Made in the U.S.A.
Bashir Khelafa was born in Algiers in 1950. By the time he was 4 the city was erupting in revolution as Algerians, fed-up with 120 years of French colonial rule, fought back harder than ever before. By the time Bashir was 12, Algeria was free. The resistance that played out on the streets of the ancient city where he grew up was famously depicted in the documentary-style classic film drama The Battle of Algiers. Bashir remembers when the film crews were in town, but his memory stretches back even further, to when they wouldn’t have dared.
As a young boy he witnessed atrocities perpetrated on Algerian citizens by the Organisation de l’armée secrète (OAS), the French military intelligence force assigned to keep colonial subjects in line. But, “we don’t need to speak of sad things,” he said.
“Everyone was involved,” he said. “Even people younger than me. Because of the political situation then, there is a saying in Algeria, ‘My generation had no childhood.’”
“That’s why he is a child now,” said Kathy to that, making them both laugh.
Despite dark tinting at the edges, Bashir’s memories of home are decidedly nostalgic.
“I grew up in a family where the boys had to cook on Sunday,” said Bashir. “We would buy at the market. My dad was a damn good cook, my mother too. I guess it’s genetic. When we would camp on the beach and we would wave down the fishermen and they would come over in their boat and we would buy fish right out of the boat and cook it over the fire on a metal plate.”
Bashir studied English literature and education at the University of Algiers. He has a broad appreciation for many cultures, from Japanese literature and film (“as a child, I was obsessed with Japanese cuisine,” he said), to Sephardic spiritual songs and Arabic poetry. From early on he was also a bit of an Americophile. He discovered William Faulkner in college and loves to talk about The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom!, or any of Faulkner’s novels.
Katalin Melanie Matolcsy was born during World War II in Budapest, Hungary into a family of nobility (her mother’s father was a baron who once served as mayor of Budapest). Her family fled Hungary at the end of the war when it became apparent that the communists, having run the Nazis off, were there to stay. They landed in São Paulo, Brazil where Kathy enjoyed a peaceful and comfortable childhood.
In Hungary, Kathy’s family had house servants who did the cooking but her mother was very involved in the kitchen production to ensure quality. “They hosted lots of parties and events. They didn’t want to bring shame to the family,” she said matter-of-factly. “There were other families and nobility, so she really had to know how to cook.”
In Brazil, Kathy’s mom cooked for the family, always Hungarian dishes, and Kathy started learning there. She ate Brazilian cooking only when she would visit friends.
“The Brazilians always have red beans and rice with every meal. And then lots of seafood, fried chicken with garlic, things like that.”
When she was 13, Kathy’s family relocated to the U.S., settling in upstate New York. Her father was a physician who trained as a pathologist at the notorious Willard State Hospital near Seneca Lake, a facility reputed to be the site of many a psychiatric experiment. The hospital housed 4,000 patients, many of them suffering serious mental illness. Kathy’s family lived on the sprawling campus, and she remembers her and her twin brother hanging out in the hospital’s recreation area, playing ping pong with the patients.
Kathy married her high school sweetheart when they were both 19. She attended the State University of New York at Buffalo while she lived there with her husband, and earned a BA in art history, studying film and photography as well. Kathy and her husband had her only daughter, Andrea, in Buffalo. When her daughter was 3, Kathy and her husband divorced amicably after seven years of marriage.
Kathy and Andrea moved to New York a few years later and mom went to work at the PS1 contemporary art gallery (now called MOMA PS1 and affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art). Being multi-lingual, multi-continental and of noble blood, Kathy was a natural fit, hobnobbing in the gallery circles of New York.
As a student, Bashir traveled extensively throughout Algeria, Africa’s largest country. He spent time during summers with the nomadic Tuaregs on the Sahara desert. In 1974 he was awarded a scholarship to attend graduate school at New York University. So, he headed for the Big Apple.
He earned a master’s degree in education from NYU and went to work as an instructor at City University of New York. Kathy met Bashir at a party and they hit it off straight away. For their first date, Bashir took Kathy to a dinner at the United Nations, where they feted a delegation from Algeria.
“He was so handsome then,” said Kathy, looking at him with a completely present-tense glint in her eye. “He still is.”
Bashir and Kathy’s 12-year-old daughter, Andrea, got along famously from the first day they met. “She showed me some jewelry she was making,” he said. “We were friends right away.”
That was 1978; Kathy and Bashir were married in 1980. They lived at first in a loft apartment in a Brooklyn warehouse—the old-fashioned kind you had to convert into livable space yourself. “We had 2,000 square feet and we paid $200 a month,” said Kathy.
When they first got married they cooked for each other often, taking turns at impressing or just experimenting.
