By Jared Janzen
BURRTON—Ayman Al-Barakat believes food brings people together.
“When you introduce your culture by your food, it breaks a lot of barriers or stigmas,” he said.
Al-Barakat, a native of Jordan, has been manager of Burrton’s Dollar General since it opened in February 2019. In recent weeks, though, he’s donned a new hat in the city as a guest chef at The Barn.
In August, he started cooking weekly lunch specials every Wednesday. Al-Barakat said he has six or seven entrees to cycle through, dishes like chicken masala, kofta over rice, shawarma and kabobs. He also does side dishes or desserts sometimes, like baklava or khash khash.
“It’s kind of a mix between Arabic, mainly, but sometimes Indian meals,” he said.
Al-Barakat said what distinguishes these cuisines is the spices.
“If you want a short description, it’s very flavorful,” he said. “Normally, the least number of spices I use for one meal is six or seven. That’s the least one.”
Before Al-Barakat started cooking for The Barn, he had been bringing a Middle Eastern or Indian dish to share with his employees at Dollar General about once a month. The Barn’s kitchen manager, Linda Stocks, heard about that and approached Al-Barakat about cooking a lunch special at The Barn.
“It was to try something different to get people in here,” Stocks said.
Lesley Matlack, owner of The Barn, said bringing Al-Barakat in had been a way to shake things up and attract a larger lunch crowd, which has been smaller than normal because of the pandemic.
“He offered to come make an Indian dish and everyone loved it so much that we were like, ‘Well, maybe we should do this once a week,’” Matlack said. “The response has been great. He has a little group that comes every Wednesday and eat his meals.”
She said The Barn has never really used any guest chefs before, but this opportunity just fell into their laps.
Al-Barakat became part of the The Barn’s month-long focus on international cuisine during its September lunch specials, along with dishes like Weiner schnitzel and Swedish meatballs.
Even though the September international focus has passed and The Barn has moved on to featuring soups every day for October, Al-Barakat plans to continue cooking each Wednesday.
“We’ll keep having him as long as they’re loving him,” Matlack said.
“We’ve got some that are starting to follow him,” Stocks said.
Al-Barakat had never done much cooking before 10 years ago when he was a student in Belgium.
“Back then, I didn’t know how to fry an egg,” he said.
However, he said the food served to him and his fellow students was so horrible they’d have to eat second dinners elsewhere, so after a month, they just gave up and started cooking their own food.
“The first few times were horrible,” he admitted. “You have to throw some meals away, but after that, with practice, I think I got better. Still, it’s not as good as the food you can get back in Jordan, but close enough.”
He moved to the U.S. in 2015 when he was 30. His parents still live in Jordan, but he has sisters living in Tennessee and Michigan and brothers studying, internationally.
With few options for Middle Eastern dining in the Wichita area, Al-Barakat said he’s starting to see some customers make the drive from Wichita to eat his food at The Barn.
“If you go to Michigan, you have a lot of Middle Eastern Arab Americans living there, so you’ll see a lot of Arab restaurants there,” he said. “But here, it’s very limited options.”
He said the food at some of the Middle Eastern restaurants in Wichita doesn’t taste very authentic to him, but he tries to keep what he cooks at The Barn as close to what he’s used to from Jordan as possible. One change he’s had to make is using chicken or beef instead of lamb.
He preps his meats on Tuesdays so they can marinate overnight to give it more flavor. He returns to The Barn at about 9 a.m. on Wednesdays to finish preparations and be ready for the lunch crowd.
“It’s everything made from scratch,” he said. “There’s nothing in a box. Sometimes it’s not perfect, but that’s because we made everything from nothing.”
Finding ingredients can be a challenge at times, but he’s able to get almost everything at a Middle Eastern store in Wichita, and he also uses some spices brought from Jordan.
Al-Barakat said he’s seen a positive reaction so far, but as with any food, you can’t expect everyone to like it. One of his most popular dishes has been shawarma, which sold more than 40 meals the first time. He made it last week for the second time. It’s also one of his personal favorites.
“It’s the most famous street food if you go to the Middle East,” he said.
He compared its popularity over there to that of hamburgers in the U.S., but noted shawarma is more complicated to prepare.
Al-Barakat said he enjoys doing the weekly specials and plans to continue them. He expects to introduce some new dishes in the future.
“I enjoy cooking for people, introducing them and letting them experience the flavors,” he said.
Check The Barn’s Facebook page on Mondays to see what Al-Barakat will be cooking that Wednesday, as well as other lunch specials for the week.
“I love working here and I love the town,” he said. “It’s one of the many reasons you feel like you’re home.”