Guests at Jamila's Mediterranean Tunisian Cuisine (7808 Maple St., 504-866-4366) often get a booming welcome from Moncef Sbaa, who also is quick with a splash of aromatic orange flower water for their hands as they depart. In between, he helps ferry couscous, tagines, merguez and savory brik pies from the kitchen run by his wife Jamila. They both grew up around food production in their native Tunisia — Jamila on a family farm, Moncef near his family's camel-powered olive oil press. They opened Jamila's in 1994 and have run a food booth at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since 1997. Jamila's merguez is now carried at Langenstein's grocery stores (www.langensteins.com).
What is the essence of Tunisian food?
Sbaa: I grew up in an Italian-French-Jewish-Arab neighborhood. We always had a mix around us, and that's what the food is like too. It's about olive oil, garlic, mint, rosemary; it's fresh lamb and fish and how you season it. The idea is always to put different ingredients together but not to lose their flavors when you do.
Did you ever worry about how New Orleans would respond to traditional dishes?
S: We wrote the menu many times before we opened. People ask me today, "Why don't you have hummus on the menu?" Well, 20 places around me have hummus. It's good to create your own space. You see a lot of restaurants opening now with the same menus. But I always thought the more specialized, the more particular your food was to your restaurant, the better.
You always seem to be having a blast at work. What's the secret?
S: We love this place. We believed in it, we dreamed it, we got our reputation and we want to keep that. I think hospitality is making sure everyone is happy, even the toddler who wants his bread right away. I even give the babies menus. The parents say, "But he can't read." But if everyone has a menu, I want him to have one too. You have to have pleasure in what you do, not be so worried about how many tables you turn. That way everyone goes home happy — the customers, the staff, you. And that way everyone comes back. — IAN MCNULTY