Haidar Karoum, executive chef of Estadio and Proof, is a breed of chef who always knew he belonged in the kitchen. Looking back on his childhood, he can remember being in awe of the produce and meat aisles of grocery stores and one time getting purposely lost in Harrod’s food hall when he was 9 years old. He remembers being “obsessed” with cooking shows such as Great Chefs of the West and rushing home to catch them on TV when he was 12. ”I’m constantly immersed in food. My condo is littered with cookbooks. You can’t go into any room without there being a stack of them,” Haidar laughs.
After high school, the northern Virginia native attended the Culinary Institute of America and thus began his long and impressive cooking career. He externed with Michele Richard at Citronelle and much later he became chef de cuisine at Restaurant Nora in Dupont Circle. Straight out of culinary school, he worked at the now-closed Gerard’s Place. “He was like a God,” says Haidar, talking about french chef Gerard Panguard and his first job out of culinary school. “His philosophy of simplicity and his influence were important to me. It was an honor to work in his kitchen.”
‘Haidar Karoum making spice-grilled chicken’
courtesy of ‘bonappetitfoodie’
Now, chef Karoum is juggling the responsibilities of being the executive chef at two successful restaurants in DC. Both Proof and Estadio were nominated for RAMMY awards this past year, with Estadio winning for best new restaurant. “I think of the kitchen as my home, as my comfort zone,” he says. “I could be shy in the outside world, but in the kitchen I could talk to anybody.”
After Proof’s success, owner Mark Kuller approached Haidar about opening a Spanish-concept restaurant. Haidar mentions a few restaurants in Spain and New York that got his gears turning about opening such a place in DC. “I like to watch people cook, and I could sit and do that for hours. So I wanted to bring the same idea to DC, but bigger,” he says. “[With Estadio], I wanted to capture a certain energy [Mark and I] felt existed in cities in Spain.”
For Haidar, the favorite part of his job is simple: “it’s just doing something that I absolutely love.” I can see Haidar’s eyes light up as he talks about being fortunate enough to cook the food he wants to cook and how he knows and feels connected to his purveyors. His hands gesture excitedly as he talks about taking foods, such as nectarines in season, and experimenting with flavors and what they might taste like with other ingredients. He talks about how he finds markets fascinating and is “obsessed” with fish. By this point of the conversation, we’re geeking out. “I can’t go by a creek or any body of water without looking for fish. I go fishing on the Chesapeake sometimes and it balances me,” he says.
But there’s a flip side to all this excitement and the advantage of working in a career he’s utterly passionate about. “You miss a lot of life [as a chef],” he says. Not that he has any regrets, but the chef grows more serious as he recalls not knowing what it’s like to be off on a Friday night and not quite knowing what to do when that happens. It’s a challenge for every chef–any non-industry friends are out living their lives in the hours you’re working. Haidar also says going between the two restaurants is a challenge, since he can’t be in two places at once to nurture staff and work side by side on the line.
Switching the focus back to the outside dining world at large, Haidar says he’s “very proud of the food scene” in DC. The transition he describes from DC being a city of major flagship restaurants which trained many chefs to being a city brimming with great restaurant options, is a welcomed one. When I ask what’s missing in DC, he laughs and says, “I wish there was a 2 Amy’s on every corner!” While DC has a good number of the more intimate and “neighborhood” restaurants, the chef would like to see more places like that pop up around town rather than the “mega restaurants.”
Check back at 3 PM for Haidar’s recipe for spice-grilled chicken. It’s incredibly tasty and a great dish to make this weekend on the grill.