When Guy Fieri Saved a Syrian Restaurant in Tennessee
Before Guy Fieri started saving restaurants hit by the pandemic, he saved a Syrian restaurant on the brink of collapse
Riyad Alkasem was desperate.
It was 2010, and his restaurant was on the brink of closure, and with it, his dream. Riyad had arrived in America 20 years earlier, pulled from his home in Raqqa, Syria, by the promise of American democracy. Here, he’d built a family and a home, and in 2007, he’d opened a restaurant in Hendersonville, Tennessee, cooking for Southern palates the food his Syrian grandmother used to make. He called it Café Rakka, and he viewed it as a kind of bet. On himself, sure, but also on the limits of human openness and curiosity. His strategy was built on a simple idea. Anywhere on this planet, on any street corner or in any strip mall, you can find people who want food to transport them to undiscovered worlds. By giving people a plate, Riyad believed, he could take them with him to the Syrian desert. Here in Tennessee he would continue the work of his ancestors, providing sustenance for strangers as an invitation to build a common home.
But now that dream was about to crumble. The economy had plunged into recession, entering the worst period for restaurants to that point in modern history. (Though with the Covid-19 pandemic, conditions would get even worse a decade later.) Riyad had built up a base of loyal customers, but it wasn’t enough. One Friday, he gathered his staff and told them he didn’t know if he could continue to pay them. He took a walk with his wife that night by the lake near their home, and she told him, “You are not a failure.” Riyad nodded and tried to believe this was true.
A few days later, around noon, the phone rang. It was a producer from the Food Network. He wanted to talk about coming to Tennessee.
The trucks arrived early one morning in April 2010, parking in the lot and unloading cameras and mics. Riyad had never seen anything like it. So many people, each one affixed to his or her own piece of impossibly expensive equipment. So much energy so early in the morning, and there, emerging from a limo, was the man around whom the entire system seemed to orbit. He walked straight toward Riyad and looked him in the eye.
“Hi,” he said. He was squat and well fed, his hair in blond spikes. “I’m Guy Fieri.”
Riyad knew who he was. He’d watched his television show, Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, using it as a window into other kitchens. Now Guy Fieri was here to take viewers into Riyad’s.
“Hi,” he said, “I’m Chef Rakka.”
Riyad extended his hand, but Guy Fieri pulled his back. “Listen,” he said, “I’m not feeling good today.” He didn’t want to shake Riyad’s hand because he had a cold. “So, here’s what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna shoot for 90 minutes, maybe two hours, and then we’re gonna get out of here.”
“Okay,” Riyad said. “That’s fine.”
That was not fine. Riyad had been waiting months for this day. Ever since he’d gotten that very first phone call from the producer, he’d held on to the belief that one visit from Guy Fieri would turn his restaurant around. Yes, things had picked up, slightly, since the day he’d told his staff he couldn’t pay them. The recession had ended. The recovery had begun. He’d returned to a regular pay schedule, and even if there were a few close calls, he’d managed to pay the bills every month. But still he knew they were always one slow month away from returning to the brink. He needed whatever boost Fieri and his audience could provide.
Before Fieri arrived, a producer talked with Riyad at length about what they would record. He wanted Riyad to make filet mignon kebabs, cooked on a salt block. And he would need to cook them twice — once with Fieri, once with only the producers, to be used for b-roll. The end product would show the two shots, spliced together. A filet, though, would cost Riyad about $120. He had only enough money to buy one. So, days before the shoot, he asked his mother-in-law to loan him money, and she did. He needed it. Linda needed it. They needed everything to be perfect when Guy Fieri came to town.
And now Guy Fieri was sick. So sick that he wanted to leave after 90 minutes, not the six hours they’d scheduled. The less time they were in the restaurant, Riyad worried, the less time he’d be on the show. Or what if Fieri remained lethargic, and the material they shot came out weak, and Café Rakka didn’t make it into the episode at all?
Now Fieri rumbled through the restaurant, eyeing Riyad’s setup. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “We’re gonna do a full walk-through. If I see something in here that I don’t like, something that makes me think my viewers are gonna be disappointed if they show up, then I’m walking away.”
Riyad said he understood. He respected it. Fieri wanted to do right by his audience.
“Don’t bring me some dish you cooked yesterday,” Fieri said. “Don’t bring me some dish you cooked at home. You’re gonna cook it right, and you’re gonna cook it here.”
“Good,” Fieri said. He turned around and kept walking through the restaurant, opening cabinets, looking under countertops, taking inventory of knives and produce, ovens and spices and meats.
At one point, while Riyad was talking with a producer, he heard Fieri calling from the back room, “Where’s the chef? Bring me the chef!”
Riyad rushed back to find Fieri, standing in front of an old freezer. “What is this?”
Riyad sidled up to Fieri. Together, they looked inside the freezer, where there was no meat, no ice, but instead stacks upon stacks of fine china.
“Well,” Riyad said, “we didn’t have a china cabinet. But we had a freezer. So we just decided to use that instead.” The freezer hadn’t been plugged in since the day they opened. It was clean and spacious, so for Riyad, it became a cabinet.
