Yahya Salih doesn't know whether his skills as a chef would be appreciated in his native Mosul, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in northern Iraq. But he has no doubts about San Francisco, where his two popular restaurants feature a dazzling mixture of Mesopotamian and Californian cooking.
The San Francisco Chronicle's food critics last year rated Salih one of the top five chefs in that restaurant-crazed city. His culinary skills have also earned glowing reviews in national magazines like Travel and Leisure.
As for recognition in his homeland, however, even his mother - who taught Salih his basic cooking skills - wouldn't have been impressed. "She was pleased that I went to California and got my degree in industrial design. Cooking - well, it wasn't something she thought a man should do," he says with a sigh.
The amiable Salih, now 40, came to the United States 16 years ago, and chose San Francisco because his older brother Kareem had settled there. His first job was washing dishes at an Indian restaurant, but soon he was cooking. Once enrolled at San Francisco State University, Salih continued to work in restaurants to pay his tuition - and because he loved to cook.
But while Salih was working as chef at the Balboa Cafe, James Beard, guru of American cuisine, dropped by to sample his wares and complimented him, and his talents were noticed by famed restaurateur Jeremiah Tower.
"Tower encouraged me," Salih says. "He liked what I did with sautés, and my blending of Middle Eastern and California flavors. I liked it when people said, 'Wow! What's that?'" One creation that drew that reaction was a potato stuffed with lamb, vegetables and herbs.
So when Salih won his degree in industrial design, he thought only briefly about working in that field. What he really wanted to do was cook and, ultimately, run his own restaurant. In 1987 he got his chance. Borrowing on credit cards, he opened "YaYa Cuisine," a small eatery south of Market Street. Within months, food critics were talking about his beautifully presented Mesopotamian dishes and their colorful sauces.
Today his menus include afattoosh salad of herbs, eggplant, cucumbers and tomatoes, and a perdaplau -a "curtained" or covered rice pilav - made with chicken, almonds, raisins, cardamom and cloves, served in a filo crust with a raspberry sauce. Then there's his version of the traditional Iraqi grilled fish, or mazgoof - a steelhead salmon grilled over mesquite - and a klecha, a date-stuffed ravioli with walnut sauce, garnished with julienned roasted red-pepper strips.
Salih isn't afraid to experiment. His grilled Japanese eggplant with pomegranate sauce - "my own creation" - is mouth-watering.
The first YaYa's did so well that he opened a second one last year on the edge of Golden Gate Park. This restaurant features tiled arches and a large mural of Hammurabi's walled Babylon. "I'm happy that people have responded so well to this blending of Mesopotamian and California cuisine," Salih said. "But what I really want is for my restaurants and food to tell about the culture of my homeland. So many people here have no idea about the great civilizations of the Middle East. In my small way, I'm doing something to correct that."
Brian Clark, a frequent contributor toAramco World, free-lances from his base in Washington state. Yahya Salih's recipes perdaplau and klecha are available on request from the editors of Aramco World.