From Sugo to the Williamsburg: A chef’s turbulent childhood and inspiring immigrant chefs

Chef Elissa Chang opened a vegan/vegetarian restaurant in Baltimore in 2013. It’s called Sugo and it’s a remarkable feat for a chef who can trace her lineage all the way back to the Ice Age. One of her uncles wrote the Sugar Plum Fairy. Yet, she’s not only the chef but also a full-time schoolteacher, a veterinarian and, before Sugo, an entrepreneur. Not many young women from Washington do three or four jobs. Not many people with such varied résumés are allowed to run a restaurant. But if Chang wants to set up the future, she is making sure young girls don’t get lost. And her Sugo is part of a new crop of restaurant openings by young and emerging native Americans.

* * *

Landon Hashemi opened Boston’s The Williamsburg in 2007, with the dream of creating sustainable and healthy cooking. It is located in Massachusetts’ Central Square and has won numerous awards. It’s certainly not cheap: a veggie panini and a beverage can cost more than $12.

In the mid-80s, Hashemi was the chef at the Canal House Restaurant in Cleveland, located just north of what is now Inner Harbor. His father is the sushi chef and his mother is an optometrist. When they were young, they would try to cook at home for their family but soon abandoned the idea. Hashemi was much in demand at the Canal House and when he wasn’t there, he would often go to study.

As a student, he worked at the top restaurants in Massachusetts. When his education was complete, he opened out his own studio and became a chef-entrepreneur. He didn’t quit his job, though, because it was what he loved to do.

His next project was The Williamsburg, where he focuses on producing the highest quality foods for his customers, with a large selection of antibiotic-free, hormone-free and local ingredients.

In the late 1990s, one evening, Hashemi was having dinner at the Canal House when two diners walked in. They ordered the same thing, and when Hashemi asked what they did next, the person offered the back of their hand. “We started playing cards. But I kept playing the olympics. If I get gold, you guys get silver. If you win, I win. Those were my cards. My credit card was my winning card,” Hashemi recalled. When it was time to move on, he knew he had to give something back.

Hashemi’s first restaurant in Massachusetts was an Indian-style spot in Boston. It opened in 2000. The story and the menu were based on the same principles as The Williamsburg: an emphasis on being responsible with the environment and our planet and to use locally as much as possible.

* * *

Pete’s Apizza opened in September 2009, and it quickly established itself as a must-visit spot for pizza lovers in Virginia and Maryland. Part of the construction crew as a teenager, Pete’s owner Pete DiFonzo and the late Bernie Ruffin set up the retail section of the restaurant to carry their custom-made and industrial-looking pizzas. Despite all of the pizzas being delivered and prepared at Pete’s, Ruffin and DiFonzo would both still come in to the retail side for a few slices. The two always worked together, sharing the excitement of opening a restaurant.

And Ruffin was always a key player in promoting Pete’s. After Ruffin passed away in 2015, DiFonzo continued to draw on Ruffin’s ideas for promotions and loyalty card programs. He now brings on board a team of people who had some level of experience in the pizza business.

Leave a Comment