“CONFIDENT” COMES UP a lot in conversation with Sheena Eliz, the latest executive chef at Marcus Lalario’s Georgetown restaurant Ciudad. She admires those who are, and she aspires to be so herself. Goal met, chef Eliz.
At a late-summer tryout of potential fall menu items, her confidence as a chef was on full display in plate after beautiful plate, each one lavished with fresh herbs or flower petals or both. Falafel Scotch eggs spilled their soft yellow yolks into tahini garlic sauce. Sumac vinaigrette dressed a salad of plums, radishes, pea vines and Persian cucumbers. A peppery lamb and tomato ragu topped baby eggplant halves. Toasted pita shards and pine nuts studded fatteh, a tangy yogurt stew of zucchini and chickpeas enriched with brown butter. Dessert was a particularly eloquent expression of the season: shredded phyllo smothering peaches, pistachios and cream perfumed with rose and orange blossom water.
All these dishes clearly were inspired by the Levant, yet each seemed utterly original. Eliz’s food can be as vivid as lightning, or as soft as mist, but never timid or vague.
You could describe her the same way. Thoughtful, soft-spoken and quick to laugh, Eliz was 27 and a single mom when she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Seattle, after Emerald Queen Casino closed the keno department she had been managing. Her cooking had always earned praise. She credits her paternal grandmother, Helga Owens, as a great inspiration. “She showed me the things she knew, no measurements, no cups or tablespoons. Just a little of this and that, and overflowing love for us all.” Her mother, Debra Vega-Montalvo, who suffered from lupus and died when Eliz was a teenager, was another “very sturdy guide in life and in the kitchen.”
Eliz, 38, says she’s still sorting out where she fits in as a multiracial chef. She describes her cooking as modern takes on traditional foods. “I do what feels nice. The best food I can do. If it leans one way culturally, I want to feel that it’s been done with great respect.”
She pursued her chosen career heeding the advice of her culinary school instructors, who told her to work for the chefs you want to be like. She did her externship with Charles Walpole, then at Anchovies & Olives. “I was sure I wasn’t worthy,” she says, but she approached him, anyway, because she loved seafood and admired his menu.
Eliz joined the opening team at chef Tamara Murphy’s Terra Plata because she wanted to work for “a badass lady.” Chef Brandon Kirksey later encouraged her to embrace her own “badass” side while teaching her to butcher at Girin, where she was also the grill chef.
She has been fortunate in her mentors. At Sitka & Spruce, Eliz worked with Nick Coffey, now at Ursa Minor on Lopez Island, and Logan Cox, who went on to open the Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant Homer on Beacon Hill. She calls Cox “a genius with techniques.” Coffey (who was Ciudad’s original chef) gave her “different eyes” on her cooking, Eliz says. Both helped her gain the confidence she craved. There was “no yelling,” she says. “They beam kindness and support. All the things people told me a kitchen could never be.”
Chef Jason Stratton has had the biggest influence on her career, she says. Eliz was his first hire, when he and the Mamnoon team were conceiving Mbar. It was, he says, “a natural fit” from the beginning. She was his sous chef for three years at the South Lake Union rooftop restaurant, and later executive chef at Anar, the Mamnoon group’s Middle Eastern vegetarian cafe near the Amazon Spheres. He values her “dependable, quiet presence” and her “eye for details and the beauty in food.”
Eliz admired Stratton before she ever met him. Recently, she came across old food magazines saved from culinary school. All the pages that mentioned Stratton were folded over. She never thought she’d be lucky enough to work with him. “He’s an artist all the way around.” On the line, they enjoy “a telepathiclike flow.” In difficult times, Stratton was her “security blanket.”
He was instrumental in her landing at Ciudad. Eliz spent the early months of the pandemic working with Melissa Miranda at Musang Community Kitchen. This past spring, Stratton asked her to help him reopen Mezzanotte, Lalario’s Italian restaurant next door to Ciudad. When Lalario began searching for Ciudad’s next chef, Stratton was quick to recommend Eliz. He knew she loved Middle Eastern food, and it was a great opportunity for her to “speak in her own voice.”
“The thing that’s much more gratifying even than creating food is mentoring people,” says Stratton. “Marcus is a real champion of people who want to tell their stories. And it’s nice to have her close by.”
Sweet Potato Kibbeh with Lamb
Kibbeh is a very popular dish around the Levant. Many times, it’s made with ground meat and bulgur, but sometimes people use potatoes or squash mixed with bulgur instead. I love kibbeh all ways. For this recipe, I used sweet potatoes and bulgur. If you’re feeling fancy, you can add a layer of spiced ground lamb, which is what I did here. If you want to keep it vegan, a layer of caramelized onions would be equally amazing. Just use more onions, and make sure they are nicely drained of any excess liquid before using them. You could also choose to not make any middle layer at all; it’s up to you. Sometimes kibbeh is rolled into balls, called kibbeh mahshi. This version, called kibbeh bil seniyeh, is pressed into a pan and scored on top. I like to serve it with tahini or yogurt sauce.
— Sheena Eliz, executive chef, Ciudad
For the dough:
1 cup #1 size (fine grain) bulgur
5-6 medium sweet potatoes (about 2.5 lbs.)
1 russet potato
1 small onion, grated
3 cloves garlic, microplaned
3 tablespoons chopped parsley
1-2 tablespoons kosher salt, or to your liking
1. Soak the bulgur in a cup or so of water until it is soft but not mushy. Drain any excess water.
2. Peel the potatoes, and cut them into a large dice. Boil gently until they are soft. Drain well.
3. Combine bulgur, potatoes, onion, garlic and parsley. Mix by hand until smooth. Add salt to taste. The dough shouldn’t be juicy. If it is, set it in a fine strainer to drain more while you prepare the filling. (Some people add ¼ cup of flour to the mixture to help soak up any excess wetness, but I don’t usually do that.)
For the filling:
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for final bake
1 small onion, finely diced
1 lb. ground lamb
1 tablespoon ground cumin
½ tablespoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, or any red chili flakes you have handy
1 bunch of blanched, chopped spinach (optional)
1-2 tablespoons kosher salt, according to your taste
1. Sweat the onion in the oil until it begins to brown. Add the lamb and seasonings, and cook well. Fold in the spinach, if using.
Assemble & bake
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2. Lightly oil a 9-inch baking dish (any shape) with any oil you have on hand. (I use olive oil.) Spread half the potato and bulgur mixture evenly across the bottom of the pan and slightly up the sides.
3. Add the lamb mixture, and gently layer it over the base.
4. Spread the remaining potato mixture carefully on top of the filling. This is the point where many people use the tip of a knife to score a design into the top. You could make simple square or diamond shapes, or get more elaborate.
5. Drizzle the top with olive oil, and bake at 400 degrees F for about 40-45 minutes, rotating the pan halfway through, until the edges are golden brown and the top looks nice and crispy. Cool slightly before cutting.
Whisk ½ cup tahini with ¼ cup water. The mixture will split at first, but keep on whisking until it emulsifies. Then whisk in 3-4 cloves of microplaned garlic, ¼ cup lemon juice, 2 teaspoons ground cumin and salt to taste.
Mix 1 cup Greek yogurt with 3-4 cloves of microplaned garlic until smooth. Add a bit of water, if desired, to get the consistency you like. Salt to taste.