10 Questions about MAZA New American Cuisine with Chef Nedal Mardini
1. Tell us about MAZA New American Cuisine.
MAZA features new American cuisine. This is food represented by the melting pot in America - we take all of what America has to offer and put it into one menu.
Because of our history with Hala restaurant and its Middle Eastern food we will feature many traditional Middle Eastern staples such as hummus, tabouleh, grape leaves, and gyros. To these we'll add dishes such as a French duck confit appetizer, Japanese sushi rolls and many others.
One of our goals is to have MAZA become known for very good food and as one of the top restaurants in Jacksonville.
2. How long has MAZA been open?
We just opened in November (2012) and we'll have our grand opening in December.
3. Where does the name MAZA come from?
MAZA means "appetizer" in Arabic. We're not a tapas bar but we have a lot of appetizer options for people who want to eat with us but don't want one big entree. They can come in and have two or three appetizers and share plates.
4. Can you tell us about how MAZA came about?
My parents owned Hala Sandwich Shop & Bakery in Neptune Beach for 15 years. They eventually closed it down but people were always calling to ask about when they'd re-open. I had gone through culinary school and was working at some local restaurants when my parents and I decided to open our own restaurant as MAZA. We're located down and across the street from where Hala used to be. It's on Atlantic Boulevard in the same plaza as North Beach Bistro.
5. What makes MAZA special?
Our prices are very reasonable but it's the food that will set us apart from many places. All the food comes through me and my standards for the food are very high - in line with what you'll find at some of the best restaurants in Jacksonville, such as Restaurant Medure or Bistro Aix.
6. What attracted you to your location in Atlantic Beach?
Our previous restaurant, Hala, was located close by in Neptune Beach. We'd built up a loyal following and so it made sense for us to be located here.
7. Will you have a set menu or one that changes regularly?
If I could I'd change the menu every day. As it stands we're planning to make changes every 4 months or so. We'll keep a certain amount of core items though - especially around the Arabic staples and on our lunch menu.
8. Can you tell us about the menu?
The menu will change slightly between lunch and dinner, especially around the entree items. Lunch will feature a lot of sandwich items, gyros and so forth. The dinner menu will be the same as lunch but also add entrees that will be finer - things like filet mignon, shrimp and grits, and tandoori chicken.
9. What can you recommend to someone new to MAZA to give them a sense of what you are all about?
I would recommend the duck confit in phyllo. I take the duck thigh and leg and confit them in duck fat with a ton of basil and garlic. I then serve it warm with a foie gras butter, some figs and just a little bit of truffle oil. I'm very proud of that dish. It's really delicious and I've heard nothing but good feedback from our customers when they try it. For dessert we have something called a Reconstructed Black Forest Cake. I take all the components of a Black Forest cake, break them down and reconstruct it on the plate.
10. If someone wanted to try something exotic, what would you recommend?
We're coming out with something called our Adventurous Menu. It will be a 4-6 course tasting of something I prepare specially each day. This isn't for picky eaters - it's for the adventurous who want to try something different. I'll be serving a wide variety of things like duck liver, lamb tongue, escargot…anything really.
11. What's your favorite dish?
One of my favorite appetizers is the sushi roll. It's a salmon sushi roll that's tempura fried. For an entree I really like the pork belly sandwich, for lunch at least. It's an open faced pork belly with a tahini cole slaw, so it's a Mediterranean twist on a classic American dish.
12. Where did you get your recipes?
When I was in school we always had to create little menus that we never really did anything with. I was always trying to think of the craziest dishes that would be very unique. At the time we were never able to create the dishes, but I can now.
13. Can you tell us about your background?
I started working at Hala, my family's restaurant, when I was 12 or 13. I took a break when I was about 16 to try something else. I was making good money but I was bored. I was sitting all day and it just didn't appeal to me. I eventually decided to go to culinary school through the Florida State College culinary program where I earned my Associate's degree. From school I did an internship at Blue Bamboo with Chef Dennis, who is a genius in my mind. After that I went to The Pier Restaurant for about a year. From there I went to Matthew's in San Marco. To make a little extra money I was also working at River City Brewery preparing lunch. It was a lot of 14 hour days.
14. What did you learn that you're bringing to MAZA?
At Blue Bamboo I learned a lot about preparing Asian food. At The Pier Chef Tony taught me a lot about Southern cooking - things like shrimp and grits. At Matthew's I probably learned the most, especially from Chef Pete, the head chef at the time. Matthew's was very focused on fine dining - everything from a wide variety of foods, to the methods of cooking and the whole fine dining experience. I'm bringing all of these things with me to MAZA.
My discipline comes from my dad - he's very particular and hard working. I've always been like that from when I was really young.
…did your dad go to culinary school?
No, for the most part he's self taught. His dad, my grandfather, was a baker. My grandfather and his brother, along with my uncles, started a bakery called Petra, which made some of the first pita breads in Jacksonville.
15. Will your family work with you at MAZA?
Yes. My mom and sister will run the front of the house and my dad and I will run the kitchen.
16. Who are your influences as a chef?
One of the people who has impacted me is Chef Marco Pierre White. I've studied the way he works and the way he is and that taught me a lot. He was the first British chef with 3 Michelin stars. He was the first rock star chef. He taught Gordon Ramsey, Mario Batali, Heston Blumenthal and all these really, really big name celebrity chefs - and yet nobody really knows about him. He was very strict and his food was all very, very classical. Before I got into the classical style of cooking I was venturing into the molecular side of cooking - creating things that really didn't need to be done. When it comes down to it the classic foods will beat anything any day.
…what do you mean by classic foods?
It's the standards, in any cuisine, that have been done and perfected for eons. They don't need to be toyed with - they just need to be done properly. It's old school I guess. It's staying away from technology that never existed when the dishes were originally perfected.
17. What made you want to be a chef?
I had an office job earlier and I loved the people I worked with but it wasn't the type of job that suited me. I was making good money but I was bored. One day I decided I needed to change. I missed the kitchen and working with my dad.
As a chef I like the day to day struggle. You never know what's going to happen. There's always a lot of things on the go - suppliers, finding good food, salespeople, customers - and you have to be on your game all the time. You also have to be able teach people so that one day you can have a day off. And that's a big challenge all on its own.
18. Where do you like to eat when you're not eating at MAZA?
I love to go to Blue Bamboo. The food is great and I really like Chef Dennis - he taught me a lot - on the business side of things and just how he runs everything - like setting up dinners and tastings. His business aspect at Blue Bamboo is up there - he has really high standards.
19. What attracted you to work at MAZA?
I like to work for myself. I don't want to be limited to the way other people do things. When you work for someone else you have to do it their way. I had some flexibility at places like Matthew's but it was still under someone else's watch. At MAZA I can do my own thing. The menu has my stamp on it. It's up to me to make it great.