photo by B.A. Nilsson
Thanks to Denzel Washington, we have a Moroccan restaurant in Schenectady. “I’d signed a lease on a building in Harlem,” says Aneesa Waheed, chef-owner of Tara Kitchen, “when the realtor called me and said that the owner was backing out of the agreement. That’s because Denzel Washington would be filming in the area and wanted to use the space–and would be paying $3,000 a day for it!”
Waheed was upset, “but it was a blessing in disguise. I knew I would have been taking a huge risk, and, in the long run, I don’t think that would have been the place to do it.”
Tara Kitchen opened at the beginning of 2012 at 431 Liberty St., a couple of blocks away from Schenectady’s downtown, with Waheed and her husband, Muntasim Shoaib, putting in backbreaking hours while raising one small child and expecting another.
Waheed has a dynamic presence with an enthusiasm that’s contagious. And the courage to give up a very lucrative career. “I worked in publishing in New York City for ten years, but my life revolved around food. If I wasn’t thinking about what or where to eat, I was watching the Food Network. I grew up with seeing my mother cooking all the time. Indian culture revolves around food. While you’re eating breakfast, you’re planning lunch and dinner.”
Even while she worked her corporate job, she was exploring entrepreneurial options. “I sold products at street fairs in New York,” she says. “I’d be up at 6 AM on a Saturday, pack a minivan and sell clothing and jewelry imported from India. But I really wanted to open that restaurant.”
When the Harlem property fell through, Waheed took a fateful vacation. “Two girlfriends and I decided to visit a part of the world we’d never seen before, which turned out to be Morocco.” The trip took them to Casablanca, Rabat, Fes, and other cities–including Marrakech, where she met the man who would become her husband.
“Although he was living in Morocco, he was from Pakistan, and we discovered that we had much in common. We married in 2007 and he emigrated to the U.S. in 2008.”
She continued her street-fair selling, “but after I met Muntasim, I added items from Pakistan and Morocco. So we looked at the idea of opening a boutique in Manhattan, but during a visit to my parents in Niskayuna we realized we could do the same thing here for a fraction of the price.”
Her parents, too, had succumbed to the restaurant dream. “In 2008, they learned that the Taj Mahal restaurant on Jay Street was for sale and they thought: Why not? My father had a career in hotel management and my mother worked in health services, but she’s a wonderful cook and always dreamed of having a restaurant.” Taj Mahal moved to its present location, on Schenectady’s Clinton Street, three years ago.
“I opened Tara Boutique on State Street in 2008, and it was successful right away. Even during the awful financial crisis of 2008, it was paying its bills.” Meanwhile, Waheed and Shoaib began selling food at the Schenectady Greenmarket. “We started with Indian food and then added Moroccan dishes. That became a great incubator for the restaurant, and I always tell people who want to open their own place that they should start at the Greenmarket. You get great feedback and you develop a customer base.” She and her husband soon added catering to their offerings, and felt ready to move when the space on Liberty Street became available in 2011.
They were able to live above the restaurant at first, but as the business and the family grew, they found a house nearby. The plan is eventually to expand seating into that upstairs space, and Waheed is pursuing the idea of opening another restaurant in Troy.
Waheed also has created a line of Tara Kitchen products, including preserved lemons, parsley or tomato chermoula, spicy date marinade, Moroccan tomato jam, harissa, and ras-el-hanout, the last-named a spice blend that characterizes Moroccan cuisine. They’re available at the restaurant and other retail outlets, and online at tarakitchen.com and amazon.com. “We ship all over the country,” she says with a note of surprise, “including Alaska and Hawaii.”
She tries to be an active community presence as well. “They have given so much to us that we try to give back whenever we can. For instance, I’ll be donating a cooking class to a fundraiser at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in March, part of a program they’re calling ‘Passport to Morocco.’” She also presents cooking classes at the restaurant, often up to four times a month–and those classes are booked solid through February.
“In the beginning, I was more self-conscious about what I was doing, but now the fact that so many people approve of this has given me much more confidence. We’ve expanded our hours–we’re now serving dinner on weekends until 10–and I’m looking forward to making some changes in the menu. We opened with a very basic set of choices in order to introduce our customers to the cuisine, but now, five years into it, I’d like to offer more complexity of flavors. There’s so much Moroccan food to explore!”