The long and laborious journey to becoming a restaurateur now leads an Ethiopian-born chef on a mission to expand his culinary story. Chef Elias Taddesse’s distinct approach to celebrating the marriage of Ethiopian flavors and American favorites was introduced on November 17 at a new restaurant in Washington, D.C.
“To me, it shows resiliency with the pandemic and still being able to pivot toward a new product. I’m very proud that I’m continuing and finding a broader audience,” says Taddesse, owner of Doro Soul Food and Mélange.
Soul Food with Ethiopian Flare
Chef Taddesse introduces D.C. area diners to his Doro concept at his new restaurant, Doro Soul Food and at his first place, Mélange. At Doro, he uses his French culinary training and techniques to add Ethiopian ingredients to some popular American dishes, such as fried chicken. “When you ask how these flavors came about, I can tell you it’s from memories of growing up with my African American friends. It’s also going to restaurants I loved eating at like Popeye’s,” adds the restaurateur.
The Washington region’s numerous Ethiopian restaurants have made that country’s cuisine more familiar to area residents. Ethiopia’s unofficial national dish is Doro Wat, a spicy chicken stew. It inspires the flavors of the bone-in fried chicken and chicken sandwiches at Taddesse’s new restaurant. “I have peppers flown in from Ethiopia, which I toast and grind in-house. That becomes the glaze of our hot chicken version, which has a distinctly Ethiopian flavor approach to it.”
The same approach is taken with the mac & cheese flavored with Doro Wat spices, the collard greens made with smoked turkey and the cornbread baked with Ethiopian twists. “When you take the cornbread out hot, you dredge it with butter, right? Instead of butter, I dredge it with qibe and put in black cumin, which we use in a lot of our breadmaking. That’s where the soul food meets Ethiopian comes in,” Taddesse says.
The chef and restaurant owner’s vision for Ethiopian flavors meets American favorites developed over years of experimenting. Taddesse’s love of both countries’ cuisines and cultures influenced his decision to open Doro Soul Food. He stuck with the fast-casual structure that made Mélange a go-to burger joint. “If you asked me three, four or five years ago if I would be doing fried chicken and burgers, I would have thought you were crazy,” he comments.
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Mélange Born in Burger Battle
In fact, the D.C. entrepreneur went back to Ethiopia with plans to open a restaurant there. While in his native country, some chef friends challenged him to a burger contest. It became a competition hosted on a hotel rooftop with more than 100 participants and 14 judges. Taddesse describes the outcome. “I blew them out of the ballpark. The vote was 13 to 1. There was no comparison. I also baked my own bread.”
The 14 to 16 hours Taddesse spent cooking in some Michelin-star New York restaurants six days a week prepared him to deliver fine-dining quality, even with a humble burger. By 2017, he had perfected his fusion of American and Ethiopian flavors using French cooking techniques into a next-level, gourmet burger.
His burger place opened two years later to critical acclaim from food writers and rave reviews from patrons. “It was a long process. There were times I kicked myself when I was out in the cold in the beer garden while my peers were in top-tier restaurants. I guess I made the right decision,” Taddesse says.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mélange as a mixture of incompatible elements. The elegant harmony of the burgers and other menu items served at Mélange in a fast-casual setting gives new meaning to the word.
Financial strategies steered Taddesse away from investor-driven, fine-dining models for his restaurants. “That’s how I’ve been able to slowly build a name for myself and grow. I do still maintain 100% of my business. Now, I’m in a better position to negotiate terms of a partnership instead of giving everything up and owning 20%.”
The restaurateur knows talented chefs who opened fine-dining establishments with other people’s money only to be pushed out a few years later. “That’s something I was able to avoid by starting as a pop-up. It’s not glamorous going from a Michelin-star restaurant and being in the back of somebody’s beer garden. But that gives you a certain freedom and teaches you the business side without high risk,” Taddesse maintains.
The chef’s approach to slow growth and lower overhead allows him to source the best ingredients for his dishes, including dry-aged beef ground in-house. Mélange is one of Eater DC’s 18 Essential Restaurants and is on the city’s 2022 Thrillist list of 19 Best Burger Joints. The Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington chose Taddesse as a finalist for Rising Culinary Star of 2022 because he “demonstrates exemplary talent, shows leadership and promise for the future.”
Finding Purpose in France
Looking at Taddesse’s culinary past provides insight into his success as a restaurateur. The chef grew up in Ethiopia, loving the times spent in the kitchen with his grandmother and uncles. As a teenager, he played soccer and studied math and science with a vision of going into international business. When a soccer scholarship fell through, the then 18-year-old started working as a restaurant server. Taddesse’s ability to speak fluent French opened the door to a job in the U.S. at the Hotel Sofitel Minneapolis. “I was a host, busboy and a senior server after about a year.”
Mélange and Doro Soul Food’s owner continues with what became a turning point in his life. “I ended up going to The Institut Paul Bocuse in Lyons, France. I came to New York to work in fine-dining, Michelin-star restaurants and learn from Alain Ducasse and Paul Liebrandt, two of the world’s best French chefs.”
Taddesse also worked as a corporate chef for CitiBank and an executive sous chef at Caviar Russe before deciding to become more than an Ethiopian chef making top-rated French food. “I felt like I had reached the pinnacle of the skill set for cooking at this level, for this clientele. But also, it’s time for me to tell my story,” he says.
Foundation for the Future
The D.C. chef learned early in life that food tastes better when the ingredients include love, passion and a story. His Doro concept contains all those things; now he’s reaping the rewards. “I think my current success inspires me to push harder. It inspires me to get even more accolades. Being a chef is an ego game. It doesn’t mean anything, working these many hours and doing all this work, if you are not recognized for the great job you are doing,” says Taddesse.
The restaurateur suggests that young people consider taking a slow journey to success by maximizing learning opportunities at every level of the culinary industry. “The best thing that helped me a lot in every kitchen, I went into was putting my head down and focusing on the next task. The faster and better I did the task, the more opportunities I had to do more fun and inventive things. It also helped me work faster, be more organized and be a better chef.”
Taddesse also recommends the younger generation of chefs start small and do pop-ups. That way, they learn the numbers and how to surround themselves with people who are good at what they do. “Learn to bring all these things together, not only making great food but your marketing, story, execution and the main thing, your consistency.”
Another piece of sound advice Taddesse shares is to treat your employees well. How well you sell them on your dream will determine the dedication demonstrated when you step away from the kitchen. “I think it’s a huge success when you don’t have to be there. In return, that helps me focus on Doro and expand. I can build a community of people and create jobs for people who have been with me for a long time. It helps them understand the more success we have, the more success they’re going to have,” the chef explains.
The proprietor of Mélange and Doro Soul Food feels he has accomplished much of what he set out to do on his long, arduous journey to owning two restaurants. There also could still be a fine-dining establishment in his future. For now, the chef focuses on growing his brand, surrounding himself with the right people and building on his achievements. “I haven’t even started scratching the surface of what is possible. I’m looking forward to what is to come and all the opportunities that come with it.”