Today---July 26th---should be one of the proudest days of Raymond Khattar’s career.
But stepping into work at 7am, the first thing Ray sees is his son. For almost five years, the framed photograph of the handsome young man with the wide smile and coyly cocked chin has greeted Ray in the morning.
Maybe Ray looks at the photo a bit longer today. Because when he puts on his signature green apron, like he’s done more than 9,000 times before, he does so not only as Halifax’s uncontestable falafel king but as a father mourning the fifth anniversary of his son’s death.
And the day goes on, just as it has for more than two decades. If you haven’t met Ray in the 25 years he’s been at Scotia Square, look for the vendor with the longest line.
“I don’t need to say I’m the best,” says Ray. “Other people say it for me.” Four women help Ray prepare today’s food. They chop and bustle about making chicken, side dishes and falafel.
But before his son, before the women, before the chicken and side dishes, there was just Ray and his falafel.
Ray’s Falafel opened August 14, 1981. The shop was much smaller then. A 22-year-old Ray stood fresh-faced behind the counter awaiting his first customer. This isn’t what he imagined he’d be doing in Canada.
Before immigrating Ray studied civil engineering in Lebanon. He came to Canada in 1980 with his wife, Hannie, to live with her brother. Ray needed three more months in school to earn his degree, but never finished. He was educated in French and the metric system. Canada was still using imperial measurements and only St. Francis Xavier University had French programs.
Ray got a job helping build Purdy’s Wharf Tower One. He was laid off when the job was finished. Facing unemployment, Ray did the only other thing he did well---falafel.
The secret to Ray’s falafel is the special blend of spices. The right amount of the right spices brings out the flavours evenly. The recipe has never changed and relies on authenticity. Ray’s never westernized his falafel and won’t stock any ingredients but the basics.
“Whatever I eat at home or in Lebanon I do it here,” he says. “Some people like to add ham, cheese or mustard to modernize it, but to me you gotta make it the right way.”
Ray’s falafel instantly won people over, but in 1981 the average Haligonian’s appetite didn’t include falafel. So, Ray worked as a street vendor on the side---giving free samples hoping people would come back. They did. When Ray serves the lineup at lunch today he talks as though his lips are trying to keep pace with his quick hands. He jokes and talks casually. He calls everyone “friend.” You can tell he means it.
“Whatever I say comes from right here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “To me, it’s not work. It’s something I enjoy. It’s like being at a club.”
When things started to take off Ray considered expanding. He dropped his plans when his son was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
“I didn’t want to keep busy. I like to spend more time with my son,” explains Ray. “Now he’s dead. For who am I going to do it for now?”
Now, Ray’s happy just talking with his regulars and tourists. He likes watching his friends bite into a falafel and sign OK with their hand---what Ray calls “the 30.” “When you come to people and give them food and they look at you and say it’s delicious---to me that’s like getting one million dollars. I keep people happy.” His friends came to his son’s funeral and left flowers and condolences at his shop. Ray worked to soothe his pain---talking with his friends about his son. It’s a memory. “Sometimes I don’t want to accept it, but it’s something that’s a fact. You gotta accept it.”
Ray’s belief---making others are happy will make you happy--- helped him through the years. Ray’s 13 consecutive Best of Halifax and Best of Food awards and his smile attest to his good judgment.
The Chronicle-Herald once named Ray’s Falafel the third restaurant in Nova Scotia to try if you haven’t before---only behind da Maurizio and Opa!.
“When you go to da Maurizio and Opa! they serve you on a silver plate, but look how I serve to you---foam and plastic,” he says pointing to takeout boxes and cutlery. “It’s not the way you serve, it’s what you give.”
The same can be applied to Ray. It’s not how life has been served to Ray, it’s what he’s got from it. And as long and difficult as it’s been, Ray’s found happiness. —Mike Landry
1st runner-up: Tarboosh Lebanese Cuisine, 5566 Fenwick Street, 405-4000
2nd runner-up: Pyramid Cafe, 2196 Windsor Street, 422-1768
on July 27, 2006
on April 28, 2005
on May 6, 2004
on May 1, 2003
on May 2, 2002
on November 8, 2001
Winner: Ray's Falafel
on November 4, 1999
Winner: Ray's Falafel
on November 5, 1998
Ray’s Lebanese, Scotia Square food court
on November 13, 1997