It's a good thing Antoinette Jreij wears pink and gray chef coats; it's the only way someone could fathom that someone so demure and adorned by a sparkly hair clip, diamond earrings, and full make up would be the hardworking head cook at one of the city's longstanding favorite restaurants, The Original Daily Bread Marketplace. Not to say our city's other female cooks and chefs aren't attractive--many of them are--but we only see them all dolled up when they're making television appearances.
Daily Bread's founders are Arabs from Nazareth, Israel, but co-owner Monem Mazzawi said the way the Lebanese Jreij cooks is so close to home that he can taste the memories, "When I think of my childhood... she is right there."
But the two only met just over a decade ago, when Jreij would stop in to the old location to shop for her family's meals. Eleven years ago, she was asked to cook at the restaurant/marketplace--without any training or professional kitchen experience--and now she heads up the kitchen and catering department with Mazzawi.
Trust us when we tell you, the woman not only knows her hummus from her harissa, but she keeps the kitchen spotless. We thought, in the wake of the anniversary of 9/11 and the recent news about the Koran-burning insanity (the majority population of Lebanon is Muslim), perhaps it was a good time to chat.
New Times: So you have no cooking training at all? How did you learn?
Antoinette Jreij: I got married very young. I was feeding two kids and a husband. If you like it, you figure out these things. I used to bake cookies and cakes when I was young with my friends. I didn't study [cooking] but I believe experience is better than school.
Who were your culinary influences?
I loved my mom's food.
Anything here not homemade?
Some pastries are ordered from the Middle East, but our famous warbat is made every day here.
Filo dough stuffed with cream. People love that one. It's 24 layers up and down, 12 on the bottom and 12 on the top with cream in the center.
And each layer is covered in honey?
So everything is lowfat, I presume?
How is this restaurant related to the Daily Bread in Pinecrest?
The other one is owned by one of the brothers and his kids.
So is the food the same?
It's almost the same food.
Is your kitchen mostly comprised of women?
Actually I have more guys. And the owners are very involved. We all do it together.
They're in the kitchen, too?
What do you believe is the most important advice to impart to a new chef?
You have to stick to the recipes. You have to have a lot of patience and a smile on your face all the time. It's a very hard job.
Who was the most impressive celebrities or dignitaries you've ever cooked for/worked with, or the one person who makes you the most nervous?
I never get nervous when I cook. Everywhere you go you meet people who go to Daily Bread.
Describe your food in a few words.
Healthy, light, familiar, delicious.
Describe yourself in a few words.
I'm an easygoing person. I try my best to make everybody happy.
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Do you hang with any Miami chefs? Who and in what capacity?
With my hours?
Monday we'll cover her memories of working during 9/11, what she loves rolled and raw, and why her food is better than anyone's around.