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Friday, January 30, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Fay al Belakhdar
Mediterranean Cafe

Occupation: Owner and chef

Where: Mediterranean Cafe, 625 State St.

Why you should go: It's the best place I know for a classic, wholesome meal, prepared by a guy with a big, gentle heart.

What was your path from Algeria to State Street?

It's a long story about friendship. My best friend and I came from families that were close two, three generations back. He and I were always together. We went to college in France together. There he met a girl from the UW and followed her here. He didn't finish his degree, but I promised my father I'd graduate, so I stuck it out. In 1980, I followed him to Madison. I was thinking, 'I'm going to be with my friend for the rest of my life,' and here he gets married and moves to Minnesota. Meanwhile, I brought my girlfriend, Layla, from Algeria, and we got married.

I wasn't planning to have a restaurant, but my father had a coffee shop in Annaba, the coastal town where my family's lived for generations. I worked in that shop when I was a high school kid, serving coffee, tea and soda.

In France I got a law degree, but when I came to Madison I didn't speak English ' only French and Spanish. I found work as a dishwasher at the old Athens restaurant. The owner could see that I took work very seriously. I wanted to improve my life, so he taught me to cook. When the Athens closed I went to work at Amy's Cafe. I was given a lot of responsibility, and I took care of that place like it was my own. In '96 I was ready for the next step ' that's when I opened the Mediterranean Cafe.

I don't regret giving up law. I'm blessed to be here, doing what I do. This city made me who I am.

Why Mediterranean, not Algerian?

I don't believe in cuisine from a single country. Basically my menu is Middle Eastern, but my special changes every day. I'll make dishes from Greece, France, Spain or Algeria, but foods from across the Mediterranean region have many similarities. I might make a Greek recipe but add orange blossom water to make it more North African. I've been in this business 26 years. I know how to combine flavors.

I read a lot of books on food, and I have memories of the dishes my mother and older sister prepared. We boys were never allowed in the kitchen, but I remember details about how that food tasted. I'll taste something and think, 'Oh, my mother used to use this.'

I don't know fancy cuisine. I've never been to chef school. I grew up in a very modest family, and I believe in offering a big plate of healthy, tasty food for a low price. It's simple fare families can share and enjoy. Not everybody has money to eat out. I attract people who know if they come here they have the pleasure of sitting in a restaurant, and they get a good meal they can afford.

Whatever I fix, people like. By the end of the day everything is gone. I almost never have leftovers, but if I do I take them home and that's our dinner. I don't cook at home, though. My wife's a great cook. She makes more traditional Algerian meals.

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