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A Celebration of Caribbean Culture

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Chef Joel Hassanali’s fascinating and fabulous career odyssey—which includes working at his parent’s restaurant in Trinidad as a boy, stints with two celebrity chefs, taking care of professional athletes, and traveling the world and the U.S. to perfect his well-honed craft—is on vivid display with every delectable item he debuts at the Salted Edge Modern Kitchen + Bar in Waterloo, Nebraska. Hassanali’s resumé reads like a crescendoing recipe, each ingredient adding savor to the next to culminate in a tour de force on a plate. “With France, with Italy, with the Caribbean, all across the states, with the amazing people I’ve worked with…all of it speaks to who I am and the places I’ve been on my very diverse culinary journey,” Hassanali said. 

Hassanali’s love for food and passion for cooking dates back to his early years when he used to watch the Venezuelan chef at his parents’ Caribbean fusion restaurant. “I had a little stool and I would sit there after school and watch the chef,” said Hassanali, whose parents also ran a farm and butcher shop in Trinidad. “Man, he could chop some vegetables. As a kid, seeing this person with his knives, chopping really fast in different shapes and sizes, it made an impression.” 

It doesn’t take a holiday to celebrate with special food in the Caribbean, and Hassanali’s father also infused a love for real-life farm-to-table cuisine. “Every day’s a celebration in the Caribbean,” said Hassanali, who picked up the use of curry and Caribbean spices at those family gatherings. 

Hassanali’s relatives in the U.S. talked his parents into sending him to the states for a “better life and better education” at age 11, and he eventually settled in the borough of Queens in New York City. While attending high school, Hassanali dove headlong into football, basketball, and track, and kept his hand in cooking at a most unusual spot for a budding chef—McDonald’s. “My general manager loved basketball, and he wanted anybody on his basketball team to work at the store,” said Hassanali. “I didn’t even interview for the job. He said, ‘You play basketball, you’re hired.’ Working at a place like McDonald’s taught me a lot about systems and the camaraderie of working with different people. I remember being there at 5 a.m. many mornings to unload the truck.”

After high school, Hassanali tried to follow in his older brother’s footsteps and pursue a business degree, but the cooking bug ran too deep and too strong. “I told my parents this is what I want to do,” he said. After attending the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, he moved to south Florida with his parents, and his career began to blossom as he landed a gig as a prep cook for the National Football League’s Miami Dolphins and Major League Baseball’s Florida Marlins. “That was a very cool experience, with my love for sports.” He still has a room full of signed sports memorabilia from players he fed. He also learned to ice carve while cooking for the teams but had one of his most harrowing experiences when he bumped an ice sculpture created for the Philadelphia Eagles game and clipped the bird’s wing. “I was freaking out,” Hassanli recalled. “I had to tell the chef, and I thought, ‘I’m done. My career is over.’”

Far from it. After a 2-year run as sous chef at the Fisher Island Club in Miami—where he met the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Michael J. Fox, Michael Jordan and learned French cooking that propelled him to an internship in Paris—Hassanali got the opportunity to be part of the restaurant enterprise of childhood idol Emeril Lagasse of Top Chef fame in Lagasse’s restaurant at Universal Studios in Orlando, even meeting Lagasse in person. “I didn’t care how much I got paid. I just wanted to work there.” 

Hassanali visited Omaha for the first time to help open midtown Omaha’s Crave location, and then moved to open another Crave restaurant in Bethesda, Maryland. While joining a friend for drinks one night at Chef Sherry Yard’s (The Great American Baking Show and Cake Wars) City Perch Kitchen in Bethesda, Hassanali struck up a conversation with the world-famous pastry chef and learned she had an opening that she said would “take your culinary talent to a different level.” 

Hassanali landed the Executive Chef role at a new Perch Kitchen and Tuck Room restaurant for Yard in New York. His time with her reinvigorated the innovative side of his culinary skills. “With her, I was able to start on a blank canvas. I was creative, redid the menus, and didn’t have to ask permission to do certain things.” Yard was demanding, but she raised Hassanali’s craft to another level. “She’s a tough cookie, but I respect and appreciate her expectations. She brings out the best in you.”

Hassanali eventually brought his pursuit of perfection back to Omaha and was offered the Chef Managing Partner opportunity at Salted Edge by founder, part-owner, and automobile dealership owner Gregg Young. Young and wife Ashley had a vision and dream for the location overlooking the West Shores Lake, and Hassanali fine-tuned the big-picture to create a locally-sourced, modern American concept that would wrap all his experience and expertise into a wide-ranging menu. 

Hassanali is also incorporating lessons learned from his various stops to build a kitchen, food, and restaurant culture that pushes his staff to achieve at ever-improving levels—just like he was challenged and encouraged along the way. He has adopted a phrase for his staff from the 2015 film Burnt, starring Bradley Cooper as a burned-out chef: We do what we do, and we do it together. “We’re serving food with high expectations and high integrity,” Hassanali said. “We’re not perfect, we’ll have bad nights. But we’ll go down together. And when we have the joy and the accolades, that will be together. We’ll fail together and we’ll win together.”

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