CLEVELAND, OHIO — For almost 20 years, Doug Katz was a one-restaurant guy. Every bit of talent, inspiration, moxie, and charm he possessed was poured into Fire Food and Drink, his iconic, celebrated dining emporium that helped revive venerable and vulnerable Shaker Square when it needed it most.
On Saturday nights, the restaurant sparkled with glamour rare in the Cleveland restaurant world. It was the automatic reservation for every family celebration for many of East Siders, and it was where you schlepped to when you sought a side of panache with your weekend brunch.
Everyone on the well-polished staff may not have known your name, but chances were good that Katz did. Working the room tirelessly almost every night, he was the James Brown of Cleveland chef-owners. Chatting up the newbies, debriefing the regulars, serving up the entrees and then bussing the dishes. No restaurateur kept his ear closer to the customer base than Katz. And it paid off. His unique brand of innovative hyper-seasonal world cuisine marked by rich indulgent flavors achieved cult status over those two decades.
Then last fall, after several years of research and reflection, Katz opened Zhug, his personalized small-plate take on Mideastern food. From the day the door first opened at 12413 Cedar Rd. in Cleveland Heights, Zhug was, literally, a roaring success. A cacophony of music and noise spilled out into the neighborhood as the spill-over of waiting customers (and there was almost always waiting customers) enlivened and enriched the bars and bookshop nearby.
Life was mighty fine until this March, when the coronavirus pandemic officially hit, and in one unimaginable edict from the state capital, dining out in Cleveland came to a full dead stop. We’re not going to unzip body bags here but suffice it to say the city is still littered with the culinary carnage.
Everybody missed at least a beat or two. However, Katz was one of the first to turn his business towards whatever light was left. He shut down Fire for what he thought would be an eight-week hiatus, but within days, he had converted Zhug into a total take-out, curbside and delivery establishment. He admits he was not totally taken by surprise by the turn of events.
“Back in early January,” he relates, “out of the blue, my director of operations, Todd Thompson, asked if I had any contingency plans, just in case. We laughed about it at the time, but the seed had been planted and we had some time to think it through.”
Soon, carry-out exclusive Zhug, named for the fiery Middle Eastern hot sauce that’s an essential element of the cuisine, was running smoothly, with curried lamb hummus, prawns with mejadra rice, beet salads and zhug burgers flowing out the door.
Katz turned his attention to another concept that would have ordinarily taken, well, longer, but was up and running by mid-June. Chimi, short for chimichurri, an equally indispensable culinary component, this time a piquant parsley-based sauce of South American origin, launched in mid-June.
Its home base was Katz’s enormous and then-moribund catering kitchen at 1975 Lee Rd., Cleveland Heights, near Cain Park. Officially his first ghost kitchen, there is, as they say, no there, there. Just a commissary and a pick-up point, about as stripped down as a culinary enterprise can be. And with just word-of-mouth and some good social media, Chimi started chugging away, with an array of Katz-inspired South American small plates as iconoclastic and personal as those across town (well, on the other side of Cleveland Heights anyway) and a half-world away culinary-wise as Zhug.
In mid-August, Katz made the decision to officially close down Fire for good. It was like a death in the family for many, and Katz acknowledged that. “No matter when, or if, it opened again, it couldn’t be the same way it was, and I wasn’t willing to go halfway. So, I put it to rest and now it’s at peace, and we have our amazing memories. When we can, we’ll create new experiences that will be different.”
In the meantime, Zhug, Chimi, and Chutney B., his bare-bones Indian-inspired mini-menu kiosk at Van Aken Marketplace in Shaker Heights, are keeping busy. Plus, he has another unnamed Indian-themed ghost kitchen based on the same model as Chimi and running out of the same venue, in the works for mid-October.
Things seem to be looking as good as they could get for any restaurateur who is responding to the pandemic by not re-opening as an in-house venue right now. But as Katz says, “I’ve taken a huge pay cut, really no salary this year, and am doing this all with a staff of 12 to 15, mostly managers. It’s keeping my businesses open, but it’s really not sustainable for long. If this were to go on for three years, I’d find a new career.”
Hopefully, that dire circumstance won’t arise, though Katz has recently appointed himself as the main delivery guy for the restaurants, and supposedly he does a pretty good job. Tips, he says, are good, and help boost the tip jar’s bottom line.
