Collard greens flavored with pomegranate, allspice and citrus. Deviled eggs seasoned with fresh za’atar. Hummus topped with chicken shawarma. At Calliope, which opened its brick and mortar location in Chattanooga, Tennessee in August 2022, Chef Khaled Albanna pairs the culinary influences of his upbringing in Amman, Jordan with Southern ingredients and a contemporary approach.
Albanna moved to the United States when he was 17 and came to Chattanooga to attend the University of Tennessee. As a student, he worked as a restaurant cook to earn pocket money and relished the camaraderie of the hospitality industry. After graduating with a civil engineering degree, he worked at an [engineering] internship for six months, but didn’t feel like he belonged. “I wanted to see people and meet people,” he told Beyondish. “I wanted that fast pace. Life didn’t work out with being an engineer and I decided to focus on cooking.”
In addition to working at various restaurants in Chattanooga, Albanna gained experience staging at restaurants in Chicago and New York. He continued to work his way up in the restaurant industry, eventually landing a position as the executive chef at Chattanooga’s Edwin Hotel.
The Covid pandemic gave Albanna an opportunity to pause and consider his next career step. “My background in cooking was French, Italian, even Asian, but I had never cooked in a Middle Eastern restaurant,” he said. “I wanted to create something true to me. That’s how it came together: Southern-influenced Middle Eastern cuisine.”
The menu at Calliope pays homage to the culinary traditions of the Middle East, with a modern twist and locally-sourced ingredients. The restaurant is named after the Greek muse of poetry known for her beautiful voice. “My cuisine talks about myself, and I wanted the food to be the beautiful voice that describes that,” said Albanna.
“We’re taking the products of Tennessee — everything from chicken to cucumbers to tomatoes — and representing a cuisine from another country,” he added. “The challenges come from where we are, where the cuisine is from. Tomatoes and melons are grown year-round, but vegetables are not, here. We have to pivot and think outside the box, about how to represent the flavors when the [traditional] ingredients aren’t available.”
Albanna also takes local ingredients and incorporates them into his take on Middle Eastern cuisine. “We get quail and do it like a chicken. We marinate it in yogurt and we stuff it with a farro pilaf,” he explained. “We took a quail, which is game meat here and usually done very straightforward, and we modernized it to fit into Middle Eastern cuisine.”
Another example of how he fuses flavors is a hummus dish topped with locally foraged mushrooms, chili, peanuts and lemon.
One of Albanna’s favorite menu items is the lamb sausage, made with a house-made Merguez spice mix and served with labneh infused with orange blossom water, wild scallions and a house-made hot sauce.
Looking to the future, Albanna hopes to offer special experiences at Calliope like tasting menus, as well as offering pop-ups and private dinners in collaboration with other restaurants across the country. “I want to increase awareness of what we are doing. I think we bring something to the table.”
NEXT ON THE DISH