It goes back to summer 2005, and to a chance discovery of some very fine, yet simple, Sicilian food in Paris.
“I’ve always had a passion for Italian food”, Mohammed explained, “and I’d often cook for friends and family when I was at home, but I did it without any real knowledge - but with pure passion”.
The Melenzane story begins during one of his regular visits to Paris where one of his cousins was studying. Since his cousin was living there, they had an opportunity to explore a Paris that the tourists never see.
“We’d stay in small, local, two-star hotels. The hoteliers there are really hospitable though, and I got far more of a feel for Paris by doing this than I ever would have done had I stayed in one of the internationally branded hotels”.
“One morning we left the hotel and walked down a street for the first time and saw a small, quite unremarkable looking restaurant. It was 11 o’clock and yet the place was packed and people were queuing outside on the street”, Mohammed recounted.
They walked on, and with a plan to come back later, when they assumed the place would be less busy. Arriving back later in the afternoon they discovered the restaurant to be closed. It had closed at 3pm. This was some special restaurant that has the confidence to close so early - maybe that’s just the continental style.
“We went back the next morning, and queued”, he continued, “we discovered a very small but truly family restaurant. The grandmother took the orders, her son was the chef, and other members of the family helped out in the restaurant too”.
They had come across the restaurant of Sicilian Nino Trapani.
It wasn’t a fancy restaurant, it looked really rather tired, but the entire focus was on the quality of the food. Mohammed and his cousin were captivated by the flavours and by the simplicity of the restaurant.
“It was all about the food”, he says, “there was no thought to the interior. You know here people spend more time and money on decorating the inside of their restaurant than they do in considering how best to put food on the customer’s plates. It was a simply enlightening experience for us”.
The very next day they returned. This time with a hunger not only to eat, but to learn. “We wanted to learn how these simple ingredients had been treated to deliver such amazing food to our table”.
They discovered a family eager to share their passion with these two unlikely soul-mates. There can’t be many Kuwaitis to have crossed the threshold of such restaurants in Paris, but the Trapani’s welcomed them both.
At this point, there was no thought of opening a restaurant in Kuwait - Mohammed was just keen to learn. They went about it in a business-like manner though, and reached an agreement with Nino that he would teach them all he know - for a fee. The agreement was also reached on the understanding that Mohammed and his cousin would learn every aspect of the food and of running a kitchen. This meant spending time peeling vegetables and washing dishes - such was their passion for Nino’s food that they agreed, and remember they paid him for the privilege.
“We spent periods of weeks at a time in Nino’s kitchen. We work for some time, my cousin would return to his studies, and I would return to Kuwait to continue my job. And then we’d meet Nino again and continue”.
I hope this is building a picture for you about what it is that makes Melenzane unique. This is not a concept that has been bought off the shelf but some budding ‘entrepreneur’ waving a blank-check under the noses of an established chain of restaurants. This is a restaurant that has grown organically out of a chance discovery of a small family-run restaurant in Europe from which developed a hot-blooded passion for simple Sicilian cuisine.
“Nino taught us the A-to-Z of how to run a restaurant like he does”, Mohammed continued. “He taught us everything from how to wash dishes to how to choose the best egg-plants”.
They spent time at the Trapani’s restaurants in Paris (they have three) and Sicily (where they have two). They also travelled with Nino to the markets to buy fresh produce, and to the farms - where they bought even fresher produce.
“He gave us a real insight in to his Sicilian food. He has been our sole source of inspiration for so long. A little part of us has become Nino, and all of this goes in to our cooking at Melenzane”.
Nino’s story is equally interesting - he was a soccer player for Palermo in Italy, and having met and married a Parisian girl he moved to the city and opened the restaurant. All five of the Trapani family’s restaurants have different names. In fact, according to Mohammed some may not have a name at all - “These things just aren’t important to the Trapani’s or their customers. There’s no branding. There’s just great, fresh, delicious food” says Mohammed.
It was only on their return to Kuwait, and following the enthusiast response of family and friends to Mohammed’s newly learned culinary skills, that the idea of opening their own restaurant began to form.
With the full blessing, and encouragement, of Nino Trapani the fruit of their passion is newly - and quietly - opened in Kuwait at Al Bida’a.
We haven’t eaten the Trapani’s food, but we know Sicilian food very well. I doubt we could eat better had Nino prepared the food himself.
Recipes are simple, there are few ingredients. Because of this it is essential that these ingredients be of the very finest quality. As with all the world’s finest cuisine, Sicilian food is all about subtlety and gently mixing flavours and textures.
Mohammed concedes it is not as easy ensuring he has the right ingredients for the day ahead. “We don’t have the same markets they do in Sicily or in Paris, but I ensure that we take only the best from our suppliers and I’ve worked hard also in educating them towards understanding what it is Melenzane stands for in terms of quality”.
Visit Melenzane yourself, certainly for the food, but also for the relative simplicity of the décor. Of course it’s not as simple as the Trapani’s family restaurants - there are not trestle tables and bench seating. That’s just not our style in Kuwait. But get there early on in the evening and you’ll find something that is pleasingly underwhelming. It’s as if Mohammed has deliberately not assaulted your visual senses to save your energy so that you may enjoy the flavours of your food all the more.
If there’s one thing in life we have learned it is to steer clear of those who sound the loudest trumpets in a frenzy of self-congratulation. What we can also add to that is - when someone is being noticeably quiet, go check them out - you might find something most remarkable. That’s what we discovered at Melenzane.
The rest you should go discover for yourself.
You can find out more about Melenzane at www.melenzane.com