How This South Dakota Chef Is Fighting Hunger with Food Art
2023 James Beard Award nominee Sanaa Abourezk shares her inspiration and passion for communityJanae Butler
April 20, 2023
James Beard Foundation Patrons are a community of supporters that believe in an equitable and sustainable future for the food and beverage industry—one where everyone has the opportunities and resources to thrive. Our Patrons include both food lovers and the people behind the plate, from chefs to restaurateurs, winemakers, front-of-house, and more. In this new series, we’re highlighting members from across our Patron program who are working to improve the industry and our food system, and who embody our mantra of Good Food for Good.
Meet Sanaa Abourezk, our April member spotlight. A 2023 James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef: Midwest and a James Beard Foundation Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change alum, Sanaa is the owner and founder of Sanaa’s Gourmet Mediterranean, located in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. We spoke with Sanaa about her journey to becoming a James Beard Foundation Patron, how her father influenced her passion to fight global hunger, and how she used dancing and food art to keep her business afloat during the pandemic.
JBF: How did you learn about JBF and what was your first interaction with the organization?
Sanaa Abourezk: I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in New York, and he mentioned there was a foundation in New York that is very active in food and beverage. Then after I came back from a trip to Syria, I found an email from JBF. I’m very active in food hunger and food issues, so I believe that’s how they found me. They said they have a Chef Bootcamp and asked if I’m interested and I said, “Hell yeah!” I went to Bootcamp and then officially became a member of the foundation.
JBF: You attended the Chef Bootcamp for Policy and Change in 2018. What did you take away from that experience, and what unique perspectives did you contribute to it?
SA: The camp was meant to train chefs on how to approach your politicians, whom you should address, and how to not waste your time. So, I learned how to better seek help and convince people. And from me, they learned more about SNAP and providing food for children—which is part of what I continuously campaign for. I'm usually focused on raising money for food banks.
JBF: After attending Bootcamp, why was it important for you to become an Industry Patron and support JBF as a chef?
SA: After I joined and started getting the emails, I saw JBF training new and young chefs to get the chance to cook at the Beard House. These young chefs, especially from different ethnic backgrounds, don’t get many chances. So, when they get recognized by JBF, even when they don’t win an award, that gives them the confidence they need. The minute they get a picture saying they cooked at the Beard House, a small door will open for them.
And I really love the Women’s Leadership Programs! I have a daughter, so you can understand my support for strong and confident women. But it doesn't matter how strong you are, you are still going to need support. So that's what’s made me even more interested and why I donated, because I’d like to have this program keep going.
JBF: How does Good Food for Good being anchored in talent, equity, and sustainability resonate with you and your work?
SA: I tell my friends, it doesn't matter how much money you have, we all live within the same universe. Only when we have sustainable resources that everybody can afford, can we all have a happy life. So, it's all connected; good environment, good food and resources, and making sure that everyone eats. I’m also really impressed that JBF is pushing diversity in the workforce and highlighting people from different countries. I love that.
For sustainability, my undergraduate degree was in agricultural engineering. My father was a farmer, so that’s where it started. Eventually we are all going to suffer unless we pay attention to our resources: how things are being planted, how it’s being fished, and how it’s been raised.
JBF: What’s the story behind the beautiful pieces of food art that you’ve created (like in your headshot) and posted on your social media?
SA: When COVID hit we were only allowed to do curbside pickup. I kept all my employees, and that’s paid out in the long run because I still have my wonderful staff, but I had to make money to keep paying them their full salaries. So, I thought, I just want to make my customers laugh. I started recording and posting dance videos. I played the soundtrack to Pink Panther around the restaurant and then Beethoven’s fifth sonata while I chopped tabouli. I started getting these emails saying, “thank you so much, I look forward to your videos and you make me laugh so hard.” And then every Saturday and Sunday I started doing live belly dancing lessons, too.
My customers saw the effort, so when I started offering family-style meals for pickup, people were really supportive. One day I’m at home and thinking, “what I can do with an eggplant?” I used that eggplant and a bunch of wire to create a fun food piece. My customers suggested that I do a calendar each month highlighting a vegetable, along with a recipe to use that vegetable. Then we will sell the calendar and the money will go to No Kid Hungry or Feeding America. So, it all started from wanting to make people smile and laugh.
JBF: When natural disasters or social issues occur around the world, you are quick to organize a lunch fundraiser and your community follows in supporting your efforts. How has your advocacy work in hunger evolved over time?
SA: The first one we did in the restaurant was for Hurricane Katrina. When they said the food bank was totally out because the flood took everything, I knew we had to do something. I hosted a dinner with all the money going to the food bank in New Orleans. We raised $7,000 and 2 tons of food, but we only asked for $10 and 2 cans of food from each customer. Then they start asking me when I was going to do it again. So, we did one after that for Feeding South Dakota, which is now an annual event. Then I joined World Central Kitchen, so now whenever they go anywhere, immediately, I do a fundraiser.
JBF: How important is it to you that your identity, your history, family, and who you are comes through your food? How have you managed to maintain that for over 19 years?
SA: When I first started, I definitely made mistakes. I decided to do tablecloths and China, and although people responded, it was kind of fake for me. I wanted everybody to be able to afford healthy food. My dad raised us to remember if one person is hungry and another person is working a job, it’s all just by chance and luck, so you have to treat everyone equally. If someone can’t afford the food I make, it just doesn’t feel right to me. I took out the tablecloths, said no waitressing, and I changed my menu. The most expensive item we have now is $12.95, only rising this year because the ingredients became so expensive.
I can say that I'm one of the few restaurants in the world where 90% of my customers come three times a week. It's affordable, it's healthy and they know I care. And even if the food prices go higher, we keep our overhead down with no waitressing, and I do the dishes with my staff every day. That’s how I'm able to afford good meals for everyone and people appreciate and know this.
JBF: Is there anything you’d like people to know about South Dakota/Sioux Falls and where the culinary scene is headed?
SA: The food scene in South Dakota is changing a lot. Even though they call us the fly over zone, honestly, you're making a mistake. You're missing some of the most genuine, wonderful human beings. Yes, we have steaks and buffalo, but you have people who make steak, buffalo, or corn in very delicious and unique ways. You should be coming here to experience the genuine Midwestern cuisine where there are many small restaurants owned by chefs creating wonderful varieties from sushi, to Middle Eastern, Afghani, and Indian food. So don’t fly over. You’re missing big things.
JBF: What’s next for you?
SA: We did take-and-bake meals during COVID and they became so popular that we started selling them [at the restaurant] and in the grocery store. So, I'm going to apply to Shark Tank and I'm hoping to have them nationwide because they're vegan and based on the Mediterranean diet of grains, beans, and herbs. You can’t go wrong; it is healthy and delicious. I know if I get onto the front of the Sharks, I'll convince them to take me. So now it's time to apply and go. Always dream big!
Janae Butler is manager of development operations at the James Beard Foundation.