Ali El Sayed is an artist.
His canvas is a plate and his brush ranges from an eggplant to a beef shank.
El Sayed has owned and operated Kabab Café on Steinway Street in Queens for over 25 years. He believes that food, not diplomacy, is the key to attaining world peace. Despite mounting conflict in the Middle East, El Sayed, a self-proclaimed pacifist, remains hopeful about peace prospects.
“People are not going to solve their problems sitting in a court or at the U.N.” the Egyptian-born chef said. “I think they’ll solve their problems sitting in a restaurant and talking over food.”
The restaurant is nestled between a deli and a Western Union. Adorning the walls are photos and fixtures that evoke a sense of nostalgia for an older, romanticized Middle East. Kabab Café specializes in Egyptian cuisine and caters to the hundreds of different ethnicities that Astoria has attracted over the years.
El Sayed, 61, has earned himself the title “Mayor of Astoria.” His café was even visited by television foodie Anthony Bourdain in 2007. Bourdain described El Sayed as “chef, restaurateur, intellectual, food historian, and force for good in the world.”
Dressed in his usual white button down shirt and black apron, El Sayed’s voice is that of a longtime smoker, his smile that of a man who has found his life’s purpose.
Kabab Café is a simple place, it only has four tables, so there is nowhere to hide from the gregarious owner. El Sayed coaxes customers to sit at the table closest to him, so that he can learn more about them as he makes their meal.
“We are not here to talk and preach,” El Sayed said. “I let people talk, and I won’t get involved in your life unless you invite me to.”
Once invited though, El Sayed makes it hard to get a word in. Whether he’s discussing food, religion, politics, or the meaning of life, he knows a lot about a lot and wishes this were the case with more people.
“Nobody is the center of attention here,” El Sayed explained. “Except for our food, of course. The food makes you closer to us, you come here for this. Most other places give you a menu, a plate, and a check. Nothing is personal. But here we can hang out.”
El Sayed’s signature dishes include, of course, grilled kabob, but also lamb brain, cheek, and tongue. Vegetarians need not worry, his menu includes salads, and fish as well for those looking for lighter fare. His passion for food is only exceeded by his attachment to his customers.
“I purposely have a small kitchen like the ones most people have at home,” El Sayed said. “We don’t treat you as a commodity, we treat you as a person, we want to know who you are, where you come from, what allergies you have and what food you like.”
When Mohamed Soliman moved to Astoria 22 years ago from Egypt, he could not find “real” Egyptian food anywhere. That was until he met El Sayed. A regular at the café, Soliman says that El Sayed cooks from his heart.
“I enjoy it, because I know how it should taste,” said Soliman, who frequents the café at least twice a month. “He wants people to enjoy it. It’s a gift from God for somebody to be like him.”
The first to open an Egyptian business on Steinway Street, El Sayed came to America from Alexandria, Egypt, over 35 years ago. He said he was unhappy with the political situation back home, and knew he had to go someplace else.
He and his customers sometimes exchange books so that the next time they visit the café, El Sayed is ready for an impromptu book club session. The titles range, spanning the topics of history and geography, to politics and religion. His favorite author is Russian-American author Ayn Rand.
El Sayed believes that ignorance breeds violence and hate, and that reading is the most important way to foster open conversation about important issues. Black, white, Arab or Jew, he believes these differences, as exemplified in Astoria, are cause for celebration, not conflict.
“That’s what America is all about,” he said. “Everyone is different but we’re all as American as George Washington. Don’t listen to our media, they’re trying to create enemies in everybody.”
It is through his culinary expertise that El Sayed is able to express his various passions. The whole idea of a café, he says, is an essential piece of the American “machinery.”
“The more you talk and socialize and disagree, the better it is,” he explained. “You don’t want everyone to be like you. It’s what keeps the seasoning, coming back to cooking, in our life. Why would I want you to be like me? If life were like that, it would be very flat.”
“Ali is very open-minded,” said Ayal, El Sayed’s business partner of five years, who didn’t want to give his last name. “In politics and everything. It’s important not just for close relationships, but for all of society. That’s how it should be built otherwise you create problems.”
Ayal and El Sayed have been friends for much longer than they’ve been partners. They live six blocks from each other and each have one son. The two boys are close friends.
Ayal, who is Israeli, used to frequent the café, and said it was El Sayed, as well as his cooking, that kept him coming back.
“I used to come here and we would talk while I ate and drank,” Ayal recalled. “We spoke about everything and became good friends. Our kids grew up together, our families too.”
To El Sayed and Ayal, Kabab Café knows no borders. Despite mounting conflict in the Middle East, the two came to America as young men and left politics back home.
“There’s no reason for people to hold any grudges,” Ayal said. “Everybody came here to have a different life, there is no need to bring problems with you. If that’s what you want to do, then stay over there where the issue is.”
That is all either of them had to say about politics.
These days, the two spend their 12-hour work days together and joke that they are more interested in going home and relaxing after work than spending even more time together.
“After all that, you just want to relax,” Ayal said.
“I don’t want to see his face,” El Sayed laughed.
When asked about why he chose food as his vehicle for change, El Sayed stopped to think for a second.
“Cooking is not just to fill your stomach,” he said. “It’s much more than that. It’s love.
“I want to make you not just dance when you eat my food,” he continued. “I want you, when you’re out having the best time of your life with your hunny, to say ‘I wish I was with Ali.'”