Getting to Know: Imee's Mediterranean Kitchen
Imee's Kitchen in the Chicago Loop offers a unique blend of authentic Lebanese home cooking tailored to today's fast-paced modern American lifestyle. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised as you peruse a menu filled with intriguing names and flavors that might transport your taste buds to far-off lands. Some of your familiar condiments might take a backseat, but trust us, it's all part of the adventure. Meet Nicole Nassif, the passionate owner and chef behind this culinary gem. Her unwavering dedication to sharing the cherished tastes of her upbringing knows no bounds and that is evident as soon as you step into the restaurant.
A Taste of Home
To enter Imee’s Kitchen and eat their food is to enter a loving tribute to Nicole’s upbringing and the closest she can come to recreating her mother’s kitchen. In fact, the word “imee” means mother in Arabic. And it’s not just the food that is a tribute.
“We've made the restaurant look like an homage to my mom's kitchen. It's very homey,” says Nicole. “There are even kitchen cabinets, so it just feels like a home. We've had so many regulars that it genuinely feels like people come in for lunch in your kitchen and it's great.”
Nicole was born and raised in Michigan, a state with a celebrated Arab community, notably in metro Detroit, that is among the largest in the U.S. outside the Middle East. Growing up in a community that had such reverence for its culture left an impression on her.
“My mom would make kibee and tabouli and every single time she made those items, people went nuts for it. That's what I watched and it's great because it's so different,” says Nicole. “People were so open to those flavors and I think that's awesome.”
She grew up in a home known for hospitality. Her mother would invite her teachers over at the end of every school year as a thank you for their work and they would gladly take a seat at the table. Nicole sees Imee’s Kitchen as an extension of the values that were imparted to her by her parents and an opportunity to educate people about a rich culture that she feels is somewhat undervalued.
“There's this whole cultural component that we have the ability to share about food and culture, and that's tangential,” she says. “I think it's such a beautiful culture with so much history, and I think that this just could be a great opportunity to share that, too.”
What is Lebanese Cuisine?
Lebanese cuisine is renowned for its diverse and vibrant flavors, reflecting a rich culinary heritage that spans centuries. One of its hallmarks is the mezze, a delightful assortment of small dishes served at the beginning of a meal. These mezze offerings tantalize the taste buds with a delightful array of flavors, including creamy hummus, smoky baba ganoush, zesty tabouli, and delicate stuffed grape leaves (warak enab). Grilled meats, another pillar of Lebanese cuisine, take center stage with succulent lamb and chicken, marinated in a harmonious blend of herbs and spices like sumac, cumin, and garlic, imparting a mouthwatering depth to the dishes.
Lebanese culinary traditions also emphasize the use of fresh ingredients, abundant olive oil, and a medley of aromatic spices such as cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg, which infuse the dishes with unique character. Rice and grains, like bulgur, are commonly served as accompaniments, while flatbreads like pita are essential for savoring the delectable flavors of Lebanese cuisine. An array of delightful sweets and pastries, including baklava and maamoul, showcases the Lebanese love for honey, nuts, and delicate phyllo dough. Moreover, communal dining and sharing play a significant role in Lebanese culture, making meals a social and joyous affair, further exemplifying the warmth and hospitable nature of this extraordinary culinary tradition.
The Future for Imee’s Kitchen
Nicole is not new to the culinary world, having spent decades consulting other chefs and restaurant owners on how to get the most out of their culinary concepts. She knew when starting Imee’s Kitchen that it would be a labor of love but the success she’s experienced to this point gives her confidence in the future.
“I said all along there was going to be a hole in the Middle Eastern market, and it is starting to pop right now. You are starting to see Middle Eastern is becoming the next big thing,” says Nicole.
When something becomes trendy, there’s always a fear that potential customers will get burnt out on it and eventually reject it altogether but Nicole isn’t worried about that happening for her. Imee’s dedication to using fresh and authentic ingredients as well as their unflappable standards is part of what sets them apart from similar fare. When you eat at Imee’s, you’re going to fall in love with flavors you didn’t even know you enjoyed - just like if you were sitting in her mom’s kitchen in Michigan.
“What we do is it's literally what my mom cooked. We pick the parsley by hand. We grind the meat for the kibee. We do all the pickling. We do all the yogurt making. We don't buy lemon juice. We squeeze every single lemon for everything that goes out,” says Nicole.
But do us a favor? When you order from Imee’s, please don’t ask them for any hot sauce. :)