Saj Common Kitchen - Tales from the Lebanese Larder by Jamie Maw

A sunny new communal kitchen in Pandosy Village opens wide
“Sahtayn!” – “Good health to you many times over!” - exclaims Betty Cherkaoui, the proprietor and chef of the recently opened Saj Common Kitchen in Kelowna’s Pandosy Village.
Communal kitchens have sprouted up in many cities, as multi-tasking venues for cooking classes, cookbook launches and hands-on culinary seminars. But they also supply another need – for catering businesses that need more elbow room than a home kitchen can provide. Cherkaoui has long been a successful caterer in her right, and now she has leased a space on Tutt Street, in one of Shane Warman’s brick buildings that are defining the neighbourhood.
Saj is all kitchen, with brightly painted walls (the owner is also an interior designer), and a lot of stainless steel – industrial stove tops and ovens, sinks and prep tables. Along one wall is a long chesterfield, an excellent spot to take a delicious Arabic coffee, and in another corner, an enormous walk-in refrigerator.
It’s an ideal space for other caterers, whom Betty welcomes. “It’s a place to be shared,” she says, “and I hope that my colleagues in the business will use it.” And classes will soon go well beyond Lebanese cookery, she says, welcoming guest chefs from near and far, as well as cookbook authors demonstrating their recipes. There’s even a ‘Grill Like A Pro’ class being offered this spring for folks who don’t feel overly comfortable around their barbecues. I suspect that this might be a popular Father’s Day gift, for those families weary of Dad’s summertime incinerations.
Tonight though, Cherkaoui is addressing a rapt audience of willing supplicants, gathered around her stainless steel work tables for an interactive cooking class that reveals, layer by layer, the bright flavours and colours of her native Lebanese cuisine, food that is licked by the sun.
Cherkaoui is a dervish in the kitchen, rushing from grill to blender and then to the saj for which the kitchen is named. A saj is the dome-like lid that fits over a cooking ring. Upon it, she fires out-sized pitas the size of hubcaps. It’s dramatic, and as she narrates, her big eyes flash like some exotic ferrous metal not yet quite discovered.
Through courses of lemony hummus, baba ghanoush (“spoiled father”) graced with mint, chicken redolent of citrus and sumac and chilies, and then ephemeral tabouli and rice pilaf, we eat very well, the bold tastes and contrasting textures a fitting counterpunch to the chill of the night.
Also fittingly, at the end of the dinner, and while dishes are still being cleared, there is a communal exhalation.
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Saj Communal Kitchen
2270 Tutt Street
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Jamie Maw is a National Magazine Award winning author, member of the BC Restaurant Hall of Fame, and recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award in the Culinary Arts. 

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