Restaurant owner offers more than Shawarma
Owner of popular Gonzales Lebanese restaurant Kamal's Kafé, Kamal Zaher, is easily picked out of a crowd. If it's not his height, than it's his voice that attracts attention. And if all that fails, try the Chicken Shawarma, and see if you can forget about it.
Kamal did not always live in Gonzales, but he has for the past 14 years.
"We used to live in Shenandoah," Kamal said. "We moved to Dutchtown for the school."
Moreover, he has two children. Both are graduates of Dutchtown High. His son Khalil works as a police officer for the Ascension Parish Sheriff's Office. His daughter, Samira Nguyen, works with her husband Paul at Nguyen Dental in Prairieville.
Paul and Samira have a two-and-a-half-year-old son, Knox. Khalil is recently married to his wife, Shelby. They are expecting a daughter.
"I cannot wait," Kamal said. "So proud of both of my kids."
Kamal came to Louisiana at 18-19 years old, he said. Born and raised in Lebanon, he went to LSU. He explains that he got his degree in electrical engineering, and when he finished to return home, his mother and father were living in Kuwait. This is a tumultuous memory.
"During the invasion when Iraq took over Kuwait, my dad lost everything and went back to Lebanon," Kamal said. "And it took me 17 days to find out my daddy, my momma, my brother, my brother, my brother, their kids, and my two sisters were alive. It took me 17 days. I'm listening to the news. I even called the state department. I said, 'Man, I know the area, I'll speak the language. Please, send me over there. I'll help y'all.'"
The conflict was over long before an official military training could take place. His family moved back to his home town in Lebanon.
"We had a house there," he said. "When I first heard from my dad I was like holy cow! Thank you, Lord! Y'all are safe!"
His mother passed away five years ago, on October 10. His father is 86.
"He's in good health, but it can take it's toll when you lose somebody after being married for fifty-plus years."
He has a big family back home. He goes to visit them once a year.
"I used to go during the holidays," he said. "But now I go in October. We do a big memorial service for my mom. We feed so many people."
Kamal explained how he managed to go from electrical engineering school into the restaurant biz. It began when he had to learn English in his first year. He passed the TOEFL course in the first year and was in the university.
"I worked during college at the Bellemont Hotel," Kamal said. "That was one of the top hotels. They called it 'The Great Hall.' At that time, every football team, every politician, every celebrity--they come to Baton Rouge, play at LSU or Southern Universty--guess what? They stay at the Bellemont Hotel."
The Bellemont was demolished in 2012. Once, famous baseball manager of the Dodgers, Tommy Lasorda, gave Kamal an autographed baseball on the job. At the time, Kamal could not identify Lasorda, but he remembered that he liked the gumbo.
"I had no idea who he was--oh, they scored." In the middle of this story, he paused. Kamal was sitting at the bar of the restaurant during the interview. Bayern Munich had scored a goal. "I cannot believe that! I don't like Bayern Munich," he said.
Kamal went back to the Lasorda story. He claims to have turned around and gave the signed baseball to a young kid he saw.
"Man, if I had that ball," he said.
He was interrupted three times over the course of an hour by people coming to the restaurant looking for donations. Two seemed to be raising money for their classrooms. He asked one of his employees to get $25 dollars. His son Khalil also stopped by to say hello on his way into duty.
"Anything for the teachers," Kamal said.
After graduation he worked for Ramada hotels, then at a casino for 10 years. He said he hated it. He wanted to open a restaurant.
A local restaurant owner at the time before Kamal's opened told him he would not be able to open a restaurant. That was nearly 13 years ago.
"He challenged me," he said. "When I was doing construction and planning here in Ascension a lot of people told me, 'Kamal, you're gonna close in five or six months. People are not going to eat at a Lebanese restaurant.' But I'll tell you what, it took a little bit of hard work. Nothing comes easy.
"You know what I believe? This is America--GOAL! YES! YES! YES! WHOO! YES!"
Kamal got excited, mid-sentence. Real Madrid scored. It was a complete thought, after all. After the excitement and the Shawarma plate cooled down, Kamal began to speak of Lebanese people. He is proud to say that his restaurant is strictly Lebanese food. But he is proud to be both Lebanese and American.
"I have relatives in beautiful places," he said. "Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Brazil--Lebanese people travelled all over the world. We are the Phoenician. We discovered the ship. With the ocean, we attacked the three big A's: America, Africa, and Australia. Do you know that in Lebanon there are 4.8 million [Lebanese]? In Brazil there are 6.9 million."
Next, Kamal got an employee to mark the best things on the menu at the restaurant for someone who is new to Lebanese cuisine. Fried Cheese, Chicken Shawarma, The Ultimate Salad, Chicken Delight, and Mediterranean Chicken were suggested.
One thing cannot be denied, Kamal is an American success story. He even speaks publicly to motivate students. He begins by trying to explain how hard it was for him to begin his life in America, not knowing English. He demonstrates by asking the students to read something in Arabic.
"I get them motivated," he said. "I get them excited. Think of driving in your car. Your front windshield is very big. The big picture. So why would you try to make your path by looking in the rearview mirror?"
Rather than listening to songs, he says that he listens to prayer and motivational speakers in the morning. Last year, he was injured in a car accident after a truck plowed into the back of his car.
Lastly, Kamal is thankful for the support of Gonzales and Ascension Parish. During the flood, he donated a 40-percent portion of a day's restaurant sales to the church in support of flood victims.
"We had the whole house full . . . I love Ascension," he said. "If they love you, they will really support you. I love the three high schools, the kids, the things they do, the teachers, the churches--
"--GOAAALLLLL YES! YES! YES! WHOOOOO!"
Madrid scored again. They went up 4-2 over Munich.