When a Jewish Light food writer was looking for tips on matzah ball soup before Passover in 2008, she turned to someone who, to the unfamiliar, might have seemed an unlikely source: a Palestinian Muslim man.
But Akram Ali-Hassan had been a chef at Kohn’s Kosher Deli for a decade and knew how to make good soup.
“Don’t overcrowd,” he said. “Otherwise they’ll come out in different shapes and sizes.”
Ali-Hassan died from a heart attack on Oct. 15 at age 65, leaving behind a restaurant and Jewish community that was different because of him.
“He gave his heart and soul to the business,” said Lenny Kohn, co-owner of the deli. “I think he cared about my business as much as I cared about my business.”
Prior to working at Kohn’s, Ali-Hassan, born in Ramallah, owned Mid Eastern Market on South Grand, open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days each week, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“You got to do it for your customers,” Ali-Hassan, who came to St. Louis around 1970, explained about the long hours.
In 1998, about a year after Kohn’s moved into its new Creve Coeur location, Ali-Hassan walked into the deli and told Kohn “that he wanted to work for us, he would do everything; he wanted to build my business.”
And he did indeed help. Kohn and Ali-Hassan would work 12, 13-hour days together. Kohn said that Ali-Hassan “ran a tight ship” in the kitchen and that his “organizational skills were unbelievable.”
“We could have 50 orders on the wall and he would just maneuver through it and get everything done….The busier we were, the happier he was. When it was slow, he would be a little more agitated,” Kohn said.
Ali-Hassan also introduced Middle-Eastern food to the menu alongside more traditional kosher deli items. And he became a fixture at events around the Jewish community, like the annual Nishmah Women’s Retreat, where he would sleep and prepare food.
“The thing he said over and over was, he would hold his hands out and would say, ‘You don’t cook with your hands; you cook with your heart.’ And I believe that’s what he did, he cared about it and was involved in so many [St. Louis people’s] simchas (celebrations),” Kohn said.
Ali-Hassan was married and had four children. At home, during his leisure time, he would read cookbooks, and he was in the process of writing one, which his family will now finish, his daughters said.
One of his signature dishes was Maqluba, a Middle-Eastern rice dish that translates to “upside down” and features chicken, lamb or beef and vegetables.
“When it’s cooked, you turn it upside down on a platter, and that’s how you serve it,” said Lanna, his oldest daughter.
She said that he “also liked the challenge of” working at Kohn’s “and how food has to be prepared and separated and served differently in a kosher environment.”
On what it was like for him as a Palestinian man at a Jewish deli, his younger daughter, Ayah, said, “I don’t think it ever really phased him. He just kind of looked at people as all the same and just liked serving and making people happy through food.”
A few days after Ali-Hassan died, Rabbi Hershey Novack, co-director of Chabad on Campus at Washington University, wrote on Facebook, “Sorry to hear of the passing of Akram, legendary staff-member at Kohn’s Kosher Deli.”