You’d think a North African restaurateur and chef would find himself out of work in Wisconsin, a state that turned red for Donald Trump of all republicans, after a 6-cycle Democratic streak. But Sami Fgaier is no ordinary North African, and he is one of Madison, Wisconsin’s most celebrated chefs. “When it comes to food, if it tastes and looks good, people are going to love it. I don't think people will discriminate against food if it comes from a different culture,” he contends.
Born in the Kerkennah Islands off the coast of Tunisia, Fgaier settled in Madison, Wisconsin after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in business and computer science from Lakeland University. It only took 5 weeks at a computer firm for him to finally trade his white collar for a toque. “I didn't enjoy it and didn't want to do it for the rest of my life, I couldn't stand being in an office 5 days a week, 9-5. So a friend of mine and I decided to set up a joint venture. Him being a chef, and I the business mind, we came up with the idea of opening up a restaurant, Le Chardonnay,” he recounts.
Shortly after the restaurant opened in 2003, Fgaier’s business partner threw in the towel. “I found myself in the kitchen with my apron on, and I had to keep going, I couldn't stop,” he says. “I used everything I remembered from being around my mother cooking, since a younger age, and taking people’s advice.”
Fgaier positioned Le Chardonnay as one of Madison’s culinary landmarks. By 2009, the city’s food critics had crowned Le Chardonnay Madison’s Best French Restaurant, and Fgaier had worn himself to a shadow. “I was putting in a lot of hours – 97 hours a week, sometimes. I decided to just quit and stop because it was too much to handle,” he says.
Nowadays, people are showing off their plate like the shoes they buy. People are showing their personalities through the food pictures they take.
But quitting isn’t exactly congruent with the American Dream. Soon after Le Chardonnay closed its doors, Fgaier moved to greener pastures. After a short stint at the Hilton, Fgaier enrolled in the prestigious Cordon Bleu in Paris, and went on to launch his own catering company, Le Personal Chef. “About 8 years ago, I posted on my Facebook, basically telling my friends if you’re interested in having a nice dinner at your home, get me the food and I’ll cook it for free,” he recounts. “Within minutes, a good friend of mine who has a lot of friends said, ‘Me! Me! Me!’”
From an intimate dinner party of 12 in 2009, Fgaier became one of the state’s most sought after caterers - governors and social luminaries were lining up for a taste of Fgaier’s exotic creations. “We went from catering 2 events a month and now people are booking a year in advance,” he says astounded.
As Fgaier was taking a quantum leap, so too was society, whose perception of food went from fuel, to pleasure, and finally to self-expression. “Nowadays, people are showing off their plate like the shoes they buy. I think there is a statement behind that. When you share a picture of you eating Couscous, maybe you’re showing that you’re adventurous, trying something different. Maybe you are eating whole wheat toast with avocado, and showing that you are becoming a healthy eater,” he says. “People are showing their personalities through the food pictures they take. Food is different now. We take pictures of food, we post it, we share it, and we talk about it. It’s definitely changing.”
Fgaier’s claim to internet celebrity came last February, when a post about a private Tunisian dinner party he’d arranged for a friend went viral among industry insiders, inspiring renewed interest in the country’s culinary heritage. Since the frenzy of interest that post ignited, he's launched a number of workshops, mainly in his home state of Wisconsin, to edify fellow chefs and amateur cooks and show them the Tunisian way.
Americans don’t know much about Tunisia, let alone Tunisian cuisine
Before Fgaier, purveyors of Tunisian delights in the United States were few and far between – most notably Los Angeles’ exalted Moun of Tunis. “Americans don’t know much about Tunisia, let alone Tunisian cuisine,” he says.
The time is now ripe for Fgaier to add one more ingredient to America’s melting pot of ethnic cuisines, a feat he intends to accomplish with a measure of focus-group-tested politics. “French cuisine is the mother of all cuisines, they have it down to a science, and I feel that that science can be applied to any cuisine. We can apply those techniques to Tunisian food and make it more brilliant and more fine-tuned,” he says.
This extrapolation of French techniques may seem like an attempt to water down or strip Tunisian food of its authenticity, something Fgaier pleads not guilty to, arguing that it’s all about the optics. “I’ll give you an example, fish – on my island, we do a little bit of sea salt and cumin and grill the whole fish, we can change that to just the fillet which will have a much nicer presentation. There is a lot of flavor in the head of the fish, but we can extract that through French techniques,” he explains. “We take all the bones out. Then the head and bones, we can cook those in a fumet de poisson. We extract the broth and we use it to make a sauce for the fish. It's still Tunisian, still Mediterranean fish, but it is very fine-tuned. You are going to have that same flavor profile, same flavor combination, but presented in a much nicer way.”
As American society navigates its current socio-political labyrinth of identity politics, food is emerging as yet another area for improvement when it comes to the issue of inclusion and diversity, which eventually trickle down to everyone’s digital footprint. And this culture of oversharing and the subsequent digitization of food as a form of socio-visual rhetoric have certainly served Fgaier well. “Nowadays, if you are not on social media, you are pretty much non-existent. Social media is basically like let me see what you got, show me your pictures, the language you use, who you are, show me your life. People want to know who you are, where you come from, where you travelled last month and why!” he exclaims.
When he is not being flown halfway across the world to cater lavish events – the kind where the hosts also fly in their own personal sommeliers (true story), Fgaier promotes Tunisian cuisine in Trump’s America. He is also debuting a series of public soirées, Taste of Tunisia, in Madison because no one can ban Harissa and Brik.
Follow Sami Fgaeir on Instagram @SamiTheChef!
Photos courtesy of Sami Fgaier.