Greg Baxtrom's Brooklyn restaurant Maison Yaki has been made available to black food professionals for a series of two-week pop-ups. The initiative offers them the platform to showcase their culinary skills and food philosophies, and allows them to enrich the local community with a true and representative expression of its food identity.
Hot on the heels of Lani Halliday, Jared Howard and Michelle Williams in The Black Entrepreneur Pop-Up series, is Mohamed Wahiba, the chef-owner of Tripoli Events, who will takeover Maison Yaki from 19 to 30 August.
Mohamed Wahiba will offer a menu of unfussy Italian dishes for his two-week pop-up at the Maison Yaki space this August. Think fresh handmade pastas alongside seasonal salads, gluten-free pastas and fresh pasta kits to make at home. Be sure to try a slice of his secret family recipe lasagna, so good he even baked a celebratory tray for his engagement.
Wahiba first moved to New York from his home city of Tripoli in 2011, in pursuit of pasta and pizza perfection, finely tuning his passion which was formed as a child in the Libyan capital.
Libya is a melting pot of cuisines, Wahiba explains, from North African couscous to Greek and Italian influences. But it was pizza that he fell in love with. The heady scent of wood-fired pizza wafting out of small pizza shops around the city fills the air, he explains: "The pizza smells so delicious, I was always like, I wanna make pizza, I wanna make pizza."
Hanging out in his grandmother's kitchen, he naturally absorbed her capacity for Mediterranean cooking, which would remain with him for life. Even now, one bite of her lasagne transports him home, some 4000 miles away. However, it wasn't until he found more autonomy cooking over open wood-fires while camping or at beach grill-outs with his friends, that he really began to think this was something he could do. He was the always the first one to cook in the group, he says: "I felt it naturally."
In a country that couldn't offer the professional potential he craved, and a family in which his sister was known as the 'pizza champion', he knew he had to leave town to really shine as a chef. "I didn't get the support I needed as a chef," he explains. "The culture is different."
He arrived in New York almost a decade ago, and soon found his feet in a 'home from home', spending a few years learning from a sixty-year-old 'nonna' in a small family-owned Italian pizza shop in Brooklyn. "Not many nonna's can carry 50 lbs of flour," he jokes.
Later, Wahiba's formative years saw him rise quickly through the ranks in the Altamarea Group, honing both his pizza and pasta-making skills in Italian fine dining environments as chef de cuisine in the East Village and Upper East Side Manhattan. "I feel I have it in me, I always wanted to learn new things, try new things. I grew up fast with the company," he explains.
However, it wasn't until Wahiba took up a role in a cool, casual restaurant in Brooklyn that his childhood passion for fire-cooking was re-awakened. "I loved the fact that they used wood on everything, the grill was wood and also the oven. They cooked literally every single thing with wood. I've always had love for wood-cooking and it was one of my favourites."
From there, his natural capacity for engaging with people through food, and his ingrained entrepreneurial spirit came to the fore, leading him to start his Tripoli catering business. "I thought to myself, if I have the knowledge of cooking, why don't I put it into fun and just start a small catering company where I can do birthday parties and teach kids how to stretch pie?"
Purchasing a small portable wood-fired oven, he started doing pizza classes, teaching people wherever was convenient, from the backyard to the street. "It's so amazing making people feel happy with a new experience of bringing a restaurant into your back yard," he says.
With the combined expertise and influence of all his 'Mediterranean mashups', he has finally found his place in the fast-casual realm. While initially he was put off by the pressures of fine-dining, he has learned to embrace it and try to make it accessible to all.
Most recently, Wahiba has been operating Tripoli Pizza, a permanent pop-up at Berg'n, a popular beer hall and event space in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. In the future, he plans to open a small kiosk in a food court in a mall and offer delicious small plates, including pastas and pizzas. "My vision is fancy food in a simple environment," he says.
If Maison Yaki is about encouraging entrepreneurial spirit and inclusion, Mohamed Wahiba is the perfect candidate to take up the reins during his two-week pop-up. "My food's about letting people in, not keeping them out," he says.