It’s approaching dinner time, and Chef David Zaghloul is sitting at one of his tables, waiting for customers to arrive—a common scene in every restaurant, but here at Chez Grace, even the waiting is a job that Zaghloul does alone.
“I do the front and the cooking and everything else,” he explains.
This means that Zaghloul took all of the night’s reservations, and will seat everyone else who walks in. He ordered all the food to arrive here on time, which he then washed and prepped. He cleaned all the table linens and dining ware, too. He set the tables and rolled the silverware. Later, after he’s poured the wine and cooked five courses of French cuisine for each of his patrons, he will be the one who cleans up and locks the door behind him.
He says he’s “too old,” but “I’m not too old to do this,” gesturing to the quiet restaurant behind him.
Chez Grace sits behind the parking lot of a Peking Buffet, in a strip mall which also holds a payday loan establishment, a Papa John’s Pizza and a recently-closed popcorn store.
“Everybody comes in and tells me ‘I can’t believe this place exists in here,’” Zaghloul says.
It’s cozy: there are just six tables a short walk away from the fully exposed kitchen from which the chef treads back and forth each night. If you ask him for a tour, he will simply walk you back and say, “This is the kitchen. That’s it. It’s open: everybody sit down and watch.”
Chez Grace, French for “House of Grace,” first opened its doors on Oct. 6, 2009. “A year after the flood,” its owner is quick to add. Zaghloul, who is originally from Amman, Jordan, came to Iowa City in 1979 as an engineering student at the University of Iowa. He’s worked in restaurants all across the city in the decades since, but when he first arrived here, he says he knew “absolutely nothing” about cooking.
“When I came to the United States, I had no idea how to make two eggs. I would go to the cafeteria and I had no idea what I was eating. That was how I learned about food,” he says. “I worked in restaurants when I was in college, but I didn’t know how to do anything. I started as a pizza delivery guy a long time ago, and I’ve wound up with this now.”
He describes himself as being a self-taught chef, a designation with many variations, but in his case looks like this: For years, David watched Iron Chef, (“the original one, the Japanese one”) and dove into cooking to try to recreate what he’d seen.
“I’ve never written a recipe in my life, I’ve never followed a recipe in my life. I have no measuring spoons, no measuring cups, no measuring nothing in the restaurant. God blessed me with a good memory,” he says. “I know my ingredients. I know what I want to do, and I’m willing to be adventurous and try everything that I want to try.”
“I always wanted to be my own boss. I got recruited to work for a lot of people in this town when they opened their own restaurants,” he adds. “I told them if I’m going to open a restaurant, I’m going to be working for myself. That’s what I’ve always wanted.”
He was even recruited by the landlord who owned the strip in which Chez Grace is located. He encouraged Zaghloul to open something up in the building after the restaurant that Zaghloul was running before Chez Grace closed. He had lost nearly everything in that venture, and Zaghloul didn’t know if this would be the right move.
“To be honest with you, my customers in my old place put up all the money for me to come and move down here,” he says. “I had people who came in and painted in here. My customers, they did a lot of things for me.”
Over the last nine years, Zaghloul has learned to be incredibly nimble when planning out his ever-changing menu. It’s necessary when operating a restaurant of this type and size in the middle of the country, where nearly all of his ingredients take days to arrive—foie gras and duck breasts from upstate New York, halibut from the Pacific Northwest, etc. For example, last week the menu changed four times.
At Chez Grace, you can always expect classics of French cuisine like foie gras and crème brûlée to begin and end the meal. What is in between, depending on the night, may feature steak au poivre with a peppercorn cream sauce and butter gold potatoes, or magrets de canard a l’orange (duck breasts simmered with fresh orange juice) or even wild Alaskan halibut served with truffle-scented polenta.
“Everything I make in here has five ingredients or less. Every single dish. There’s nothing in here outrageously complicated,” Zaghloul says. “Simplicity is the best thing you can do for food. Once you put too much stuff on a plate because you want to make it look pretty, that’s it, the plate is gone.”
He enjoys his unique experience as a professional chef who both prepares and serves the people who come to dine with him. He gets to know his customers intimately, and they get to know him through both his food and his stories.
“I had an 8-year-old one time. She sat down on that chair over there, and she had foie gras,” he said. “She started screaming in here in the middle of the restaurant. I thought I had made a mistake. She was screaming because it was so good. She was 8!”
When he isn’t single-handedly running a restaurant, the chef says he cooks at home, sleeps a lot and watches soccer on Sunday mornings.
“I watch the Premier League,” he says. “Chelsea. Nobody else.”
He also plays chess, a game requiring intense focus and strategy. As evidenced by his one-man show at Chez Grace, though, he’s not a man who can stand idleness for long.
“I play speed chess. Online, one-minute games,” he says. “I have no patience to be sitting around, waiting.”
For now, Chef David Zaghloul is sitting at Chez Grace, waiting for his first table to arrive. For him, that will always be a thing worth waiting for.