From the whimsical depictions of East Africa that protrude like museum exhibits from its walls to the mismatched chairs, to the plastic tablecloths, Zehabesha Traditional Ethiopian Restaurant’s esthetic is resolutely cheap and cheerful.
Then you taste the food and you’re transported to a palace of fine dining.
The menu features dishes such as kitfo, an aromatic platter that includes raw, minced beef blended with a delicious variety of spices; doro wot, a delicious platter of aromatic chicken stew served with tomato, garlic, peppers, egg and spices; yetsom beyayantu, a vegetarian platter served with beans, lentils, shiro, spinach and injera and the signature curried goat.
Some of the more ambitious dishes require spice blends that are unique to Ethiopian cuisine such as mitmita and berbere, and then there’s the homemade butter.
“It’s different yeah,” said Eline Baye, who churns out the butter using a recipe perfected by her mother and grandmother. “I put spices. I make at home. Everything I make at home.”
Her work has paid off. Zehabesha has been awarded a prestigious certificate of excellence by international social travel and tourism website TripAdvisor. The downtown eatery picked up the coveted prize for the fourth year in succession last week.
The award is given to establishments that maintain an overall TripAdvisor rating of four or higher, out of a possible five stars, as reviewed by travellers. Additional criteria includes the volume of reviews received within a 12-month period.
Only about 10 per cent of accommodations listed on the travel website are recognized with the certificate of excellence, explained TripAdvisor spokesperson Casey Brogan.
In addition, Zehabesha is currently ranked No. 1 out of 47 restaurants in Yellowknife, based on TripAdvisor reviews, “a true testament to how travellers’ feel about this restaurant,” said Brogan.
Of the 206 reviews Zehabesha has received, 130 of them are rated excellent, and zero are rated terrible.
Baye and her husband Dinku Tadesse have been running the restaurant since it opened in November 2014.
They arrived in Canada from Ethiopia. He came in 2010 and she followed two years later. The going was hard at first as the pair faced a severe labour shortage and high costs.
“The first six months, we almost gave up, we struggled,” said Tadesse. “Everything was expensive, especially still the rent but my wife said we don’t have to give up, we have to continue. She pushed me to do that. She told me we have to do it. When I gave up, she encouraged me, ‘You will see one day, we’re going to achieve our goal. We’re going to get our money back one day. Good things are coming.’”
“She is saying all the time, not me, I’m telling the truth,” he continued.
Facing a severe labour shortage, they tried virtually everything to recruit cooks and dishwashers, from offering bonuses to providing training but they failed. During the first few months the pair worked punishing hours as a result. Sometimes 15 or 16 hours per day, said Tadesse.
They went six or seven months without collecting a salary. Despite the difficulties they persisted, leaning on their Ethiopian Orthodox Christian faith.
“She is praying all the time, me not that much, I don’t care,” said Tadesse of his wife. “She prays most of the time. She say ‘one day God will give us a good thing.’ And it’s happen. And we are very happy.”
Though providence may have played a part in their success, it was no substitute for hard work and culinary skill.
Baye has no formal culinary training but growing up in a family of 12 brothers and sisters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s sprawling capital city, gave Baye plenty of time to hone her craft.
After school she would watch and help her mother and grandmother prepare food for their large family, she said.
“Since I was young I liked to cook,” said Baye. “My grandma, her recipes … my mom too, everything traditional.”
It also didn’t hurt that her family owns a five-star restaurant back in Ethiopia, where Baye learned to prepare food at a very high level, she said.
Baye said they’ll be continuing with their venture despite the challenges. In fact, Baye said she could double the size of their four-page menu if should find sufficient help.
But for now she’s cooking solo.
“Just me I work all the day, cooking all the day,” she said. “I working, still no give up.”