But a more likely sustainable scenario is the re-opening of Zhug, and a brick-and -mortar rendition of Chimi sometime in the spring of next year. He also hopes to open some other pop-up kitchens that are easy to replicate. But don’t look for anything that looks elegant and upscale.
“This (current model) is sort of fun and it’s much easier. I don’t long for putting big plates together anymore. With the new places, people can mix and match to their taste, that’s more of my interest now as well. Elegant clubby restaurants will have their place, but there will be fewer of them. There’s just not enough people to sustain them.”
When it’s all said and done, Katz concludes, “We loved Fire, but in this business you have to be a phoenix. It’s time to look forward with re-invention. The dining experience can take many forms, and I’m happy as long as we can give people an authentic experience, using quality ingredients and utilizing local suppliers. I’m here and ready for the evolution of these times.” So are we.”
For a taste of Doug Katz’s cuisine, here’s a few recipes from the restaurants you can make at home. Consider them a gateway to the many and varied edible opportunities awaiting you at Chimi, Zhug, Chutney B., and whatever else is in the works in Katzland.
This utterly irresistible gluten-free and vegan dip is a melding of savory, sweet and slightly smoky, with the fruity, yet decidedly spicy, kick of Aleppo pepper, named for the ancient city along the Silk Road in northern Syria, from where the recipe originates. Use it as well as a spread for earthy heat when making sandwiches or as a flavor-flattering topping for grilled fish or vegetables.
One large clove garlic, finely minced
1½ teaspoons salt
1 cup walnuts
3 medium-large red bell peppers, roasted and skinned (you can also use 20 oz. of jarred roasted red peppers)
2 tablespoons pomegranate molasses (see note below)
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1½ tablespoons Aleppo pepper (see note below)
1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon smoked paprika (see note below)
Fresh mint, leaves torn in pieces if large
A drizzle of pomegranate molasses
A handful of chopped toasted walnuts
A tablespoon or two of crumbled goat cheese
Mash garlic and salt together with a fork or knife blade until it resembles a paste. Place in medium mixing bowl. Put walnuts into a food processor and pulse just until finely ground. Add drained peppers and all other ingredients. Pulse until coarsely ground and then add to mixing bowl with garlic paste. Mix well and return to food processor and process briefly. Return to mixing bowl, taste for sweetness and acidity and correct seasonings if necessary.
Spread in thin layer on a large plate and top with as many garnishes as you like. Serve with pita or naan and/or a platter of vegetables, raw or cooked.
Note: These ingredients are available at Middle Eastern supply stores, spice specialty spice stores, some grocery stores, and online. Trust, but verify, call to confirm items are in stock before leaving home.
Chimi’s Aji Verde Sauce
Recipes for aji (sauce) vary dramatically throughout South America. Chimi’s is a bold, brilliantly flavored, version with just enough heat and filled with the summery tastes of cilantro and fresh lime juice. It adds piquancy and spice to any savory dish but is extra good with grilled chicken. For a particularly well-matched pairing, see the hand-picked recipe below.
2 cups of cilantro, packed
1 jalapeno, chopped, seeds and inner ribs removed
2 garlic cloves, chopped
½ teaspoon salt
2 scallions, chopped
4 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 cup mayonnaise
1 teaspoon honey
Combine all ingredients in a blender and puree until smooth, scrape down sides halfway through processing. Scrape into bowl, stir and taste. Adjust with lime juice and salt if desired. Serve as a sauce with the recipe below or as a topping for rice and beans or a dip for crusty bread and crudités.
Peruvian Grilled Chicken
This grilled chicken, mildly spicy and beautifully glazed, features perfect crisp skin and tender juicy meat. The soy sauce is an homage to the Asian influence in Peruvian cooking, brought by Chinese laborers in the mid-19th century.
3 lb. chicken, cut in serving-size pieces
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon honey
1 tablespoon cumin
2 teaspoons paprika or smoked paprika
1 teaspoon coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano (or 1 tablespoon fresh)
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon soy sauce
Combine all ingredients in a large bowl. Mix thoroughly and add chicken pieces.
Stir to ensure that the chicken is thoroughly and evenly coated and then cover and refrigerate for several hours or overnight to allow the flavors to develop fully. When ready to cook, pre-heat grill to medium-high, 400-450 degrees F.
Sear chicken on all sides until golden brown and then turn down heat to medium, 350 degrees, and finish cooking to desired doneness. (Adapted from Feasting at Home)