“Remember, sweetie (it sounds like “sweet tea” when he says it),” Bashir said to Kathy. “We gained a lot of weight then.”
Sitting around Bashir’s has myriad benefits, not least of which is Kathy and Bashir’s compulsion to feed you. What’s this? Oh wow, a lamb burger with apple chutney mixed into the medium rare patty, on a soft baguette-style roll with a white bean salad on the side. Delicious.
One day Kathy set me up a sampler of their meats. Their apricot-glazed ham is the stuff of local legend (the recipe for it—once picked by The New York Times as New York’s best—was bequeathed to them by a Manhattan purveyor of meat) and they fly out the door in whole form at Christmas time. She put some slices of that on the platter with jellied chunks of apricot. And it’s as good as sliced ham comes, juicy and salty. Next to the ham were slices of rare roast lamb, perfectly rendered and served with a mint sauce. There was roast chicken with tzatziki and plump, firm shrimp slathered a hollandaise sauce served with a rice pilaf and a roasted red pepper relish.
Late one morning before the lunch rush started, Kathy gave me a steaming bowl of a ridiculously delicious and very simple soup with a tomato base, carrots, and cabbage.
“It’s Algerian soup,” she said.
“It’s not Algerian,” said Bashir.
“It’s not. What is it then?”
“It’s just soup,” he said.
There is something both old-fashioned and contemporary about what they are doing with food. What could be more vague than the term “Mediterranean cuisine”? It calls to mind greasy falafel, uninspired couscous, gyros that have been left under the heat lamp too long. But what else do you call fresh food influenced by Algeria, Paris, Budapest, Sao Paolo, New York, and ’70s cooking shows? Food that sings under lemon juice and fresh herbs, that relies on the bright ripeness of tomato, that exults in a perfectly roasted Virginia ham?
Talking to an Algerian about ham begs an obvious question.
“God is too big for religion,” Bashir told me, explaining his demurral of an Islamic prohibition. “We have one Jewish customer who thinks our ham is so good he’s certain that it’s kosher.”
That opinion has been shared by a few critics, though you’d scarcely know it reading the local press. The 2012 New York Times article on Monticello that lists Bashir’s Taverna as one of three places in Charlottesville to eat while visiting town. Then there’s a 2007 feature in the internationally distributed German newsmagazine Der Spiegel that touts Bashir’s as an establishment of “truly global cuisine.”
Kathy dreamed of owning a restaurant ever since her father was a partner in a fancy Hungarian white tablecloth joint back in Brazil. She and Bashir talked of having a place where Bashir would handle the music and Kathy would coordinate revolving art showings. It was always assumed that they would collaborate when it came to food and the vision was always shared. They wanted to make a place where people ate and felt at home and where it was never quiet, always rich and loud and fun.
It kind of worked out that way. Bashir’s has hosted all sorts of live music from Gypsy jazz, to Beleza Brazil (who played there August 9 when Kathy made feijoada, a Brazilian black bean stew with meat and cabbage), to a concert of Hebrew spiritual music. They also host belly dancing regularly. While the place is decorated beautifully, Kathy won’t mix her art and her restaurant.
“I realized it doesn’t work in a restaurant,” she said. “I’m very serious about art. It was my career, my passion.”
Bashir worked side jobs as both a cook for a caterer and also for a kosher baker in Manhattan. Kathy was addicted to TV cooking shows. She watched them compulsively, taking copious notes on dish after dish but she almost never cooked at home anymore and never referred to any of those notes. She didn’t learn how to cook professionally by osmosis, however; she learned by jumping into the cockpit of a crashing airplane and landing it, smoothly.
Talk about faking it ’til you make it. It took Kathy one job, one night, to make the jump from novice to multi-professional. She was assistant director of the visual arts program at the Americas Society. “It was across the street from the Council on Foreign Relations, at 68th and Park Avenue. David Rockefeller was the chairman of both,” she said. “He’s a wonderful man. He was hosting a party for [businesswoman and art collector] Amalia Fortabat. She was the richest woman in Argentina. He asked my friend who also worked for him to find a caterer for the party. My friend told me, ‘we should do it.’ So we borrowed a name from a friend in the business, and took the job. Nobody checked it out. We made appetizers for 300 people in my tiny little kitchen in New York. I knew how to cook from my mother. Bashir delivered the glasses. We hired high school girls to serve and got them little outfits. David Rockefeller said it was the best party he had ever had. So we got more catering jobs there and no one knew because it was my job, as assistant director, to move around the party and talk to people anyway. So I could go back and forth to the kitchen and no one noticed. It was crazy. New York is very expensive and we could use the extra money.”
Another day Kathy sent me a platter of hummus and zaalouk—an eggplant and tomato salad with pita bread. But the king of this plate was an empanada with marinara and pesto baked inside—a work of art.