I’m here to talk about Armenia in Bed-Stuy, by way of a guy who once chatted up Prince in Minneapolis.
Which is, of course, so New York.
Two Saturdays ago, I was hot and thirsty and hungry in Brooklyn. I was there to look at pretty historic architecture on Hancock Street, and the architecture was nice, but it’s hard to concentrate on Romanesque Revival when you’re dying for a mushroom calzone.
Then, right there before me, I was startled by a group of oil-clothed tables outside 246-248-250-252 Hancock Street. These four interconnected four-story homes were designed by prominent nineteenth century Brooklyn architect Montrose W. Morris.
There was no restaurant sign and no people around, but the empty tables each had little hand-lettered menus that said LITTLE ARMENIA. I wasn’t sure what Armenian food tasted like, but ok. Where was the actual restaurant, though?
Then, like in a “Mary Poppins” movie, a nice-looking middle-aged man with longish dark hair and a chef’s outfit appeared out of nowhere.
“What can I get you?” he asked.
“Is there really a place to eat here?”
“Welcome to Little Armenia! I’m Ararat El-Rawi, the best kept secret in Bed-Stuy. This is my pop-up restaurant and I just made tabouli, ceviche, a salmon roulette, and I make a risotto that will make you moan. Won’t you let me serve you some of my dishes…”
Was I getting punked?
Ararat told me that although he had often worked behind the scenes in kitchens, he had most recently worked as lead waiter at Esca, one of the top fish restaurants in the city. Waitering in the right restaurant, he explained, was a lucrative gig.
He had originally trained in the kitchen in his parents’ restaurant Little Bagdad in Minneapolis, then in fine dining establishments such as Minneapolis’s Café Un Deux Trois under Food Network star Andrew Zimmern, and at Goodfellows (four stars) under Chef Kevin Cullen. After moving to New York, he had worked at Marcus Samuelsson’s Aquavit and Red Rooster, and then at David Pasternack’s Esca. But he has also traveled and eaten all around the world with his parents as a young kid after his father decided that it was the best education for his kids. He had even spent time on the carnival circuit and as an assistant to a drummer in Paisley Park. (Prince’s enclave).
He had been on unemployment since his beloved Esca closed from the pandemic. The news demolished him; he was so used to making money and having a place to go to earn it that he felt like he’d landed in an unmarked field. “Originally the reason I said I would do stuff outside is that I knew unemployment was coming to an end,” he said. “And I am going to have to go back to work and Esca is closed. And you finally start thinking to yourself, is this really what I want to do? Should I give a go at being a chef? When will I get another chance?”
“I’m trying to groom my dream and either start my own restaurant or go into people’s homes, and if someone wants to help me out there’s a little building on the corner across the street in Bed-Stuy that’s for sale,” he added.
All of this came out quickly: think Robin Williams giving you his backstory.
He smiled big when I said yes, I would eat at his pop-up gourmet Bed-Stuy restaurant. I immediately liked him. “Yeah?! All these people have had an effect on you one way or another. I’m just going to make little dishes today. See what I got. Try me out!? Edible tidbits. They’ll demonstrate my depth.”
But where was his kitchen?
“In my apartment! Just stay there.”
As he put water on my table I asked him how long he had been doing this.
He was only five weeks in. And it’s only on weekends. “The first weekend, it was a bust because it rained and then there was Juneteenth and all these different things were going on,” he reflected. “But people saw that something’s going on for the future. Then two or three people over the weekend. But people are noticing now. Word is out and my stock is going up in the neighborhood. I’m building. A lady came by with her husband and friend and she is doing a birthday party. She saw the menu I printed. Honey this is what I want to do. This is this is it this is it! Eight of us.”
He left me alone at the table. Soon, he brought me my first of his (many) edible tidbits. A small serving of the tabouli he had learned from his mother.
Damn, it was good. Perfect.
