Shish owner Leo Judeh values quality food and welcoming atmosphere

By Ellie Craig

Leo Judeh and his new bride, Beth, never thought they would be opening a restaurant the day they saw a “For Lease” sign in the window at 1668 Grand Ave.”We had been married two days and were walking to Dunn Brothers to get a coffee before our honeymoon when we saw the sign,” Judeh said. “We knew this would be our honeymoon.”

Judeh came to the United States to box in the 1996 Olympics. He eventually moved from Atlanta to San Francisco, where his brothers owned two restaurants, and finally ended up in St. Paul.

Shish opened a little over a year ago. Judeh immediately liked the vibe of the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood and had noticed a lack of Middle Eastern restaurants and cafs in the Twin Cities.

Judeh’s commitment to good food is nothing less than passionate. In an interview, he spoke of the meaning and ritual that were attached to food in his home.

When guests came, he said, hosts had to cook an elaborate meal for them. Turkish coffee was a staple, but was served differently for different occasions: sweet at weddings, medium-sweet for guests, and bitter for deaths.

Of course, things at home have changed for the worse since Judeh left.

“Home is a sad place right now,” he said. “People there aren’t living well.”

Hesitant to discuss politics, but always one to think about good food, Judeh discussed food as emblematic of conflict in the Middle East.

“Falafel is neither Israeli nor Palestinian,” he said. “No one should claim food.”

“Lebanon and Syria are like Wisconsin and Minnesota,” he said.

His advice for people in the Middle East: “Live, love, and eat in peace instead of fighting.”

Inspired by the Middle Eastern cafs and restaurants of the Bay Area and his home of Jerusalem, Judeh set out to a create a caf where people could come and relax, eat home-cooked food, and feel as if they were part of a community.

“The whole point of opening this restaurant is to present a culture,” he said. “Food is a great way to communicate.”

If food is a sort of communication, this neighborhood speaks Shish’s language.

“I’m proud of what we have done in here,” Judeh said. “It used to be a warehouse.”

In addition to his passion, Judeh attributes his success to his commitment to high quality food.

Whether it is serving eggs purchased from local farmers or ensuring that Shish’s coffee is fairly-traded, he believes in using quality, organic products.

“For me, it is about the flavor and quality of the ingredients, though they are more expensive,” Judeh said. “Back home, you deal only with local farmers, you are used to the taste and quality. I believe you can taste the difference.”

With that in mind, Judeh has chosen to work with a local ranch, buying his meats, except for the gyros, fresh. None of the meats used in Shish’s burgers or kabobs are ever frozen. (Gyro is also the only item on the menu that is not Kosher.)

Shish’s menu offers a variety of innovative dishes, many vegetarian options, and food that isn’t available anywhere else in the area.

“No one does [Turkish coffee] like we do in the Twin Cities,” Judeh said.

Judeh hopes to expand the breakfast menu from its current offerings. There are many traditional breakfast items from Jerusalem to which people in this area have never been exposed.

But at Shish, Judeh insisted, it isn’t all about the food.

“I think dealing with the neighbors, the way it feels like a community, seeing the repeat customers that has been the best experience so far,” Judeh said.

Though the hours are long, he enjoys every moment.

“Seeing people of all cultures come together-[such as Macalester] international students because people love food and home cooking-it makes me satisfied,” he said.

Judeh thinks that working with Macalester is important to his restaurant. He said that support from students and faculty has played a large part in the continuing success of Shish.

“It can look like a ghost town around here sometimes,” said Judeh. “The college gives the neighborhood a different flavor.”

Judeh said he has big plans to continue to work with local farms, creating a good network of organic producers for his caf. Furthermore, he hopes to make Shish feel like the cafs of his home, he said, where people can relax and enjoy good conversation, rather than feel rushed and pressured to spend money.

“I invite all students to come, use the Internet, the space as much as they can,” said Judeh. “I want to make it affordable, so they can try the coffee and enjoy the space.