Photo by Amanda Damelio
Customers who step into Restaurant Salaam are transported to a place so bold and different it feels like another world. Or at least another country.
Thick tapestries drape from the walls, each marked by brilliant color and crafted jewels. Long square rugs cover the floor, their unique patterns bearing a cozy, well-worn look. Soft cloths cover each table where rich oils and spices sit and invite customers to experience new flavors. The lighting is dim, the music is soothing and scents of international taste are wafting from the kitchen.
That worldly dining experience is the brainchild of one family, the Burhans, who incorporated elements from across the globe into their business. Co-owner and executive chef Hilarie Burhan has lived in Asia and Africa, though she is a graduate of Athens High School, and chose to bring elements from those places back to her hometown.
“I am very fond of fabrics and rugs and tiles, so the décor part came easy,” Burhan says. “All I was really wanting to do was to put some of the things into the restaurant and make it have the feel of you’re not in Athens anymore, you’ve stepped into another world.”
Burhan’s business is a product of her culinary knowledge and travel experience, both of which come together to bring Salaam’s customers a special dining experience. She worked as a culinary arts instructor for Hocking College and taught off-campus programs, giving her the skills necessary to experiment with new recipes.
“I have always had an interest in the science of cooking and what goes on, why different ingredients and techniques have the effects that they do,” Burhan says. “With some of that background knowledge, you can manipulate your results really well. So I do.”
Much of Salaam’s menu is inspired by Burhan’s trips around the globe, where she was exposed to foods and flavors of all kinds. She has traveled to India and Nepal, and her most recent expedition was a trip to Australia about two years ago. Burhan admits that much of her travels involve trying new foods, though that is not the sole purpose.
“I think the purpose of traveling for me is to jar yourself out of a complacent comfort that you might have with your current situation,” she says. “Normally I don’t go places where almost everybody speaks English. I’d rather be somewhere completely different from here.”
Burhan’s passion for exploring the unfamiliar has given her unparalleled opportunities to experience new cultures that she can share with her customers and employees.
“[Before I worked here], I would come in and eat and the food was always so good,” waitress Jordan Toney says. “The atmosphere here is really cool.”
Burhan says Salaam employees tend to be really happy, which she believes is an important part of running a successful business. She says the entire staff strives to serve fresh food and keep customers satisfied.
“We come for dinner most of the time, and the food is always fresh,” says Chris Stalder, a Salaam customer whose favorite dish is the chicken coconut curry.
Dishes such as the coconut curry reflect Burhan’s passion for Indian food. During a trip to Udaipur, India, she had the opportunity to take private cooking lessons and learn how to make basic Indian dishes, giving her the chance to duplicate traditional recipes for her business. When such opportunities are not available, Burhan looks to cookbooks and YouTube for assistance.
“I tend to have my favorite YouTube people for Turkish cuisine or for Indian cuisine, you know,” she says. “I like their style of teaching and demoing online, and they have a good body of videos and things out there.”
Though those dishes often call for unusual ingredients, Burhan strives to use local food. Thus, each dish adopts an international feel but is comprised of foods not normally found in that country’s cuisine. That helps keep the taste diverse and the substance close to home.
Although Salaam’s menu has certainly thrived from Burhan’s travels, her worldly appreciation extends far beyond trying new recipes. Such experiences have ignited a desire in her to serve afflicted communities around the world. For Burhan, that service began in 2004, when a tsunami devastated the people of South Asia. She saw an opportunity to gather citizens of Athens in hopes of raising money to make a difference.
Burhan organized a benefit, complete with fresh food and music, and encouraged attendees to donate for the cause. Her plan was a raging success; the benefit raised $18,500 for the tsunami victims. For a Thursday night in a small, middle class town, the results were astounding.
“I remember walking out in the middle of this benefit, there were bands playing and people [were] helping themselves to food in the buffet line, and there’s this silent auction and everything,” she says. “And I’m thinking, ‘Man I love this town. I love Athens. People are so good here.’”
Over the years, Burhan has been involved in similar charitable events; she most recently helped flood victims in Rainelle, West Virginia. She also regularly donates gift certificates to silent auctions and raffles around Athens, hoping to share the magic of Salaam with new customers.
“Not a day goes by that we’re not asked to give something for something,” Burhan says. “We look at it as a good way to introduce our restaurant to people that haven’t been here yet.”
Burhan’s passion for hearty, honest cooking make Salaam a staple of the Athens food scene. Aesthetically, Salaam is ornamental and inviting in a way unlike other restaurants. The appearance, combined with the fresh dishes and the hardworking hands that prepare them, reflect the true essence of dining at Salaam.
“We try to sell our customers good, honest food that we’ve prepared with care,” Burhan says. “The harder you work, the better things are.”