Riyad watched Fieri’s cheeks swell, his face opening up into his first smile of the morning.
“All right,” he said, looking not at Riyad but at the china. “There’s something funky about this place.”
He turned back to his producer. “Let’s get to work.”
Riyad had another idea. He went digging through his spice rack until he found what he needed: the Euphrates wildflower. He’d known it since he was a boy. During his childhood, on many Fridays, his family would spend an afternoon driving deep into the desert. They would take food and blankets and find a spot for a picnic, sitting under the sun and eating cheese and olives, hummus and bread. After lunch, they would go exploring, often in the ruins of the ancient village called Resafa.
Resafa had long been abandoned, because as centuries passed and climate patterns shifted, it came to sit on the wrong side of the rain line. Now there was no vegetation, nothing but rock and soil and the bones of a once-mighty fortress. Underneath Resafa, the Romans had built a network of wells, and now those wells had turned to caves, and some of the caves sloped gradually, becoming gentle walkways that ran from the surface deep into the earth, and there, Riyad found the most gorgeous flowers he’d ever seen. They were bright red and five-petaled and wide open, their colors a rebuke to the desert’s desolation. The grown-ups passed down myths about the flowers. They said the red color came from the blood of the warriors who’d once defended the city from foreign invaders, that the flowers could be found nowhere else but here, that the strength of the city’s protectors now lived in the flowers’ petals, reborn every spring.
He grabbed Riyad’s shirt. “That tea,” he said, “is magic.”
Riyad would reach down and yank them from the earth, and late in the afternoons, they would return to their home in Raqqa. There they would lay out the flowers, letting them dry for months, so that in winter, the blood of the martyrs could be used for an elixir. Riyad’s grandmother swore it could cure most anything. Sick tea, she called it. When Riyad got colds as a boy, he would take a few sips of the drink and feel his body melt. Sweat dripped down his forehead. He became light, lifted out from underneath his physical fog. As an adult, he realized that the drink did little more than make him sweat, expunging toxins from his pores. But still, it felt medicinal. Every time Riyad got sick in America, he’d wished desperately that he had a few cups of sick tea. And so he’d called Bashar and asked him if he could send some of the Euphrates wildflower so Riyad could make the tea on his own.
His brother had gone out into the desert and ventured into those same caves they used to explore as boys, and he’d picked the flowers and stuffed them into pillowcases, and then he’d sent the pillowcases from Raqqa to Tennessee.
So now, as Guy Fieri continued walking through the restaurant, Riyad knew what to do. He went digging for the flower. He found a mug and a kettle, and he made the same mix he always had. Euphrates wildflower and hot water. Nothing else.
He approached Fieri. “Here,” he said. “Drink this.”
Fieri looked at him, curious but questioning. “What’s in it?”
Fieri shrugged. And then he drank. He roamed the room, studying everything, strategizing with producers, but after a few minutes, his energy seemed to lift. His walk became a bounce, his face fixed with the omnipresent grin Riyad had seen on TV. He looked as if, finally, his body could breathe.
He grabbed Riyad’s shirt. “That tea,” he said, “is magic.”
He stayed. Not 90 minutes, not two hours, but six and a half. He sat at a table out front with the Oak Ridge Boys and with Ricky Skaggs, talking to the country music legends about this desert boy’s food. “We kinda like that international flavor,” said William Lee Golden, the Oaks’ 71-year-old baritone, an Alabama native with long white hair and an even longer white beard.
“This is fine stuff right here,” said Skaggs, in his own Kentucky twang, looking up from his dish with his own mop of white hair.
The producers shot his rotating cast of regulars. A middle-aged woman declared it the best falafel she’d ever had. Another said to the camera, “The chef is just amazing.” A man wearing a backward cap, a long goatee, and two hoop earrings talked about Café Rakka as his and his wife’s Wednesday date-night tradition. Both were white, both were Hendersonvillians, and both spoke in thick Southern accents as they praised this Arab man’s food.
Fieri moved back to the kitchen. Nearly a decade later, Fieri would spearhead efforts to keep restaurants afloat during the midst of yet another recession, this one induced by the spread of a global pandemic. On this day in 2010, in the wake of an earlier downturn, he stood with Riyad and together they made lamb korma and filet mignon kebab, as well as the ancient recipe Riyad called homemade “farmer’s cheese.” Fieri even agreed to keep parts of the process secret, the parts that Riyad believed belonged only to the people of the desert.
After taking a bite, sandwiched between a mint leaf and a slice of tomato, Fieri looked up at Riyad. “You’re incredible.”
Riyad looked back, locked in a nervous and goofy smile. “I’m glad you like it.”
Fieri turned to the camera. “What a cool dude.”
At the end, when it was finally time to wrap up the shoot and move on to the next dive, Fieri shook Riyad’s hand and turned to the camera once more: “You guys are gonna love this place.”
They shot in April. The episode aired in October. Days later, Riyad looked out from his kitchen and saw a line stretching from the counter to the door.