Published August 11th, 2022 at 6:00 AM
Chef Yahia Kamal unlocks the door to Baba’s Pantry, a Palestinian-American delicatessen at 1019 E. 63rd St. on the edge of the Brookside neighborhood and the intersection with Troost Avenue.
“Hello, my friend!” he says with an ear-to-ear grin that crinkles the corners of his eyes.
Chef Kamal used the same greeting to stop supermarket shoppers careening up and down the aisles in their tracks. Long before the velvety spread he was hawking became a ubiquitous party dip, his disarming smile eased many into sampling their first bite of hummus.
“I put hummus and dips on the map for KC, and I loved it, but I didn’t make much money,” Kamal proudly says, recalling the days he hustled the sample circuit under the Yummy’s Choice label.
Kamal burst onto the local artisan food scene with his flavor-packed dips and spreads in 2004. His tasty wares and extraordinary sales ability eventually landed him a coveted regional contract with Whole Foods.
But the entrepreneurial journey can be a bumpy ride.
Over two decades, the self-trained chef opened two restaurants that had short runs. He also split with a business partner who continues to sell products under the Chef Kamal label in local grocery stores.
Kamal and his wife, Yusra Abu-Alhassab, were making sandwiches at a lunch counter in Cosentino’s Market Downtown when they were laid off during the pandemic. Yet, despite the uncertainty of the world in that moment, he wasn’t ready to retire.
Baba’s Pantry opened in July 2021, and this time his children – Kamal, Yasmine, Omar and Hannah, all in their 30s – decided to partner with their 62-year-old father.
“It was the perfect opportunity for my dad to start over and incorporate the family,” says Omar, who has taken on the role of sous chef, learning – and writing down – his dad’s closely held recipes.
In the kitchen of Baba’s Pantry, a huge vat of garbanzo beans cools in a colander. Cooking from scratch requires soaking the beans overnight, cooking over low heat for several hours, and making sure to frequently skim the foam off the top.
“People think it’s so easy and convenient from the can, but the texture, the smell, it’s not the same!” Chef Kamal says. “They add so much stuff to it, you don’t know what is in there.”
As a young boy, Kamal’s mother would shoo him out of the kitchen and send him instead to stand in line to buy staples from neighborhood stands such as hummus, falafel, kebabs and pita.
Even though the Palestinian kitchen of the era was reserved for women, Kamal figured out ways to learn and develop his palate. He would lend a hand to the hummus maker to speed up the line, or he would sneak into the pantry when the family was not home and admire the spices.
When he moved to Oklahoma to attend college, it wasn’t long before he missed the traditional foods of his homeland. He recalls calling his mother on the phone to get her recipes. His apartment kitchen became a gathering place. Of course, Kamal didn’t charge his college friends, and to this day finds it hard to eat alone.
“I never thought the kids would follow me, but as they grew older, they were getting more curiousity about the food. The biggest difference is I give the food away, they charge for it,” Kamal says as he blushes.
All the Kamal children will independently tell you their “baba” (Arabic for dad) was born under the zodiac sign of Leo.
“My dad is an innovative, resilient, creative, loving person who just really loves who he is and loves sharing his culture with other people. Despite all the twists and turns in his life, he always perseveres,” says his oldest son Kamal Kamal, a Kansas City Art Institute graduate who works as an interior designer and event planner in New York City.
The son was unable to help financially due to his own struggles during the pandemic. Instead of money, he made a video, set up a crowdfunding campaign and took on the role of “brand manager” to help his father develop a space that would showcase his dad’s culinary talents.
“I think I helped push him further. He’s such a personality, a known character. I thought, let’s take it to another level and let this space reflect who you are as a Palestinian immigrant,” he says.
The colorfully lettered front windows proudly proclaim Baba’s Pantry a Palestinian-American Delicatessen. Fashioned after a bazaar, the walls are painted in vivid hues of marigold yellow and cerulean blue with accents of terracotta and mint green. Red frames hold family portraits while antiques, souvenirs and trinkets collected from their homeland add a personal touch.
Customers can sit on a cushioned bench to sip strong Turkish coffee or a daily lemonade available in strawberry, saffron or blueberry-basil, or small tables to enjoy shawarma or kebabs with a pile of shoestring fries dusted with Baba’s spice blend.
In the refrigerated cases that make an “L” on two sides of the space, customers also can buy tubs of hummus, baba ganoush (eggplant dip), sweet shatta (chile paste), labneh (strained yogurt cheese), olive mazza (similar to tapenade), and other tasty spreads to take home.
Preserved and pickled foods line another wall, including jalapeño makdous (oil-cured peppers stuffed with chili, walnuts, garlic and salt), candied butternut squash, pickled avocado and pickled turnips.
“Our vision was to bring (customers) to his pantry,” says Yasmine, the oldest daughter and family baker.
In 1993, Chef Kamal moved with his children to Palestine for several years so they could learn the culture and the Arabic language. But it wasn’t until the oldest three went off to college that they started “shopping,” or outright “raiding,” their dad’s pantry.
“It’s truly his vision: He went back to what does it mean to cook for family,” Yasmine says of Baba’s Pantry, which their father initially wanted to name The Smiling Chef.
“We talked about what it feels like to eat at Baba’s (or dad’s). That experience of going to the shelf and grabbing something. Opening a jar and talking about how to use it.”
Of course, base ingredients differ around the world. Through invention or necessity, Chef Kamal has developed a knack for creating variations on a theme. For instance, his labneh (a type of yogurt cheese) incorporates cream cheese and walnuts while his makdous sometimes swaps out eggplant for jalapeños.
“Is it Palestinian-American?” Yasmine asks. “Yes, he added American ingredients, but it is Palestinian first.”
The overarching catch-all terms “Mediterranean” or “Middle Eastern” don’t quite explain the family’s food, or their journey. The children prefer to acknowledge and embrace the Palestinian diaspora.
“I think it’s important for us that people know we are Palestinian. I think our food is getting lost. People are taking some of the dishes and renaming them. We want to say this is where we are from,” says the youngest sibling, Hannah Kamal Nsenki.
While Hannah was still in high school, she worked for her dad sampling hummus in grocery stores.
“I don’t know how he did it,” she says. “He’d somehow grab a person and talk to them for five minutes, and he’d have sold them a case. Maybe it’s that smile? How he blushes? His goofy laugh?”
Hannah, who manages events and social media accounts, sees her primary role as the “diplomat” of the family, the one who can help her siblings present a new idea to her father in a way that makes it palatable.
“Like all families, we have our little pushbacks and tiffs, but I feel like my dad is finally being heard, and he’s never been more creative,” she says.
Future expansion plans include a Palestinian bakery and community event space next door. The oven, which has already been ordered from Jordan, will allow Yasmine to expand her contributions of baklava and knafeh.
Inspired by Black Lives Matter, Omar and Kamal are keenly interested in adding music and events to foster community engagement and promote causes they are passionate about.
Meanwhile, Chef Kamal is eager to “finish the dream” – but, this time, with the best partners a baba could ask for.
Jill Wendholt Silva is a James Beard award-winning food editor and freelance writer. You can follow Silva at @jillsilvafood.