Mediterranean flavor

A Q&A with Mohammed Shabbar, Petra’s outspoken chef and owner

photo by Catherine Beeghly

What is your culinary specialty?

I have a lot of things I like to cook. The main thing is Mediterranean food. I love rice dishes, learning more about spices, working with a variety of meats like lamb and goat. If I taste something in a Mexican restaurant that I like, I will try it in a Mediterranean dish. I love to go to Asian places, like Thai restaurants, and have their dishes with coconut milk and ginger. And I did try putting those in a sauté with my Mediterranean ingredients, and it worked. It was delicious.

Where do you look for inspiration for new recipes?

I like to look in small, hole-in-the-wall type restaurants. I meet the people and I ask them about the food. I love to go try new food different places. If I eat something, I can tell you what’s in it. Especially if I leave it to set until the next day, then I can taste it even better.

What dish would you like to include on your menu, but worry that it might be too exotic for Chico?

Lamb chops. People think they’re gamey, and they’re not. It’s how you cook them. You’ve got to learn to cook them right. And if you’re cooking lamb, American lamb is the best to use. It’s just the best tasting.

What won’t you eat?

Pork. First, it’s against my religion, and when you study the cleanliness and some other things about the industry … I wouldn’t even think about it.

What is the ingredient you can’t live without?

Spices, especially Allspice. I use it to cook everything. I have a seven-spice blend I use in my dishes here, and it’s 50 percent Allspice, from a plant. It just has good flavor. That’s how we do food here. I use it for meat dishes, sauces, and in chicken. I “shock” my chicken—I boil it, then put it on ice. Allspice takes that bad chicken smell out.

At home, what three things are always in your fridge?

Pita bread. I grew up eating everything with pita bread. It was a main thing for us. Next is some goat cheese, so I can have something to snack on. And olive oil I also use with everything. I can put all three together and have something delicious.

As a pro, what mistakes do you see novices make most often?

The first thing is that they want to work too fast. Second is they don’t watch what they’re cooking. No cell phones. You have to be alone with it [the food]. Third is saying, “That’s how we did it in the old place.” No. You have to learn new recipes. You have to learn how we do it here.

What’s the most underrated ingredient, in your opinion?

I have a few. Cloves for seasoning, cardamom, olive oil, ginger for your stomach, and honey is really healthy for your body.

When it comes to local ingredients, what are your faves?

Olive oil is good in Chico. There are so many good vegetables, and things like parsley, tomato and cilantro. I love to use those in our falafels. And eggs from Chris the Egg Man. They have the best flavor, so fresh. I love fresh mint and basil. I’m very addicted to basil. Kevin [Coy] at Monks [Wine Lounge and Bistro] makes the best chicken pesto with it.

What’s the strangest ingredient you’ve ever used in a dish?

Cardamom is strange to most people. They’re not used to it, so it’s not popular, but people should get used to the taste. It’s great in hot tea, with milk and ginger. The cardamom makes it like a Chai tea, which is basically cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and sugar.

Where do you like to eat out of town?

Any place, especially if it’s small, and like a hole-in-the-wall place. I go to San Francisco, to places that specialize in Mediterranean/Indian/Pakistani/Afghani cuisine. It all comes out of the same kitchen. You can order any of those meals. Once a week I go to the city to get some supplies for my restaurant here.

What’s the most outrageous thing that’s happened in a kitchen where you’ve worked?

This is more funny than outrageous. When I was a cook at Mamacita’s, I got an order for a Chicken Taco Salad. So I took one of the big tostada shells, filled it with the lettuce and tomato and all, and then I grabbed a chicken taco and put it on the side. That’s what I thought the order was. I think of that now, and it’s funny to me.

What’s your death-row meal?

The Linguini Shrimp at Pete’s Restaurant and Brewhouse (formerly Original Pete’s). I love that dish. People think of them for pizza, but don’t know they have great pasta. My cousin Mike Shabbar owns it, and he makes it so well. I don’t like a lot of butter or heavy cream. They make it with a lot of shrimp. Some franchises try to save money by putting less meat in the dishes. I like good portions. Come on, I’m a big guy!

Describe the restaurant you would create if cost and demographic were not an issue (your fantasy restaurant).

An old-style Turkish restaurant, where the atmosphere is very simple. If you go to Milan, and the major cities in Europe, you see them. They’re very humble, and it’s all about tradition and culture. They’re expensive. The food is Jordanian/Syrian/Turkish, and they’re always very busy.

Who was the biggest cooking influence in your life?

When I was growing up, it was my mom who taught me how to cook properly. In a business way, it’s my cousin and friend, Mike Shabbar. If I’m trying something new, he’s the first one I’ll bring a sample to. He’s the one I’m going to as I’m trying to figure out everything with the crêpes. He’s just really good. He knows what he’s doing, and he knows what people like. There’s just something different when he’s cooking.