For 29-year-old Nizaris Khalifa, his career at Cleopatra Kebab, a kebab and falafel shop in Tokyo, started out simply as a way to make a decent living.
Now, every weekend rain or shine, an unending rotation of Tokyoites from all walks of life congregate in front of Khalifa’s place of work. Entertainers and club owners, inebriated bar patrons and Twitch-streamers alike huddle on wooden benches covered in chipped red paint enjoying the simple bliss of smoky, marinated meat and (if you’re lucky) freshly fried chickpea fritters before, during or after a night of drinking.
Although the quality of his food would lead you to believe differently, Khalifa hasn’t been cooking professionally for long. After moving to Japan from Tunisia eight years ago and working various jobs outside of the culinary field, he found himself in need of a change of pace and a new career.
“I’ve always loved cooking, but I just really needed a job, man,” he says of his career pivot, casually leaning across the counter on a late summer night as a glistening cylinder of marinated chicken thighs roasts away in the background.
Four years ago, Khalifa started working as a cook at Italian restaurant La Boheme in the upscale neighborhood of Shirokanedai. While he himself thrived in the exciting, fast-paced atmosphere of the professional kitchen — even seizing the opportunity to begin experimenting with his own recipes — there was still something missing. He just couldn’t connect with the Italian cuisine at La Boheme. He wanted to cook the food he knew from home the real way; to connect with his Tunisian roots and prove that kebab and falafel have a well-deserved place in Tokyo’s food scene. He moved on from La Boheme to an undisclosed kebab shop in Tamachi, where he honed his own unique marinades and recipes, before finally landing at Cleopatra Kebab in Shibuya.
The menu is short and simple. Kebab is always available with a choice of beef, chicken or lamb. The falafel, however, is never guaranteed, as Khalifa refuses to compromise on quality and will only serve it if he’s able to prepare the vibrant green mixture of chickpeas, parsley, mint, garlic and other undisclosed ingredients fresh himself.
When the falafel is available, it’s formed with an ice cream scooper and fried in hot oil to order — never prepared ahead of time. Cooking the falafel this way prevents it from drying out and becoming sandy, something Khalifa says is a common cooking mistake that causes the dish to have a bad reputation. When prepared his way, the golden brown, crispy exterior gives way to a fluffy, herbaceous and deeply satisfying interior, savory enough to tempt even the most dedicated of carnivores.
Although it can be disappointing to arrive only to have dreams of devouring freshly fried falafel dashed in an instant, it’s impossible to ignore Khalifa’s commitment to excellence.
He puts the same amount of care into his meats, too, which are marinated in unique mixtures for at least 24 hours before being skewered and slowly broiled over an open grill, their own fats dripping down and infusing throughout. The beef is marinated with bay leaf, chicken with paprika and lamb with mint (though, like any culinary magician, Khalifa says there are other secret ingredients he won’t reveal). The meat is then thinly sliced and piled high over fresh-cut vegetables in either a pita, wrap or over white rice — a local Japanese twist.
Beyond his clear culinary passion, what truly makes Khalifa’s unassuming kebab shop such a delight to visit are his regular Twitch livestreams and the crowd they tend to attract. On any given night, you’ll find an iPhone mounted on a small tripod on the counter, just in front of the rotating, glistening kebab skewers.
Originally, the streams started out as a way for Khalifa to pass the time and ward off loneliness during long hours prepping for service. Now, with an average of several thousand views per video, and a steady stream of comments, real-life patrons flock around the screen to participate in the conversation and interact with the viewers while they wait for their dinner. Often running over eight-hours-long, they’ve become a signature feature of the restaurant, and add an element of personality and engagement that’s hard to find elsewhere.
“It’s really about building a community; I actually met my neighbor through the stream. He stumbled across it, and came over to get some food. We got to talking, and it turns out he lives in my neighborhood. And now we hangout, and he comes around for some food pretty often. I gained a friend and customer,” Khalifa says, gesturing to the iPhone that acts as his streaming device. “It’s not about the money. I make a little bit, and every once in a while a big tip will come in … but it’s really just a way to have some fun and connect with people.”
There’s certainly something about the stream that brings people out of their shell. Rap cyphers and question-and-answer sessions between viewers and patrons about what it’s like to live in Tokyo are just a few examples of how the livestream helps drive conversation and builds community spirit around the shop.
“You don’t have to make everyone happy,” Khalifa says as he closes up shop just after 1 a.m. “You have to make yourself happy first.” When asked how he felt after a long night’s work, he simply shrugs and offers a tired grin. “At least I can make someone smile, you know?”
Udagawacho 4-7, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0042; 080-3939-2196; takeout/delivery available. You can find Nizaris Khalifa streaming from Cleopatra Kebab on Twitch at bit.ly/nizaris777.
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