Fariyal Abdullahi Is Making a Difference With Her Mission-Driven Cooking

Hav & Mar's executive chef is now a James Beard Awards semifinalist, too.

Hav & Mar executive chef Fariyal Abdullahi. Andy Thomas Lee

The most significant moments in life don’t always take your schedule into consideration—just ask Fariyal Abdullahi. At 10:23 a.m. on January 24, Abdullahi, the executive chef at Hav & Mar, was in the middle of filming a television segment when her phone started buzzing and just wouldn’t quit.

Sign Up For Our Daily Newsletter

By clicking submit, you agree to our <a rel="nofollow noreferer" href="http://observermedia.com/terms">terms of service</a> and acknowledge we may use your information to send you emails, product samples, and promotions on this website and other properties. You can opt out anytime.

See all of our newsletters

Abdullahi was doing what she often does—working a long day, even though she wasn’t at her restaurant. (And to be clear, she’s typically at Hav & Mar five days a week, and frequently working on projects for the restaurant when she’s off-site.) On this particular day, however, she was judging Food Network’s Chopped.

Abdullahi is used to juggling multiple gigs, events and obligations. But the morning of January 24 was different. It was discombobulating trying to process what was happening, she says. Her phone blew up with congratulatory texts. But she didn’t have much time between shoots to properly react to the news that she had just become a James Beard Awards semifinalist for Emerging Chef.

Abdullahi is now a James Beard Awards semifinalist for Emerging Chef for her work at the restaurant. Andy Thomas Lee

“I had maybe 30 seconds in between them resetting the cameras and repositioning everything,” Abdullahi tells Observer of the moment she found out. “And they’re like, ‘Okay, judges, you’re on camera.’ So I put my phone away, and the buzzing kept going.”

During one break between shooting, fellow judge Tiffani Faison (who also knows a few things about balancing a busy restaurant career with prominent TV work) effusively congratulated Abdullahi. Moments later, filming started up again—Abdullahi was on set for 11 hours that day. Right before they wrapped, while Abdullahi was furiously replying to texts, the Chopped team gave her congratulatory flowers. The newly awards-nominated chef then left, and went to a low-key dinner with a friend.

When you work as hard as Abdullahi does, the glamour and the grind are inextricably linked—she did, after all, reach another career milestone as one of 10 chefs selected to contribute a recipe to the plant-based menu at the postponed 2021 Met Gala. What makes her accomplishments at Hav & Mar—a bustling Chelsea restaurant that’s both a commercial success and a mission-driven endeavor—meaningful are the stories she gets to tell and the food she gets to cook. 

The Havatini. Andy Thomas Lee

“I have these moments in the walk-in,” she says. “All these upscale restaurants have a certain way of storing stuff, a specific setup. So for me, the moments where it all connects are when I go in the walk-in and all of our mise en place is set up so beautifully, with a lot of Ethiopian dishes. There’s shiro. There’s doro wat. There’s injera. I can’t believe this is the food that’s walking out of my pass right now. And people are showing up.”

The Ethiopian-born Abdullahi and her kitchen showcase African-diaspora food with their exuberant cooking. They put Ethiopian influences into the bread basket. They serve doro wat, the country’s national dish, with fried chicken. They go big with chilled seafood towers and a grand lobster jubilee atop oxtail rice.

“This is a massive operation,” Abdullahi says. ”It’s 140 seats. We’re open seven days a week. Labor is so insane now, and a lot of the restaurants in New York City aren’t open every day and have a lot less seats. So for me to have this many seats, and to be open seven days a week and still have butts in these seats, that’s a measure of success that maybe the world doesn’t get to see.”

Fariyal Abdullahi at Observer’s Nightlife + Dining Power Reception. Sabrina Steck/BFA.com

Awards recognition is nice, but there are times when Abdullahi looks at Hav & Mar’s P&L (profit and loss statement), thinks about the food she’s serving and realizes the success is already here. Whatever happens on April 3, when the 2024 James Beard Awards finalists are announced, is out of her hands. While an award can be punctuation, the work itself is the statement.

“There are a lot of things that we’re doing at Hav & Mar that I’m extremely proud of—this is the only thing that brought me back to the restaurant industry,” says Abdullahi, who previously cooked at Noma and was a culinary manager for Hillstone in Miami, Santa Barbara, New York City, the Hamptons and Dallas. She was at Hillstone in Dallas when COVID-19 hit. “I left when the pandemic happened. I went back to Ethiopia with no formal plans of what I was going to do as my next step. I just knew I didn’t want to work in the restaurant industry.”

Fariyal Abdullahi wasn’t planning on returning to the restaurant industry until she got a call from Marcus Samuelsson. Alex Lesage

Then, in September 2020, she got a call from chef Marcus Samuelsson. Samuelsson, who was also born in Ethiopia, told Abdullahi about his plans for Hav & Mar: He wanted a restaurant led by women of color. He wanted to focus on sustainability. 

Samuelsson and Abdullahi (who were both featured in A Place at the Table, a cookbook that showcases immigrant chefs) had only met briefly prior to this conversation. Abdullahi was 7,000 miles away, and thought her eight-year professional cooking career was over. But she realized that opening this restaurant would be a way to reset the table and her life in an important way. She knew this was an opportunity to “hire people who deserve to have a voice and haven’t been given the voice before.” She knew she could do consequential work.

At Hav & Mar, Abdullahi buys ingredients from Black farmers. She also strives to make sure that the restaurant’s food waste doesn’t end up in landfills. She works with suppliers like Afterlife Mushrooms, which uses food scraps to grow its crops. She donates Hav & Mar’s oyster shells to Billion Oyster Project, which is restoring oyster reefs in New York Harbor. She cooks in her open kitchen, which allows guests to see that a Black woman is running things here, and that she’s more than just a chef who happens to also be on TV.

Abdullahi (who is set to appear as a judge on Sofia Vergara’s forthcoming Roku show, Celebrity Family Cook Off) has an intense work schedule, but she also makes time for philanthropic endeavors, like her own Take Care of Home nonprofit, which builds schools in rural parts of Ethiopia. In March, she’s heading back to Ethiopia to visit seven cities with Save the Children, an organization with goals that include closing the gender-equity gap. 

Abdullahi has also carved out a day to visit her family during the trip, but this isn’t a vacation. She’ll have to figure out how to have a proper break at some later date, but right now, she’s fueled by how her restaurant, TV and charity work feed off one another. It’s all part of a narrative that gives her the power to redirect the spotlight in significant ways.

She remembers thinking that, prior to Hav & Mar, she had a solid career as a woman of color, but she didn’t find the work to be particularly meaningful. 

Chef Fariyal Abdullahi. Angela Pettigrew

“I was burnt out, and never felt like I had actually accomplished something,” Abdullahi says of her work prior to Hav & Mar. “On paper, yes, it looks good. But am I actually making changes? I’m not making my food. I’m not helping the planet. I’m not hiring the people I want to hire. I’m not working with the purveyors I want to use. My siblings are physicians, and I would always think I wasn’t doing anything important.”

She doesn’t even need to clarify that things feel different now—that is truly self-evident. Just go to her restaurant, and you can see it all play out yourself. 

On March 4, Abdullahi, Hav & Mar and visiting chef Lana Lagomarsini will put together a dinner to celebrate International Women’s Day with MAPP, a nonprofit that provides mentorship and advocacy for women in hospitality. The work continues.

Fariyal Abdullahi Is Making a Difference With Her Mission-Driven Cooking