South End Chef Tarik Abdullah’s Insatiable Hunger to “Feed The People”

by Jake Uitti

Tarik Abdullah is one of Seattle’s most accomplished chefs. Whether he’s hosting a new pop-up restaurant or starring on an episode of Vice’s MUNCHIES, Abdullah’s fresh ideas and fresh ingredients delight his fans. To get a sense of Abdullah’s journey becoming a chef, we sat down with the man and asked him a few culinary questions.

In your cooking practice, you often focus on teaching kids. Why is this important to you?

I was just looking at some old photos today when I started in L.A. and I was teaching kids. I was wondering what they were doing now. I’ve always been working in a community atmosphere ever since I was a kid, in some shape or form. So, for me, I just feel like, why not? Why not allow kids to have the information that I’m learning at the same time? It just feels good to watch the information you gather get passed along and watch the kids do something with it. Even if it’s not right then and there in front of you or if it happens down the line in their lives, the goal is just to play a role.


How did your own childhood influence your work in the kitchen?

The funny thing is, when I was a kid, there were no thoughts of me becoming a professional cook. When I was growing up, I just happened to be around a lot of really good cooks. Not just my family but my family’s friends, too. I’ve always been around good food, so eventually, I did it professionally. And, 24-25 years later, I’m still at it. I’m doing it in a way where I truly love what I do. I get to do all my loves at the same time – it’s been a really good journey.


What do you mean by all your loves, exactly?

The idea of food for me has to do with teaching it, cooking it and creating a bridge. And I feel like I’ve been able to do that.


There’s a common story among chefs that life in the kitchen is grueling and unforgiving. What was your experience coming up?

Cooking early on when I came into it was more about cooks wanting to be really good cooks. That [borderline violent behavior] was a totally different era. I know it’s not like that anymore. I remember some of the days the chef [in charge] yelling at you once in a while or the grueling long hours, but that era is basically gone now. The cooks now are totally different. It’s not about that anymore. It’s more or less, I just want to get straight to the top right away! For me, it was all about learning. And I’m still learning. That’s what we’re supposed to be doing. I never strived to have the word “chef.” The goal is to constantly learn. If you want to learn, you keep learning. For me, I just want to keep learning until I can’t learn anymore.


What’s an important personal revelation you discovered while working in the kitchen?

Oh man, you know what’s so funny? Blanching vegetables. I think most people grew up with some form of canned vegetables. And so I remember the first time I had blanched green beans. And I was like, “Woah! This is a totally different ballgame.” I mean, seriously, that’s the one thing that really shook me. Like, “Oh, wow! Vegetables are about to be so much better!”


You often talk about the importance of diversity – both in the world and in the kitchen. What does diversity do for the success of a restaurant?

It allows for more stories to be told. It allows for more access. It allows for more resources and to create more spaces. I think it’s all of those things. Coming up in a professional kitchen early on, I didn’t see a lot of brothers. This was during my time in L.A. and kitchens were often predominantly Latino. Now, it’s a totally different ballgame. I like the fact that it’s changed since my days when I was 18 or 19 because of all the access to information. In a way, you don’t really have to go through a restaurant anymore if you want to become a professional cook. Yeah, I like change.


What does your signature phrase “Feed The People” mean to you today?

Feeding the people is about more than just food. It’s about feeding information to each other. To allow us all to live amongst each other. It’s funny how it’s really coming to fruition now when it’s always been an issue to a degree from a food standpoint. It’s a poverty problem, too. We need to look at that word and what we should be doing with that word, feeding. That’s all I’ve really been wanting to do, the best I can. Using food as my tool and as my passion and as my bridge to do what I can for the community. That’s real.


You’ve received a lot of positive press over the years. What has media exposure taught you about the business of being a chef?

All that press stuff and everything, that’s all on the backend of the hard work that has to get done. It’s one thing to put an event on and cook food, but on the backside of it, there’s work to be done. Once we get off the phone, I have stuff to plan for the dinner next week. There’s work to do every day, even when something special isn’t going on. But that’s fine, too. In this day and age, if you want to move forward you have to engulf yourself in the business, media, marketing. You really have to engulf yourself in it and pretty much live it. Yeah man, I have my days when I’m tired.


Your pop-up is called “A DJ and A Cook.” What role does music play in your work?

Man, there’s always music going on. There’s never a day when I don’t have music on. But it all started back in 2009-10, me and my close friend had both gotten back from really long trips – me to Europe and him in South America. He’s a DJ and, of course, I cook. And we were trying to figure out how to fuse what we do at the time. But, yeah, I grew up with good music. So for me it plays a vital role.


Your next pop-up is May 26th. What do you have planned?

I wanted to figure out how I could pay homage to the south end. So I came up with a concept and a theme and a menu based on the #7 bus, starting from the I.D. to Rainier Beach. The night will include six courses based on actual intersections or locations along the route. So, the first course starts in the I.D. and we’re talking Uwajimaya and other small markets around there. But we got a lot of stuff up our sleeve, man. It’s going to be really fun.

Featured image courtesy of Tarik Abdullah