This week, we're talking to Eddie Hantas, owner and chef at Tempe's relatively new Mediterranean restaurant Hummus Xpress. Here, Hantas does street food-style eats with a serious chef's attention to detail. You'll find roasted, sauteed seasonal vegetables as well a rotating array of colorful hummus varieties. Yesterday, we got the scoop on how Hantas went from Beruit to Tempe, with pit stops in Las Vegas and Michigan, and today we'll find out more about how he got the idea for Hummus Xpress.
See also: 10 Best Things I Ate in September
In 2007 he started Eddie's Bistro, his own dive-y, late-night pizza joint, but quickly found that selling slices of cheap pizza to college students wasn't going to be enough pay the bills. So he added hookah. Hantas admits he wasn't the ingredient-driven chef then he is today. There was no connection with the food he served; it was about making money, and more honestly, about making ends meet. He closed the place after five years, when things "were getting heated" with the city and county over the hookah side of the operation.
For the next year he bounced around kitchens all over the Valley, from Sam Fox's North to the Herb Box. While he was figuring out his next move Hantas attended and graduated from Scottsdale Community College's culinary program. With some hands-on experience already under his belt, Hantas says he benefited in a more unexpected way from the education.
"It makes you more gutsy, that's what culinary school does," Hantas says. "And [SCC] is a good value."
Perhaps it was the schooling that gave him the guts to go for his dreams with Hummus Xpress. Before he came to the idea for his fast-casual healthy eatery, he toyed around with a few other concepts -- "Perhaps another pizza joint?" he thought, and at one point he considered the idea of a mac n' cheese-only restaurant.
"I wanted to do something simple," he says. "I didn't have a lot of money."
But, luckily for him and fans of his fresh Mediterranean cuisine, Hantas stumbled upon a Lebanese cookbook (of sorts) that his mother had given him.
And just like that, "I got really inspired to do something crazy," he says.
Hantas says it took him a while to get the concept down pat, and it's no accident the way he structured the menu: pick a "base," a meat, some fillings...you know the drill.
"It was like a dream come true," he says of opening Hummus Xpress. "And it caught on really quick."
Fast-forward ten months and you'll still find Hantas chugging away at his new-ish eatery, putting in the long hours almost always required by restaurateurs and their chefs. Things still haven't leveled out completely, he admits. One day, not long after Phoenix New Times ran a review of the restaurant, they completely ran out of food. For reasons like these Hantas understandably hesitant to hand the reins, even if just for a few hours, to anyone else. He admits, being a restauranteur and chef isn't his ideal situation -- the hiring, firing and other administrative duties aren't his favorite parts of the job.
"But the trade off is worth it for sure," he says. "I love what I do."
And what about those long lost basketball dreams, you wonder? Well, Hanta says he's just about ready to start hitting the gym again - even if it's just to get back into shape. Sometimes, he admits, he's still haunted by the fact that he left that part of his life behind, but at least in its wake he's found something new he loves.
"Once you start cooking, you just can't stop," he says.
The biggest misconception about Lebanon: No one knows how tolerant the average Lebanese person has to be. If you make it in Lebanon you can make it on Mars.
The best thing about living in Tempe: It's quiet here compared to growing up in Beirut.
What's your favorite food-related memory: My grandma making kibbe nayye, a Lebanese dish that's comparable to beef carpaccio.
The best thing you've ever eaten: Halibut ceviche in San Diego at Georges at the Cove.
Your best advice for restaurateurs: Have fun and have an emotional connection with your menu.
Your ideal comfort food is: Potatoes, mayo and butter.
The most important ingredient when cooking: Courage
One food/dish you can't get in Phoenix: Spanish ropa vieha.
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A good chef should always: Remember to never stop creating.
Where do you see yourself in five years: In Japan.
Check out our past Chef and Tell interviews with: Jay Bogsinke - St. Francis Dustin Christofolo - Quiessence Blaise and DJ Aki - The Sushi Room Sacha Levine - Rancho Pinot and FnB Andrew Nienke - Cafe Monarch Kevin Lentz - French Grocery Aurore de Beauduy - Vogue Bistro Justin Olsen - Bink's Midtown Marco, Jinette, and Edmundo Meraz - Republica Empanada Brian Peterson - Cork Brian Webb - Hey Joe! Filipino Street Food Lester Gonzalez - Cowboy Ciao Renetto-Mario Etsitty - Tertio German Sega - Roka Akor Marco Bianco - Pizzeria Bianco Brad and Kat Moore - Short Leash Hot Dogs and Sit...Stay