Featured SHE : Rahaf Amer
Executive Chef / Private Dining Events
“Breath of Fresh Air'“
Where is SHE now?
With a rich Syrian heritage and childhood spent in Washington DC, Chef Rahaf Amer is just the breath of fresh air that her name implies. Yes, that is the actual translation of Rahaf in Arabic. So hold on tight!
Rahaf came to Nashville nearly 5 years ago, at which point she was admittedly disappointed with the city’s food scene. “DC was eclectic. They had any type of cuisine you wanted from block to block. I came here, and it was all shrimp and grits or trout, shrimp and grits or trout,” she laughs. Yet as she climbed her way up the culinary ladder, so too did Nashville graduate into a diverse dining destination, one Rahaf now says has become her home. “We finally have a little bit of everything here, and that’s exactly how I like to learn, trying everything.”
A foreign realm to many, Rahaf reflects on the unique nature of the food industry here. As is no surprise, the restaurant world remains male dominated in many senses. So what does it take for young, talented women to becomes leaders in the kitchen? It’s certainly not a quick or well-paved road, but the industry in Nashville has started hearing and championing female chefs in new ways.
“It’s still not the norm, but there are many people here who are supportive of my talents and do lift me up as I work to advance my career.” While the “old school” culture often stems from intimidation and male control, Rahaf finds much hope that some companies have transitioned to cultures of encouragement, collaboration, and respect. “It’s hard to sustain inspiration and purpose in environments that ‘motivate’ by beating you down. It took many jobs and many lost friendships, but I’ve finally found my style and my voice.” Oh, and did we mentioned, she’s 28 and 5’0? Yea, she’s got one hell of a voice.
Where was SHE then?
The irony is her mother was a terrible cook. She didn’t grow up in a culinary world. But at thirteen, a neighbor in their high-rise apartment building embraced Rahaf and walked her through her first real jaunt at cooking. A traditional Pad Thai, that she subsequently served and shared with her family of eight, steeped a novel passion that became a life pursuit.
“I cooked all through high school for family and friends, but when it came to college, culinary school wasn’t an acceptable path in my dad’s mind,” she admits. The disappointing dismissal took her through undergrad and left her still itching to cook on the other side. “At that point, we’d paid enough for me to go through college, so I said, ‘Screw culinary school! Someone else can pay me to learn, not vice versa.’” The next three years proved a triumphal trial by fire.
Stepping out in faith with a healthy dose of blind ambition, Rahaf started as a line cook at a small gastropub in DC. Having not yet physically cooked on the line before, her first shift was a Sunday brunch, during which her two co-workers rushed off the ER with burn injuries and left her to run the kitchen and execute the menu she’d only seen the surface of.
“I didn’t know what the hell I was doing, so I just cooked the plates like I’d cook them at home,” she admits. “Most everyone’s plates came back empty, so I figured I did something right.” Aside from still having PTSD from brunch, that calamity proved a divine confidence boost for the young chef, who shortly after moved to Nashville and took the first job she could get as a waitress. “I wanted to be in the kitchen obviously, but it was clear the management didn’t think it was a ‘fitting environment for me.’” In need of cash, she stuck it out, and within one year charged her way up from a waitress to prep cook, to line cook, to sous chef. Quite a sprint for a new chef in a new city.
But her sprint of success did not come without major unwarranted roadblocks. “The cooks who had before helped me and been friendly with me, now tried to bully me,” she says more sickened than surprised. She admits as a women in this industry, as in many, we’re often forced to choose friendship or success with our peers. While they should be able to coexist, they often don’t. Rahaf chose her career over their approval. “I realized their insecurities weren’t my responsibility, so I finally started barking back.” In the face of dynamic shifts and power struggles, she found her voice and hasn’t lost it since.
For its two years of operation, Rahaf started as the sous chef of female owned and run, Salt & Vine, and quickly ascended to Executive Chef, writing all menus, training all staff, and even clenching a spot on one of television’s most loved cooking competitions (keep an eye out, it’s not yet aired!). She now consults with varying bars and restaurants to fine-tune food programs as well as specializing in custom private dining events.
Who is SHE now?
It’s no secret the food industry can take gargantuan tolls on your time and your body. How can you maintain any sort balance under that day in day out grind? Rahaf insists passion is found in the creating and sustained by the environment in which you create. “It’s impossible not to burn out when profit is put above people. In my kitchens, I demand people over profit.” She likens the kitchen less to a team playing a game and more to a conductor directing an orchestra. Cooking consistently and cooking well takes a myriad of instruments and leaves very little room for solos.
In a culture surging with celebrity chefs, Rahaf prefers a more humble route. “Chefs now are glorified,” she says. “But I want my food to get the focus, no matter how many people know or don’t know my name.” When we eat, that’s really what we crave isn’t it – joy, creativity, and personality on the plate that we couldn’t conjure up for ourselves at home. Chef Rahaf knows that and refuses to compromise it.
“This is thing,” she preaches, “success and greatness aren’t at all the same thing. One is a harder path, for sure, but I’d rather be true to what I believe is great. I have a feeling success will follow, not the other way around.” And with remarkably high standards certainly comes meticulous self-scrutiny and expectations. With each plate an honest reflection of who you are, how can you keep a margin of grace for yourself? Rahaf’s prescription is simple. “Surround yourself with good people.” With she’s who lift you up when you need it and call you out when you start to put profit over people. And if all else fails, she says, have a nice whiskey.
Girls night – Folk in East Nashville
Lunch or coffee – 8th & Roast (I always take coffee like a traditional Cuban, with sweetened condensed milk)
Splurge – Hugh Baby’s cheeseburger and root beer
Wine or cocktails – Old Fashioned at Otaku Ramen (they use great Japanese whiskey)
Music venues – The Basement, The Five Spot
Local musicians/artists – Carrie Welling, Kristina Murray
Inside Nashville SHEcret – Crumb de la Crumb (Peaceful café & patio in Bellevue)