“My mom would say you have to flavor the grain because the grain is the thing that needs the flavor. Because it is a dry grain, people think you have to soak in water.” His mother told him to put olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper, and cayenne, but not enough to overpower it, just a little kick going right through it. “That’s plenty liquid. Juice from the tomatoes, juice from the scallions, a little water.”
How close is Armenian tabouli to Greek tabouli?
“Pretty close,” he said. “My mom said to me, ‘Armenians made tabouli salad first. We invented it. It’s ours. So when you see other people that don’t do it that way it’s okay. Greeks put cucumber and mint in it. When they ask, you just smile and eat it. But ours is the one.”
With my thirst quenched, I was receptive to everything this guy had to say, even a quick history lesson on the Armenian Genocide in 1915-1916 and the resulting diaspora. Armenia, he told me, was the first country to be Christian.
After the genocide, many Armenians fled to Iraq, including his parents’ families. Over time, Iraq was itself increasingly unsafe for Christians. So in 1960, when his father Hamdy was a student, he left his Iraqi home of 26,000 in a town called Rawa and brought his young bride Angel with him. They had relatives in America and settled in the Midwest, where his ethnic family was a novelty. His mother was a great knitter who also made silk and velvet flowers, and she won many needlework and cooking awards at the Minnesota Sate Fair.
Ararat started in his family’s restaurant, his first gig in the business.
Time for more food. Spinach pie. “This is an Armenian version of spanakopita — this is how my parents made it — some people put goat cheese in it. Salt and pepper, a little butter, toasted pine nuts, and spinach — Armenian. It’s just fun to cook.”
“What do you call it?”
He shrugged. “My spinach pie.”
I laughed. Two of his friends from his last neighborhood (Crown Heights) drove up: a chatty one who introduced himself as Shawn and a guy who just called himself Mittens. They wanted some food.
I asked Mittens why he had that name.
Shawn answered for him. “Look at his hands!”
Mittens indeed had enormous hands! I put one of mine against his and we laughed.
“You writing a story about Ararat! This guy can cook!” Shawn said, happy to get in any article about his friend.
A while later they drove away with some risotto.
Ararat continued his tale. “Armenians are proud that their country was the first Christian country.” In Minnesota, his parents required their kids to sing, learn about Armenian food, and take pride in their culture.
His family was not so big on Sonny but quite big on Cher, as she was part Armenian. Marlo Thomas on “That Girl” was part Armenian. Abstract Expressionist artist Arshile Gorky? Armenian. Kim Kardashian? Andre Agassi? Armenian. “You watch that show “Mannix?” Armenian!”
Were there any other Armenians in Minnesota?
“There were a few,” he responded. “Do you know the writer William Saroyan? He came to my house. I have a picture sitting on his lap. Six or seven years old. My mom invited him because he was Armenian. She just got him on the phone when he was in town for an event and he laughed. He posed for us with a rabbit hat. If you were Armenian we knew you and would immortalize you.
“I remember her hanging up and saying, ‘Oh my god, oh my god, William Saroyan is coming! William Saroyan is coming! You vacuum! I need to make some tabouli.”
Back to Bed-Stuy and the risotto. No false praise here: it made the risottos of my past feel shame.
Ararat El-Rawi on risotto: “It doesn’t really make a difference what kind of risotto are you making, whether you are making mushroom risotto, whether you are making seafood risotto, or chicken risotto, it just doesn’t matter because it is how you treat the risotto in the beginning that makes a difference how the dish tastes. So initially what’s going to happen is that you have this grain that is going to expand at some point when you put it in the pan, and when it expands at that moment, that’s the moment it is going to accept all that flavor of the dish right there. So that’s why it is so important. From the beginning, what you do is put the herbs, the olive oil, the risotto, and salt and pepper and more olive oil drizzled on the top. Everything that you want it to taste like you have to get in the beginning.”
He learned most of his risotto technique from the famous chef Andrew Zimmern. But does he have a name for it?
