Open the August edition for a recipe from a Best of D.C. finalist + Michelin Starred chef.
Welcome back to The Sunday Roast! I hope everyone is surviving this insane weather with heat waves one hour and downpour rain the next. I was on vacation in Virginia Beach last week so this month’s newsletter is delayed by a week so I could devote the proper time. I don’t have much more chatter to include here so let’s dive in!
This month: I reached out to a couple of my all-time favorite chefs that I admire so much on Instagram, and managed to line them both up for this month and the next. Now, I’ve got the story of a well-known chef, born and raised in the DMV, and a wildly popular recipe from their beloved pop-up restaurant. Scroll down!
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Chef Marcelle has always loved food. They learned to love it and restaurants at a young age, and it was ingrained in who they are so early on. They say they were fortunate to grow up around a family full of fabulous home and professional cooks. Marcelle’s grandparents were an integral part of their early obsession with food, starting with when they would rather spend time with them in the kitchen than with other children. Marcelle says they find themself to this day recalling memories and making recipes based off of those memories.
Their parents also played an integral role. They owned small mom-and-pop pizza and sub shops in Maryland, so Marcelle started working at the shops when they were 10 years old. In their late teens, the only thing they really knew was a kitchen, so they set out on a career in food. Marcelle got a gig at their first service style restaurant at 17, and their understanding of the culinary world only broadened from there. They read, studied and worked nonstop to gain as much knowledge as possible.
They spent time in Spain, Puerto Rico and across the continental U.S., but after growing up in Silver Spring, the DMV has always remained home. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, the food scene in the DMV was rapidly expanding, meaning there was loads of opportunities to learn under chefs like Jose Andres and Bryan Moscatello, so it was an easy choice to stay. Since then, they’ve worked at several locally loved establishments, such as Maydan, Compass Rose and the Bluejacket Brewery, and even opened up their own concept, which I’ll touch on more below.
But first, more about Marcelle. On their social media, they’ve been open about their identity as a transgender person with Palestinian roots. Marcelle recently posted about the one-year anniversary of coming out on Instagram and of their transition journey. I asked what that journey has been like while working in the DMV culinary scene, and they said that they had a supportive, progressive support network in D.C. that welcomed them with “love and open arms.” And in the spirit of wanting to live their best authentic self, Marcelle embraced their Palestinian heritage to use food as a bridge to advocacy, even launching merchandise with proceeds going to organizations helping Palestinians in occupied territories.
“For us in the diaspora, specifically my generation, we are in a moment of reclamation of our pride, our roots, our fight. I’m just trying to do what I can with what I have for my people that are struggling in a capacity many people unfamiliar with the situation might not know about. I feel that it’s my responsibility to share what I know and help however I can,” Marcelle says.
Which brings us to, his Palestinian pop-up restaurant, Shababi …
Discover Marcelle’s Instagram. And Shababi’s. And the website.
The story behind their recipe.
Marcelle for five years led the kitchen at Bluejacket Brewery, a popular beer and bites outpost in Navy Yard, before heading the critically acclaimed Maydan and Compass Rose. No matter where Marcelle was lending their talents, they always made sure to make the food of their people and heritage. And they’re proud of the work they did there, including maintaining the existing Michelin Star at Maydan and earning another in 2020. Marcelle’s leadership and cooking was noticed around D.C., and eventually, at the end of 2020, they decided it was a natural progression at that point in their career to move onto the next opportunity: Shababi.
For Marcelle, 2020 was a real year of self-reflection, as many can relate. They found themself wanting to express their most authentic self and the things they wanted to pay the most honor and homage to. Their grandparents, who were in the 1948 Nakba, always spoke about Palestine, and it was the part of their heritage they always felt the most connected to.
At the same time, it was also a part of Marcelle that they were continually toning down professionally, so to be as authentic as possible, they knew they had to get over that hurdle and properly represent themself and their people. In comes the musakhan, a staple Palestinian slow-cooked chicken dish smothered in loads of seasonings, especially sumac. Muskhan seemed to Marcelle like the perfect way to be authentic because of how important it is to the Palestinian people as a comfort food.
They then started Shababi at the height of the pandemic, as they say, “when nothing seemed certain but the comfort of home.” It felt right to them to bring their idea to life when the focus could be on the flavors in the comfort of one’s home and the shared experience of a family meal. The pop-up currently operates weekends out of Roro’s Modern Lebanese restaurant in Alexandria, which Marcelle says allowed them to create Shababi with the sense of urgency that they felt it needed. The restaurant became the right space at the right time.
And so far, people have loved Shababi’s chicken! Marcelle says the reception for the musakhan has been overwhelmingly and so humbly incredible!
Shababi started as a pop-up in January, and off the bat the reception was so welcoming, so Marcelle knew they had to continue it. After eight months of neighborhood drop-offs, where one could organize several orders to be picked up in a place other than the restaurant, and rotating menu specials, like vegan arayes (a typically meat-stuffed pita), Shababi is standing strong.
Eight months later, it’s a 2021 RAMMYS finalist for outstanding ghost kitchen or pop-up concept and has been nominated for four categories in Washington City Paper’s Best of DC for 2021.
Best Middle Eastern Restaurant, Lockdown Takeout/Delivery Discovery. Lockdown Takeout/Delivery Experience, or Pandemic Restaurant Pick-up Kit.) And don’t worry, Shababi and Marcelle will both be around for a long time coming. Marcelle says they’d love to continue to build this community and are looking forward to bringing all of my ideas to life, so stay tuned!
One of the most popular menu items surprisingly has been one of the sides: the French onion labneh. The ultra-strained, ultra-thick Greek yogurt-like spread is tangy and perfect for dips, os that’s exactly what Marcelle’s family did. They say the family would eat labneh piled high with onions and topped in pomegranate molasses.
Marcelle says, “thinking of those flavors and a mutual love for French Onion dip, it seemed like a natural marriage of flavors.” They love to take inspiration in their recipe creation from their childhood and the things they have grown to love. The labneh is still on the menu, because when Marcelle once tried to give it a break, fans of Shababi spoke up about missing it, so it’s been on the menu ever since. And now, you can make your own version at home.