Kous Kous Cafe owner finds lessons in teaching

Published Jul 17, 2014 at 3:06 pm (Updated Aug 1, 2014 at 10:13 pm)

Abdel Khila is always trying to find the time to keep Kous Kous Cafe open when people want to eat his sweet and spicy Moroccan fare.

“About 25 tables on a weeknight, double that on a weekend, but we have to change schedules all the time because I teach English,” Khila said.

The 39-year-old chef owns and operates the tiny Kous Kous Cafe at 665 Washington Road in Mt. Lebanon. Since 2008, Khila has juggled his two passions of teaching and cooking, and has tried to find a way to keep the restaurant open during more times to meet demand.

“During summer I can keep open longer,” he said. “but come the school year, I'm going to have to make some changes.”

Part of that change will be allowing chef Zoe Weiner, 23, to cook more independently and run the restaurant while Khila teaches English at Boyce Middle School and Eisenhower Elementary.

“I've learned more here in two years than I did in two years of culinary school,” Weiner said.

“As a teacher, you must know not to blame the student for not learning something you're not teaching,” Khila said. “So, I have to come up with recipes that are simple and easy to do without much help.”

The Morocco native opened the restaurant as a tribute to a friend who died in 2008. He met him randomly within his first two days of arriving in Pittsburgh more than a decade ago.

“It was out of the blue. He was my best friend. And it was kind of, this is the time to do this,” he said.

Khila knows five languages, including Arabic and French, which he used to teach at Upper St. Clair High School.

“Now I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) at the two primary schools, K-6, with kids here from all over the world.”

“In Morocco, at least 30 years ago, the education system there and the geography – it was very conducive to learning lots of languages. I learned Moroccan Arabic then standard Arabic later, and French in elementary school ... like in Europe, if you don't learn multiple languages, your prospects are very limited,” Khila said.

Going to school in Tangier, he picked up Spanish, too, and had come to learn a bit of Czech as well as German.

“I've forgotten German from college, but Czech – well my wife is Czech. A friend joked, 'You have come all the way to America only to marry another foreigner!'”

Khila said his world experiences have become part of his cooking.

“Eighty percent of the rotating menu are mom's recipes, but I bring my own interpretation to the table,” he said.

“Nothing is overly fancy. I make sure the presentation is nice, but the question is, does it taste good?”

For this story, a small sample was requested. Small is relative to the 6'8” chef, so out came a nearly one-pound bastilla, a sweet and salty meat pie made with chicken, apples, onions, raisins and spices. The filling is folded inside multiple layers of phyllo-like dough called werqa, then baked, dusted with cinnamon and sugar, and served atop saffron sauce.

“What I really like on the menu right now is the lamb shank. I finally found a local farmer in Latrobe that has the best lamb ... it's slow cooked for five hours and it just falls off the bone.”

A former colleague from Upper St. Clair agrees, and it was that dish that had her come in for one of her many repeat visits with her family. “You can't get the spices and the flavors here anywhere else,” retired teacher Norma Swaney said. “The care that goes into each meal, you can just see it and you can taste it.”

As for the alternate spelling of couscous, Khila took a page from Led Zeppelin when it comes to pronunciation.

“I didn't want there to be any confusion. So not saying 'soos soos,' and knowing that this dish (couscous) has always been a part of Moroccan food.”

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