“My risotto. I tell my friends I’m cooking my risotto, and they say oh you’re making your risotto!? Done deal. They’re at my house.”
Then the ceviche was just as spectacular as the risotto.
Smiling but with upraised finger, he said, “The base of it is fire-roasted peppers tomato and onions with jalapeño puree as a base, and to that you add the scallions, tomato, avocado, shrimp, crab, a little horseradish … fresh. Everyone has one they like. This is mine. There is nothing I’m doing that is breaking down culinary walls. I’m just cooking good food.”
The dishes kept coming, but so did the stories.
Ararat had his first serious inclination to lead a culinary life while spending six years at Café Un Deux Trois. There he met a young Andrew Zimmern, who was already a wild-energy intellect. A history major at Vassar, he plated like he was Alexander Calder. And as every foodie TV person knows, he later emerged as a powerhouse presence on the small screen.
The last time Ararat saw Andrew was during Food Week over a decade ago. “I read he was there and I decided I was going to pick at him,” he said. “So I ran off work and ran down to Macy’s. He was just finishing his little demo. He eyed me in the crowd and mouthed, ‘You motherfucker!’ I went right up to the front and the bodyguard stepped right in, but Andrew told him I was cool. Away from the crowd, we got caught up.”
Recently Andrew Zimmern commented on Ararat’s brand new Instagram page for Little Armenia. He was surprised how many people saw that.
If only Prince could give him a retweet. But did Ararat El-Rawi really know Prince?
Sort of. A longer explanation came now:
“If you grew up in Minneapolis you fell in love with Prince instantly. His music was funky and he was ours. He was from Minneapolis. Pre-Purple rain. I started when my friend Michael Bland got the job as drummer in 1989 during the New Power Generation. (Prince’s fans will remember the big drummer in the big hat.) I was his driver.”
He worked at Paisley Park from 1990-1992. “I saw every part of him but I didn’t really talk to him. We chatted in the airport once, but Prince wasn’t the kind of guy who spoke to a lot of people.”
He never cooked for Prince but used to go in the kitchen for his cook Suzi and watch and learn how to make Prince’s favorite pineapple upside down cake. “Simple stuff. It’s a basic sponge cake and you put fresh pineapple on bottom, none of the Dole stuff. Simple. Maybe I should put it on Little Armenia’s menu. Prince’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake.”
(He is still close friends with Michael Bland.)
Ararat is an avid runner and former amateur boxer, a single man in great shape with no kids. He smiles when asked about marriage. “Yeah, I’m single. Why not put it all out there?” This now time, whatever it leads to, feels purposeful.
Would he do a wedding?
“I will do anything somebody told me to do. I said to myself you could do this café like this and hope to use it as a springboard. When winter comes I am really hoping to groom it into going into people’s homes. Can you make us a dozen cookies? Sure. Can you come and do a cooking demo for us and teach us how to make a perfect tabouli? Of course. ‘My girlfriends and me are watching Sex and the City and we want a couple of appetizers, can you come in?’ Absolutely! Or a six-person dinner — an eight-person dinner. ‘It’s our anniversary — can you come to our home and talk to us about food?’ Indeed! You can wear your pajamas, you can wear your pearls. You can listen to any music you want to because you are at home. You don’t have to tip a bartender a coat check girl or park a car.”
Hilariously, his only private meal he’s made to date was a dinner for Red Rooster regular Quincy Troupe. For that meal, Troupe invited two legends from the Knicks, Earl the Pearl and Walt Frazier. That’s a story. “I made a lobster risotto. They loved it.”
More than a marketing gimmick — this is a real person cooking food with love.
Everything looked marvelous, fancy, incredibly delicious, and in desperate need of a food photographer.
So I brought one back with me. Ilka Müller, from Germany. I also invited my newly discovered cousin Rebecca Dreyfus, a filmmaker who lives in the neighborhood. (I had met her the previous week through genealogy nerdery.)
