When a restaurant tells a story: Khaled AlBanna and the beautiful voice from six thousand miles away.

The Palestinian-Jordanian chef has a rare vision for what his restaurant can accomplish. People across the US are noticing.

When a restaurant tells a story: Khaled AlBanna and the beautiful voice from six thousand miles away.
Khaled AlBanna, Calliope, Chattanooga, Tennessee

The Palestinian-Jordanian chef has a rare vision for what his restaurant can accomplish. People across the US are noticing.

"Food can reduce conflict. We're a restaurant that diverts conflict."

We're in the kitchen of Calliope, the MLK Ave. restaurant where chef Khaled AlBanna is preparing two dishes for us:

Heirloom tomatoes with charred tomatillo compote, tahini and herbs.

And grilled eggplant with dill-yogurt, pomegranate salsa and pine nuts.

While he cooks, he's talking about tahini. I was hanging on every word. But now?

He's still talking, but I no longer hear him.

He'd just slid me a plate, fork, white cloth napkin. It was the heirloom tomato. I took a bite.

Instantly, all my senses leave their posts, retreating from whatever they were doing – seeing, listening – to exclusively pour into the exquisitely singular sensory experience unfolding in my mouth.

Heirloom tomatoes, Calliope, Chattanooga, Tennessee

It was the best tomato I have ever eaten at a restaurant. Like some 1920s hoop dress caught in the wind, the flavors all billowed and cascaded throughout my mouth. I got weak in the knees. Put my hand on the wall. I may need to sit down.

Apparently, the experience is common.

Not long ago, a Food & Wine executive editor visited Calliope and ordered the Whole Branzino, a dish featuring a Mediterranean sea fish inspired by AlBanna's childhood in Jordan.

The editor took one bite. And another.

Soon after, Food & Wine named the dish one of the "Best Meals" of the year.

AlBanna, 31, is an ascendent star, possessing this vibrant inner flame that elevates and lights up Calliope. With him – generous, inviting, compelling – you realize you're in the presence of a chef who wishes for 34 hours in the day, if only to continue to perfect, create, imagine.

Khaled AlBanna, heirloom tomatoes, Calliope

He was honored at the Iconoclast Dinner in NYC, an annual event highlighting chefs of color from around the globe. There's talk of a second restaurant and more national media, from TV to print. As we walk through the restaurant on his day off – he stops, straightening a tabletop dinner fork by a centimeter, maybe two – it is gloriously obvious that AlBanna is attempting something rare in the restaurant world.

He wants food to be more than food.

“Calliope means the beautiful voice,” he said. “The food tells you a story.”

AlBanna grew up in Jordan. It was a childhood at the headwaters of so much culinary history and influence, from his own family – full of renown and storied cooks – to the region itself: food carts, saltwater, farmers' markets, spice markets, fresh seafood, butcher errands, figs, dates, Baba-Ganoush, falafel, cumin, Lebanese and Egyptian cuisine.

When he cooks today, these flavors are ghosts in his memory, resurrected and transported nightly from six thousand miles away into Calliope dishes, which he calls "Modern Levantine."

"Levantine is Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq, southern Turkey with Armenian, French and Spanish influence," he said. "This is the beautiful voice of that culture."

Calliope counters the unreliable and exaggerated media-stories and stereotypes by serving a direct experience of the flavors of culture and people from this misunderstood region. We bypass so much illusion when we taste, for example, AlBanna's labneh – kefir chesse, ghee, za-atar and garlic pita – that brings us into physical contact with actual Levantine culture.

US vets stop by to order galayet – a stewed tomatoes dish – that they ate overseas on tour. Syrian doctors, working at regional hospitals, order figs that taste preciously like home.

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Calliope becomes a portal to another world.

"Food can reduce conflict. We're a restaurant that diverts conflict," he said. "What is the goal of the restaurant? I'm introducing a light on culture ... but my way."

AlBanna left Jordan to study mathematics at the University of Alabama; then, after a childhood friend invited him to Chattanooga, he fell in love with the city, moving here to enroll in University of Tennessee-Chattanooga's engineering program.

Why math and numbers?

"I like problem-solving," he said.

Throughout college, he was drawn to cooking – working in restaurants to earn extra cash – more than numbers.

I’m sick of this, he told a colleague one day. I’m not enjoying life.

Do something you love, she replied.

I just want to cook, he said, but there’s not enough money in it.

Do you need a lot of money? she replied. 

A stint at O’Charley’s led to Lookout Mountain Country Club, where AlBanna flourished. Pastries, sous chef, executive sous chef. His bosses encouraged him to travel – NYC, San Fran, Chicago – and master new techniques alongside master chefs.

In 2018, he opened Whitebird, the Edwin Hotel's restaurant. 

Soon, a new dream emerged; AlBanna and local industry visionaries Joi Mason and Raven Humphrey began daydreaming about a new restaurant. Late nights, exhaling over pizza, a business plan formed.

“I want the restaurant to be inspired by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Palestine, Turkey, with Armenian and French and Spanish influences,” he’d tell them. “We will introduce people to something."

Spices, herbs, salsas, Calliope

They needed a name.

"Calliope was a muse in Greek mythology. A muse of song, poetry and science," he said. It was also the same name of a variety of eggplant he'd buy from Crabtree Farms.

In August 2022, they opened Calliope in the Proof restaurant incubator on MLK Ave. 

Soon after, a Food & Wine editor walked through the door.

Ordered the Branzino.

And heard a voice telling a most beautiful story.

Khaled AlBanna, Calliope, MLK Ave., Chattanooga, Tennessee

The same thing can happen to you. Let's say you stop by Calliope to order the Beef Tartare, assuming it comes from France.

"Beef Tartare has nothing to do with the French," AlBanna begins ...

It comes from a tribe called Tartars, or Turkish nomads. Their warriors would take meat and place it under their saddle. The meat got smashed from a whole day of traveling and riding and going to war. Then, by the end of the day, the meat is tenderized and smashed and they eat it raw.

There are ghosts and memories in his kitchen – his mother, grandmother, the generations of Jordanian farmers and vendors, invading armies, the traders and their routes between this land and that  – and AlBanna pays respect to them all. 

You can hear it in the way he speaks about cooking.

We leave the last quarter-inch of the tomato burned … with a tangy tomatillo salsa with charred pomegranate chives … you can smell how strong the tahini is … I love its versatility … we take the moisture out of the eggplant and utilize the brine for creaminess … add some mint, basil, salt, pepper … the eggplant is heated up a little to finish with lemon juice … we grate fresh garlic, shallot and cucumbers seeped in lemon juice … yogurt … dry dill.

At some point, when dishes become popular, they cross a line, a line only AlBanna can sense. That's when he does something few others seem to do.

"I retire it," he said. "The menu changes constantly."

He kills the prize calf. The great sin of a great chef?

Consistency. Predictability.

"If it's comfortable and people like it, do another thing," he said. "No painter paints the same painting twice."

Before saying goodbye, I ask this chef – who's receiving accolades from across the nation – when he realized his own talent.

"I don't think I have it yet," he said. "I always learn new things."

Khaled AlBanna, Calliope, Chattanooga, Tennessee

All photography by Sarah Unger. Visit SarahCatherinePhoto.com

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