The delicate folds of the rose-shaped dumplings not only looked pretty but also created perfect pockets for chunks of spiced meat and savory bits of red peppers and onions. Meant to be shared between lovers on special occasions, the steamed dumplings are called mantoo, which means “me and you.”

A traditional dish in Afghanistan, it’s usually made with ground beef and flavored with cumin and turmeric, plus cilantro and the occasional green chile. But for Henrico County resident and Ellwood Thompson’s chef Hamidullah Noori, it’s the little touches — the rose shape of the dumpling, for example — that he’s developed to elevate the dish beyond ordinary. Served with a swipe of plain yogurt on the plate and garnished with fresh mint — or nestled in a spiced tomato sauce that Noori created on a whim alongside tender lentils — all of it comes from a man with a grateful heart and a sharper palate.

Formerly the executive chef at a luxury hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan — the Kabul Serena Hotel — Noori, 33, and his family fled their homeland when they no longer felt safe. They arrived in the United States in the summer of 2015, stopping first in Newport News before moving to Richmond in 2016. In addition to working at Ellwood Thompson’s, Noori is building his own catering company. He’s also a regular headlining chef for Richmond-based Underground Kitchen, where he’s allowed to let loose to showcase his take on modern Afghan food.

He’s living a dream, Noori said earlier this year, sitting at a table inside Ellwood Thompson’s after his shift was over. His wife and four children, ages 1 to 12, are safe. Gone are the 18-hour, six-day workweeks for which he became accustomed. He’s been given opportunities in America that exceed his wildest dreams, and there’s no end in sight, only more opportunities, if he’s willing to work for them.

He plays with food for a living, he said with a grin.

“I’m in the kitchen always, making food,” Noori said. “I love to create new recipes that no one has ever tried before.”

***

Noori is humble and quiet, but his dishes reveal what he’s often too shy to say about himself: that the subtle yet complex flavor profiles he creates speak to his wisdom and experience in the kitchen, while fresh ingredients and the constant experimentation show off a creative side.

And he is passionate about making Afghan food better, particularly its presentation. Although careful to keep the essence of his culture’s culinary history, little by little he’s taking the dishes up a notch through small tweaks — new sauces, garnishes, a new ingredient here and there. It’s a change from what’s done “back in country,” as he says, because in his culture, food is consumed family-style from large community vessels. Presentation isn’t necessarily a priority.

He’s quick to pull out his cellphone to show off pictures of the dishes he’s made at one event or another — dumplings and roasted vegetables and hummus. Pictures of his kids at the playground pop up in between.

Holding his phone, he also points out the small scars on his hands, and instantly the happiness drains from his face.

Barely visible, the scars are physical reminders of a day when he was about 10 and the Afghan gas station where he was working caught fire. Alone in the shop, he was pushed out the door to safety by a higher power, he said.

“I cannot believe how I survived,” Noori said softly. “God decided for me to live.”

The oldest of eight children, Noori was just 8 years old when his father died. Under the Taliban regime, his mother wasn’t allowed to work, and as the oldest boy, he immediately became the provider for his family.

“Most of our children in Afghanistan do that,” he explained. He worked in a less-than-reputable tailor shop that fronted a gambling operation, then at that gas station and other jobs. Food wasn’t trendy. No one he knew was cooking for the pure joy of it. Food, when it was available, was reduced to mere nourishment.

One year, when he was about 12, his family had nothing to eat but bread and onions.

“Life is kind of challenging when you have responsibilities before you knew it,” Noori said. Though his family suffered at the hands of the Taliban — his uncle and cousins were killed, and their homes destroyed — “you have to look for opportunities to stand up against it.”

Ironically, it’s food that ultimately saved Noori. By the time he was 20, he found his way to a kitchen job at the Hotel Intercontinental Kabul, where he learned to cook and run a kitchen. That training took him to the five-star Kabul Serena, where he become executive chef. It’s there that he met Americans working with the U.S. Agency for International Development, and in 2006, he took on a second job as the agency’s executive chef.

Noori recalls the first time the Kabul Serena was attacked, in January 2008. Six people were killed, including one of his best friends. It was hit again in 2014, and this time, the attack started in the restaurant and killed nine people.

Through his U.S. connections, Noori and his family applied for a special immigrant visa in 2013. His request was granted, and in June 2015, he and his family arrived in Newport News. He found work at various Middle Eastern restaurants, but quickly became disheartened. He was working long hours nearly every day in a place where his true culinary skills weren’t tapped.

“This was not a place I should be,” he remembered thinking. In someone else’s restaurant, where menus never changed, “there was no way to show your talent [or] bring changes.”

Stephen Allen is the site manager for the Richmond office of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants through assistance with health, employment and other services once they enter the United States. Allen’s group worked with Noori and his family when they arrived in Richmond, facilitating the employment connection with Ellwood Thompson’s.

More than just helping folks find jobs, “what we’re really trying to do is understand people’s strengths, but also what drives them,” Allen said. Connecting Noori with a place like Ellwood Thompson’s — “a place in the community that’s so important — we felt made perfect sense.”

Allen recalled that Noori once catered an IRC event, where “he told his story and made some amazing food.”

“He’s a bit of a celebrity around here,” Allen added. “He has so much energy and ability, and he’s just an incredible person.”

***

Richmond and elsewhere have become testing grounds for Noori’s updated Afghan cuisine.

Micheal Sparks runs Underground Kitchen, which specializes in lavish culinary pop-up dining and multisensory envirodining events. He met Noori through a mutual friend, and immediately recognized the chef’s talents, he said. Noori’s first event for Underground Kitchen involved a worldly six-course look at the history and flavors of dumplings — mantoo was featured, of course.

“He dug into Asian culture, his culture, Italian, American,” Sparks said, and patrons “were blown away.”

In a UGK event earlier this year that starred cumin as the main ingredient, Noori created a menu that featured three different amuse-bouches, plus spiced kebabs, red lentil soup — even cinnamon cake.

“He embraces his culture, but [he’s] always trying to learn something new,” Sparks added. “He can jump from Afghani and Persian food to French food in five seconds.”

It’s opportunities like these, Noori said, “that give you more energy to work.”

His goal, he said, is to open his own restaurant one day. For now, however, a job with regular working hours means he’s home nearly every night to eat with his family and spend time with his children. They sit around their dining table eating homemade meatballs and kebabs and fluffy rice lightly sweetened with carrots, raisins and hints of cardamom and cinnamon. He jokes that his wife, Lailuma, is the real chef in the family.

“I’m the helper,” he said.

He said he’s thankful for what he calls “a second chance at life.” He acknowledges that American generosity has surprised him. Some of those feelings he jots down on paper through poetry. He’s thinking about publishing a book.

“To live a life in Afghanistan is a chance — you never know what happens,” Noori said. “I was lucky to survive.”

Now, “I don’t feel like I’m in a place where I may not be able to move forward,” he said, adding that one thing he learned from those chefs “back in country” is that true passion can’t be forced.

“It comes out of honesty,” Noori said. “We put the ingredients together; you put your love in it; then it becomes fabulous.”

Commenting is limited to Times-Dispatch subscribers. To sign up, click here.
If you’re already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.