The second time I came for a visit, Ararat again did all the work alone. He did good. He has an exuberant energy about him. I did not see a single resident on the block passing who did not stop to say hello with a smile.
Soon Ararat’s still-stunning 78-year-old Jamaican landlady Maureen McCallum drove up, a wonderful New Yorker who Ararat calls The Contessa — she really is one. McCallum had traveled around the world with a bishop she met while working as as a pretty young photographer in the Waldorf. She has stories! She met three popes and many celebrities that will make your jaw drop. She was inseparable from the bishop. (I’ve seen the insane photos. Her equally beautiful daughter was also Miss Jamaica.)
She adores having a talented chef in the building. Every day, she told me, Ararat asks her what she wants to have for dinner. She would love to invest in him. She agrees that the small building down the block, that former barbershop, would be ideal for their own restaurant. She’d love to go in on it with him.
Ararat blew her a kiss. “The chefs that left impressions with me are the ones that did something extraordinary. The ones you watch and think I am stepping up my game because of him.” Andrew Zimmern. His beloved boss at Esca, Dave Pasternack.
“When Esca reopened (after partners bought out post-scandal Mario Batali) Eric Ripert of Le Bernadin came by. He sat with Chef Dave and I thought this should be a picture. These are two best fish guys in the city.”
Daniel Boulud was a chef for which one steps up their game, and he was really nice to Ararat when he was “front of house” for Marcus Samuelsson at Red Rooster, a place he also helped open in 2010. A couple of Samuelsson’s friends from his Aquavit days came up to see the place. Not just any friends, two of the most famous chefs in the world, Daniel Boulud and Wolfgang Puck.
Over the dessert menu, we discuss what the outcome of the pop up café could be.
Did he handle many celebrities? Could he handle celebrities if he got red hot?
“Well at Esca, me and another always got the celebrity, it was a pooled tip, so it didn’t matter, but we were the ones who could handle it. Mario Cantone was a regular and Betsey Johnson would come twice a week — You know that wine I like — it is fun. Susan Sarandon was big on crudo.”
Hank Azaria, the voice of many Simpsons characters, was sitting with Richard Kind, who played Larry’s cousin Andy on “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “He came in and I had to wait on him, I told him I was a big fan and left it alone.”
He remembered Azaria smiling. “Yeah, okay. What’s your name?”
“My name is Ararat, sir.”
“I gave him the run-through the Esca menu — this is the crudo menu, entrees over here, fish here. Branzino Per Due O Tre (Whole Mediterranean Sea Bass for Two or Three Cooked in Sea Salt), a specialty of the house. You got vegetables with that…”
“Okay,” Azaria says. “So give us a couple of minutes and we’ll figure it out.”
“I next hear my name from Moe the Bartender. ‘Hey Arafat, Araman, whatever you call yourself there, bring your butt over here! We are ready to order. Bring us some of that fish there that the chef makes nothing fancy. Yeah, bring us some of them. And then some of them noodles you were talking about…’”
“Spaghetti with lobster and chili…”
“Yeah do that.”
The next time Ararat was in the room, Hank had become Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, who runs the Springfield Kwik-E-Mart.
“As an Indian and as a vegetarian I suggest you put vegetables on the table. Thank you.”’
In Bed-Stuy, in Little Armenia, in July in the heat, there is tabouli and risotto and Mittens and The Contessa. All are the pride of Ararat El-Rawi.
Follow Ararat on Instagam @littlearmeniacafe (send him a message) or call text him 347-701-1372. Open Saturday and Sunday from 11 am until food runs out. Text him to be sure. 250 Hancock Street, Bed-Stuy. Closest subway stop is the A or C at Nostrand Avenue.
Check out Laurie Gwen Shapiro’s work here! She is the author of The Stowaway: A Young Man’s Extraordinary Adventure to Antarctica and her next nonfiction book (on Amelia Earhart) will be out next year from Viking.