," Salum recalls.
His father convinced him to find a good culinary school. They considered schools in Europe, but the sessions had already begun, so he wound up at the New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, where Salum is now regarded as one of several celebrity alumni along with Alton Brown of the Food Network and Gavin Kaysen from Next Iron Chef.
After graduation, the institute found Salum an internship in Provence, France, at one of the world's few 3-star Michelin restaurants. He honed his skills there, then moved on to a stint in Belgium before returning to Mexico, working in Cancun for more than 10 years before finally making it back to the United States.
In Dallas, he won a following with his work as executive chef at Parigi before striking out on his own to build his namesake restaurant about five years ago at that odd shopping center on Cole near Fitzhugh Avenue. Salum found a converted doctor's office in the tidy neighborhood, free of high rent and with plenty of parking. Better still, it's near to the hub of popular restaurants on Henderson Avenue.
The location is so perfect for the chef that he has decided to embark on a new endeavor next door, one that will return him to his Mexico City roots. He plans to open Komali early this fall. (The name refers to the comal, a kind of griddle found in nearly every home in Mexico.) Komali will offer affordable, authentic Mexican cuisine -- not the typical Tex-Mex rice, beans and loads of yellow cheese.
"We will be doing a lot of regional cuisine of Mexico, some from Guerrero, some from the Yucatan, some from the central states," Salum says. "We will just play around and see where the menu takes us. I don't know of any Dallas restaurants that serve a pipian -- that's sort of a green mole made with pumpkin seeds. It is one of the most incredible dishes you could taste and is traditionally served with turkey or chicken. It is absolutely delicious.
"We will definitely make our own tortillas by hand. I would love to add some items like huitlocoche [a corn fungus often compared to truffles], and do some things with squash blossoms when in season. I would like to use cabuches, which is the bud of a flower of a cactus. They look like the tip of an asparagus and have this absolutely amazing flavor."
Salum hopes to recreate many of his favorite dishes from his travels in Mexico. Until then, the chef continues to offer an ever-evolving menu at Salum that includes the freshest meats and produce he can procure. Even in landlocked Dallas, he says, he can place an afternoon order for fresh fish in Boston and receive it the next morning.
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"We keep the menu fresh not just to make our guests happy, but to keep it creative for us. The same menu day in and out would be terribly boring, and this way we are new each month. There are very few menu items that stay each month," Salum says.
One item that has never changed is his signature Dijon panko-truffle-crusted rack of lamb that he serves with a savory mushroom bread pudding and drizzles of a silken lamb demi-glace, adorned with seasonal vegetables. The dish never goes off the menu, and he will share the recipe with us on Friday here at the City of Ate.
"Funny story about the lamb dish. I had a guest come in the restaurant to try our rack of lamb. She said it reminded her of a rack of lamb she just recently had in Provence. The restaurant she named was the very restaurant I worked for, and the recipe isn't the same but very similar," Salum says with a laugh.
Chef Abraham Salum is enjoying life. With Salum hitting its fifth anniversary next month, his new restaurant about to open and the U.S. citizenship he just obtained after so many years, he has much to celebrate.