DON GONYEA, HOST:
All right. You may recall the "Seinfeld" character known as the Soup Nazi. He was the soup seller who flipped that old-fashioned notion of customer service on its head.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")
JASON ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) I think you forgot my bread.
LARRY THOMAS: (As The Soup Nazi) Bread - $2 extra.
ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Two dollars? But everyone in front of me got free bread.
THOMAS: (As The Soup Nazi) You want bread?
ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Yes, please.
THOMAS: (As The Soup Nazi) Three dollars.
ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) What?
THOMAS: (As The Soup Nazi) No soup for you.
GONYEA: The character was inspired by an actual New York City soup vendor, and NPR's Gregory Warner couldn't help but think of all of this while reporting in Ethiopia, where he met this guy.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: His name is Chef Chane, and if you visit his restaurant in Addis Ababa, remember three rules. One - come on time. Lunch is only served from 12 to one, and he always runs out of food. Two - don't ask for a menu. You'll eat whatever dish the chef decides to cook that day. And three - when you step up to the counter and you face the imperious chef in his tall, white hat, don't hold up the line.
Are we in line?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
WARNER: I arrived at his restaurant one day before the noon open. The line was already 40 long, snaking inside a crumbling courtyard across from a bunch of new high-rises. In the line, I meet Nebiat Mebea and his girlfriend, Kehalit Nikusei. He's prepping her for her first visit like Seinfeld preps Elaine. He tells her how Chef Chane might berate his assistant loudly when the spongy sourdough injera isn't laid out perfectly on the plate. Or how he'll tell talkative customers to praise God and eat, which in super polite Ethiopian culture apparently means shut up and get out of my kitchen.
NEBIAT MEBEA: Yeah, he's mean in a good way.
KEHALIT NIKUSEI: I'm not surprised.
WARNER: Kehalit says she'd heard already about the angry chef and about his delicious food. In fact, she'd asked to be taken here for Valentine's Day.
NIKUSEI: Yeah, we are celebrating.
WARNER: That's nice. A little bit of mistreatment...
WARNER: ..A little bit of chicken.
MEBEA: It makes it wonderful (laughter).
WARNER: The story of Chef Chane goes back twice as long as these lovebirds have been alive when Ethiopia was still a monarchy, and Chane was a chef in the royal palace, or so he says. Two revolutions and many governments later, he runs his restaurant like a fiefdom, dispensing food and insults majestically from the kitchen where radio is always on full blast.
Every few months or years, his landlord, taking note of his popularity, will raise the rent or a conniving official will demand a bride. And then instead of bowing to the system, Chane will disappear, set up in a new location where his devoted followers, like 40-year-old Assefa, will track him down through word of mouth.
ASSEFA: We just move on with him because we look for this guy. We need him (laughter).
WARNER: Now, when he's not cooking up food in his tiny kitchen, the 71-year-old chef, whose full name is Chanyalew Mekonnen, can usually be found just 12 feet away in an even tinier cubby that serves as a bedroom.
CHANYALEW MEKONNEN: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: And it's here from his perch, on a floral print mattress, that he tells me his signature cuisine came from observing the many international chefs that passed through the palace.
MEKONNEN: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: He tells me he uses spice techniques from Greek, India, Pakistani, Italian and Ethiopian cuisine. As for his mean streak, he tells me that there may be customers that he dislikes, but he tries to handle them with love.
MEKONNEN: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: "I only kneel down for my job," he says, "not for people." I don't worship any man. He adds, he did enough bowing in his palace years. And it seems that one secret to Chane's appeal, besides his delicious, spicy food, may be this pride, this refusal to bow in a culture where public space can often feel somehow conformist and guarded.
ASSEFA: Given the way he presents his food, you feel that you are eating at home, yeah.
WARNER: 'Cause he makes fun of you?
ASSEFA: He makes fun of me. The food is good. He's not - he's not like more of a businessman, you know?
WARNER: By the hour's end, the pots are scraped clean, the chef has retreated to his radio and customers lull narcotically on armchairs to sweat out the stewed chicken. I meet two young accountants, Jeta and Yohannes, sleepily wondering about the recipe.
YOHANNES: There are a lot of spices. I think also there's ginger, but...
JETA: It's not clearly known.
WARNER: It's a highly guarded secret.
JETA: Yeah, it's secret.
YOHANNES: Only he the one preparing such kind of food. There is nobody who is preparing food like this.
WARNER: To get a taste, they're happy to follow the orders of the ruling chef. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Addis Ababa.
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