If you ask Sanaa Abourezk if she ever thought she’d be a chef and restaurateur in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, she’d chuckle and tell you no. “I’m from Syria. I didn’t know where South Dakota was. People know of New York and California, not Sioux Falls.” Nevertheless, she is the owner, operator, and head chef of Sanaa’s Gourmet, a mediterranean lunch spot that accommodates a wide variety of dietary needs including vegetarian, vegan and gluten free. Her natural talent for cooking allows her to enjoy what she does. “I could cook for twenty-four hours continuously with complete pleasure. . . . I show up two hours before my staff, I put my music on, and I just cook, and I’m a happy person.”
It certainly wasn’t where she imagined she’d end up. She studied agricultural engineering at Damascus University in her home country of Syria. From there, she zigzagged between Syria and the United States while completing her education, eventually studying English as a second language at Georgetown University and food and nutrition at Cal State Polytechnic in Pomona, California. She even worked at the Qatar Embassy in Washington D.C. where she eventually met her husband, a South Dakota native.
When they relocated to Sioux Falls, she began working as a nutritionist for the WIC program of the South Dakota Department of Health. Unfortunately, she just wasn’t happy doing it. “People only came to me because they had to, not because the wanted to.” Thanks to the encouragement of her husband, she left her unfulfilling job and pursued training in something that made her happy: cooking. She studied baking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and learned to make sauces at a small school in Italy.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
“I wanted to be an artist! But my father said, ‘This is a hobby, not a career. And if you have no career, what can you do?’” She learned early on from her father, who she describes as her hero and a self-made man, that for a woman, a college degree is her insurance. “He believed in women’s education to the extreme. He told me, ‘You always have your dignity if you have a college degree. Even if you don’t work, I want you to get it and put it in the safe. That’s your ticket.’”
Being a chef wasn’t even on her radar until someone suggested it. At a dinner party she hosted, one of the guests made her an intriguing offer. “She said, ‘If I give you a good deal on the rent, would you consider opening a restaurant in my building.’ And I said yes! And that’s how the whole thing started.” Given her academic background and passion for cooking, she was perfectly poised to develop a menu sensitive to dietary restrictions. To avoid cross-contamination, she sterilizes her kitchen before making her popular gluten free bread. “We take [food allergies] really personally. . . . I’m very frugal with my gluten free pita bread because I can’t make it on the spot.”
When the restaurant opened fourteen years ago, people thought she was crazy. Her friends reminded her that South Dakota was a meat and potatoes state and encouraged her to add burgers and fries to her menu. “People considered black pepper too spicy.” Instead, she followed through with her intended mediterranean menu, and it’s a good thing she did. “People are now talking about tabbouleh and hummus. . . . I make sauces with habañero and ghost pepper, and they ask for more!”
For budding entrepreneurs, she has simple but powerful advice: “Learn your business and be passionate about it. You have to be so passionate about it and believe in it so you don’t quit!” She was surprised to learn just how hard she, herself, could work.
While running a restaurant can be extremely rewarding, she acknowledges that there really is no formula for it, and it certainly isn’t easy or glamorous. Some days are crazy busy, others painfully slow. Even so, she knows her employees rely on their income. For this reason, she doesn’t send them home on slow days. It’s all part of being the boss and creating a respectful workplace. She credits this to why her employee turnover rate is so low, which is unusual in the restaurant business. “I’m one of the lucky few. I’ve had my employees for a while, some eight years.”
While she agrees that running a restaurant can be quite a high, she values spending personal time with family and friends. The restaurant used to operate on two shifts, which left her feeling stressed and crabby. Having a life outside of work is key. “Otherwise, you’re on all the time.” Now that she serves lunch only, she’s more easily able to balance work and life.
Just a few of Sanaa’s culinary achievements have been being featured on Food Network’s Beat Bobby Flay season 7, episode 7. She was also recently invited to attend a Chef Camp at the James Beard Foundation.
Interviewed & Written By: Amy Sharp