Life After Barbary Fig
Brahim Hadj-Moussa, left, and his former co-worker Jonathan Locke are a wealth of Kitchen Confidential-style stories.
Owning your own restaurant isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be, even when you’ve had a 28-year run in the same spot. There are the opening-to-closing hours, the working on your day off, the health inspectors, the landlord, the fickle help who text you an hour before their shift to tell you they’re not coming in and your younger daughter’s reluctance to take your phone calls.
“My daughter would only pick up the phone after 9 p.m.,” Brahim Hadj-Moussa says, grinning his infectious smile. And that was only because she was fairly certain the restaurant was closed and she wasn’t being called in to help,
But all that changed a year and a half ago, when Hadj’s lease was up on his Barbary Fig location on Grand Avenue in St. Paul and he didn’t renew it. He had been trying to close for months, but he listened to the landlord’s pleas for him to hang in for one more month, which turned into three and then three more. “My house was paid for, my kids are done, guess what, I’m done,” he told first himself, and then his landlord.
And the cozy Mediterranean restaurant with the glowing reviews and a large fan base closed its doors for good.
“The day I closed, I got a text from Steve (Hesse of Pajarito),” Hadj says. Hesse was inquiring whether any of his staff needed a job. Hadj, who lived a few minutes from Hesse’s restaurant, decided he’d enjoy cooking for a couple of days a week for a few months. He’s now been there a year. “Tyge (Nelson) and Steve adopted me,” he says of the restaurant’s co-owners. True, Hesse counters back, but they draw the line at putting him through college again.
Although Hadj has been cooking most of his adult life, he claims learning a new kitchen setup was a bit of a challenge. There was a mandoline at Barbary Fig, he says, but here everyone has their own personal mandoline. Hesse waves away Hadj’s self-deprecating comments. “The techniques (between Mexican and Mediterranean) are similar,” Hesse says. “We use old world techniques with new age twists.”
To demonstrate what’s different about cooking today, Hadj began reminiscing, aided by old friend and former colleague Jonathan Locke, who joined us for lunch. Hesse stuck around for a few minutes of banter and then headed back to the kitchen to handle the lunch orders.
In the ‘80s when Hadj was cutting his teeth in the kitchen, his equipment consisted of three knives. At Pajarito, “Just looking at all (the different kinds of) tongs makes me dizzy,” Hadj says. Fortunately, they don’t have tweezers or he might have to quit.
TV chefs have changed the restaurant business, he contends. Now, diners—and chefs—are more concerned with how food looks. “We were worried about food costs,” Hadj says, to which Locke adds, “and taste.”
The best part of his workday now, Hadj says, is that at the end of his shift he can sit at the bar with a glass wine, secure in the knowledge that his work day is done. “When I had the Fig, I’m a merchant,” he says about the additional role ownership brings. Here he has a finite shift.
Is it hard on one’s ego to go from being in charge to back on the line? “No,” he says, shaking his head emphatically. “When you’re young you want to be the top dog. When you get to be the top dog and you’re doing it every day, we don’t care. Tell me what to do as long as you’re not insulting about it,” he contends.
To illustrate his point, he tells a story about being in the restaurant on his day off to get some clerical work done. Two women, “a young one and an old one,” knocked on the door. He tried to shoo them away, but they said they had heard about his restaurant and wanted to eat there. “I said, ‘We’re closed,’ and she said, ‘I’m from Wisconsin and I’m here for my mother’s birthday and will never get back.’” He sighs, remembering how he opened the door, ushered them in and told them they had to leave by 1 p.m. “They didn’t get a menu. I told them, ‘I’ll cook one dish,’” he says, and although he doesn’t sound very gracious, he can’t help but be so.
Not all his customers were one-timers from Wisconsin. It was a regular who wanted to buy one of the paintings for sale on his walls, but didn’t have enough money. “She’d been a regular customer so I kicked in $150,” he says. She paid for the painting, but wanted it to stay in the restaurant because it wouldn’t fit in her house. “For 20 years she came to eat (and enjoy the painting). When I closed I made her take the painting,” he says.
Even though friends in the industry warned him, Hadj never worried that his staff would abandon him once they found out he was looking to close the restaurant. “The last month when we announced the closing, the business got slammed,” he says. “I hated the last months.” Busy nights are the worst, he says, because you can’t do your best. “When people complained about the service (during that time), I told them to go to Dixie’s (down the street); they have good service. Here I’m cooking everything myself,” he says.
But on a plus side, running a restaurant meant never having to make an effort to connect with friends. “My social life was easy, friends knew where to find me,” he says. Locke rolls his eyes at this. “It would be easier if you’d answer your phone,” Locke says. Or at least set up his voicemail.
Shrugging off the barb, he replies nonchalantly, “I’m a techno-peasant.” Even that has served him well. When he closed the Fig he didn’t take down its Facebook page because he didn’t know how. The upside was that customers knew how to find him to hire him as a personal chef for their parties. He also does pop-ups at Cook St Paul, owned by Eddie Wu, and offers his catering services to a nonprofit for fundraisers.
He’s taken up baking and making desserts, although he rarely eats them. “I give them away,” he says. In the back of his mind is the possibility of helping his nephew open a restaurant in Paris. A chance to polish his French skills, one of the languages he learned growing up in Algeria, and shine in another restaurant venture.