Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

The Sweetness of Arabia via Small Town Virginia and Arts and Letters

The author, curator at the American Academy of Arts and Letter, grew up in the restaurant business, and hospitality continues to play a vital role in her professional life, as she describes.

Growing up in small town Virginia, neighborhood children of Jewish, Armenian, Greek, Irish, you-name-it descent did everything from making mud pies, building forts in the woods, sledding, and trick-or-treating together.  We were inseparable.  Like other ethnic communities, my family also tried to assimilate: pancake dinners, the country club, carpools, leaving out cookies for Santa, etc.  I was even baptized in the local Methodist church, despite both my parents being of Druze ancestry. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taught the Arabic language and I only know the names of food and curse words as a result.  We still managed to travel a few times to Lebanon as a family and I have vivid memories of those fascinating visits.

Souhad Rafey in her Manhattan kitchen

Souhad Rafey in her Manhattan kitchen

For Arabs, hospitality lies at the heart of who they are. My father owned restaurants and nightclubs (one after another).  Number two was called The Shiek and it had a Middle Eastern theme.  My mother was known for the delicious desserts she made for this establishment.  I have fond memories of listening to great live music at my dad’s club with everyone from Chubby Checker to Fats Domino, and of meeting celebrities like Frank Zappa and the Herman’s Hermits. Pre-rocker Pat Benatar made up part of the house band along with someone accompanying her on a grand piano.  She belted out slow, beautifully pitched songs while guests dined on exquisite Italian cuisine.  On breaks from college, I enjoyed bartending, hostessing, and waiting tables at The Farmer’s Market, my father’s last restaurant.

My mother was an amazing cook and she helped plan the menus throughout my father’s career.  At home, while our neighbors were chowing down on TV dinners and tuna casseroles, the Rafeys were happily trying out the many recipes my mother had gathered from Julia Childs and others.   And my parents entertained often, which had a huge influence on me. It’s always rewarding to share food with friends and family, who appreciate my joy which is a big part of it all.

After I moved to New York in 1984 to complete my degree in Museum Studies, I began taking in my baked goods to share with colleagues at The Hispanic Society and the Cooper Hewitt Museum, where I had internships.  After 30 years, I continue to make the same chocolate cookie crusted cheesecake with its hint of Crème de Menthe and Crème de Cacao, for staff, artists, and art handlers at the American Academy of Arts and Letters.  Along with new artist friends, I’ve added many new recipes to the mix, exchanging recipes with artists who have come in over the years to help install their work for the Academy shows. Bob Yasuda, for instance, is one of the most inventive and adventurous cooks I have encountered.  Justen Ladda gave me a simple recipe for delicious cheese filled popovers that I continue to use; and, in exchange, I gave him seeds from my terrace for the public garden that he designed and maintains on the Lower East Side.  Just last year, Robert Chambers and Mette Tommerup, both having been included in Academy exhibitions, gave me a most unusual cake pan before they returned to Florida.

Following is the simplest recipe for a Middle Eastern dessert I know.  Some call it, Kanafa, while others say, “Kanafi”, or Knefeh…and its origin can also be disputed. Whatever they call it, everyone agrees that it’s delicious!


Kataifi (frozen shredded fillo dough)

2-3 bars butter

orange blossom water



ricotta cheese (2 small containers)

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of


Thaw the Kataifi for an hour.

In a bowl, pull it apart and pour melted butter on top, making sure it soaks through entirely.

Heat ricotta cheese for 5 minutes in a saucepan, on low.

Add 2-3 tsp. orange blossom water and stir

Grease a glass dish or metal pan

Place one layer (1/2) of the buttered dough on the bottom.

Put the ricotta mixture over this

Place the rest of the dough on top of this

Bake at 350 for approximately 40 minutes

To crisp the top, place under the broiler for a short time

For the syrup:

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon lemon juice

2 tsps. orange blossom water

Just as it boils, stir in the lemon juice (which prevents coagulation)

Reduce heat and stir for 5 minutes.

Pour syrup over the layered dessert.

(I like to serve this with ground pistachios on top and mixed berries on the side.)

  • Penelope Andrew

    The author’s lovely article makes a wonderful point about how ethnicity/culture is inseparable from the foods of our past and our family’s history. Also,looks like a great recipe! Enjoyed the musical and food memories of the author’s very interesting childhood and adolescence (Fats Domino! Mom’s desserts! it doesn’t get any better than that). These memories never fade away.

  • the sheik

    I just noticed that her apron says, “The Shiek.”

    • David Cohen

      Your eyesight is better than mine. Perhaps “shiek” is a chic sheik? It was the name, and obviously the spelling, of her father’s Middle Eastern-themed nightclub.

      • Souhad Rafey

        oops! It’s misspelled in the article. It was The Sheik (as on the apron) and that’s my dad on the horse, instead of Rudolph Valentino from the movie by the same name. ha!

        • Ellen Lanyon

          Souhad, you are the very best! I know your Kanafa and it is delicious but then everything you create is so special–including your installations at the American Academy.

        • Rudy Boisseau

          Hi Ban! Rudy Boisseau here. Please contact me via Face Book PM. I had just finished posting about The Sheik and getting to play there when I found this article about you. Love

  • Anita

    Yummmm! I could handle that recipe.

  • Benny

    I can personally attest to the deliciousness of every dish that Souhad bakes, cooks and frets over. I am truly blessed to have her cookies, madeleines and stuffed grape leaves appear like magic during my shifts at the Academy. We all appreciate your talents, Souhad!

  • Myriam de Arteni

    Dear Souhad,

    It is true that your wonderful food is delicious, snack for the gods.
    You should think making this available for the crowds.
    Congratulations and Thank You

  • Bushra

    Dear Souhad;

    Love the article! Thank you for sharing your memories. Having tasted your lovely food over the years, I attest to your wonderful deserts. I miss you! Bushra

  • Osama Abusitta

    I had the privilage of sampling many of Souhad’s delectable creations but I must say that her graciousness extends well beyond good food. Her sense of style in fashion, home, art and antiques is unparalleled; every encounter with Souhad is a revelation.

  • Michele

    Hi Souhad,

    What a wonderful article! Brought back very fond memories (teared up a bit!)and you described our adolescence so beautifully. Thanks you so much for sharing. Hope to see you in July!
    Much Love,

  • Peter Eliades

    Sou-Sou: Your Mother was FIRST known for her beauty and elegance. Her culinary skills were a close second. She was (and still is) a kind and thoughtful person who remembered my love for saffron and made it a point to bring me some from one of her trips to Lebanon… no matter that it is the most expensive spice in the world! I can’t wait to make my first kanafa… sounds delicious.

  • Georges Atty

    Dearest Souhad,

    Lovely photo and interview.
    Your mother is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known, inside and out.
    I only wish I had met your father.

    Your homemade Christmas candy is topped only by your kanafi.
    And when it’s served on your garden terrace, one can hear the oud playing in the background.

    To your friends, you are truly Habibi.


  • Ray Garfinkel

    Sou-Sou, I loved reading your article. I cannot think of a better place to grow up then Hopewell in the 60’s and 70’s. Our neighborhood was quite the ethnic melting pot for a small southern town. I still remember your Dad calling my Mom the “Jewish horse” becuase she was always out doing manual labor in the yard and because she could not get her lazy ass kids to help her.

    My Mom loved your Mom and she could not wait for Nadia to bring over her freshly made tabouli or any other dish she thought our family would enjoy. Your Mom always had something for me to eat everytime I came over to visit and your Dad would always growl at me. Basically, I felt right at home.

    I am glad to see life is good in the big city.

    Take care and come see us soon,


  • Susan van Tongeren

    Taji’s skate buddies and their parents in Tribeca had the good fortune to enjoy Souhad’s famous cheesecake and to this day, she keeps the recipe secret because she made a promise to do that. Every meal at Souhad’s home is an effort of love and we are grateful! And coming from a family where PB&J was on the daily menu, it’s an exotic delight. Hugs from another time zone, x0x0

  • Belinda

    SouSou, what a wonderful article, congrats to you! I love your memorializing of our hometown, and your mom’s graciousness as well. A melting pot indeed, we lived in ! I remember coming over as a child to hang out with Ban, and being served what we called “arabic bread” and “arabic butter” – which was probably… pita bread and maybe hummus or baba ganoush? And the Farmer’s Market and its kitchen were a regular stop for Ban and I when we lived out in the country in the late 70’s. Such memories!

  • Ali Zinat

    A real long shot here.

    Souhad , do you have any pictures of The Shiek Nightclub ?

    Since the late 1960s , my family has rented the space that used to be your fathers nightclub. People still show up , and even call about once a year , to make reservations.

    I can not find a single picture of how the placed look back then, and would love to have one hanging up her at our shop.

    Ali Amir
    Amir Rugs

  • kkollwitz

    I turned 60 last week and remember you from Luxembourg and Belgium in 1981.

    • Souhad Rafey

      omg! I just went to share this recipe with a friend who requested it. Thought I’d attach the link and just happened to see your post (from a year ago!).
      I traveled for three months during that time – please jog my memory and respond to my personal email. Would love to hear more!
      P.S. BTW, Happy belated Bday!