By Mia Finley
Fusion takes on a whole new level as chef David Conn takes over the kitchen of Herndon’s Nomad Grill. Here, Southern classics meet North African and Moroccan spices in a hookah bar setting.
“I’m happy it worked out. It could have gone ‘south,’ so to speak,” jokes Conn, 51.
His previous career as an orchestra professor at Cornell University for 15 years ended when, he says, “I found myself being obsessed with what I was about to cook. So I finally decided to retire from teaching and go to Savannah.” Without formal training, Conn jumped right in, rising to become head chef in places like Heart n’ Soul in New York, Edisto in Nashville and 5127 Restaurant and Lounge in Chantilly.
“The more I started reading a lot of soul food cookbooks and recipes from the 1800s, the more I saw Indian trade spices being used, especially from North and West Africa,” Conn says. His primary inspiration stems from the original copy of “The Carolina Rice Kitchen“ by Karen Hess. “I saw the educated history, the whole world of soul food. There were even recipes in the dialect of early Southern Africans,” he says.
After moving back to Reston, Conn worked as a restaurant consultant for Kitty’s Saloon, where he crossed paths with Nomad Grill owner Anise Amri, a frequent customer. “Anise saw the inspiration I had from that part of the world and the seriousness I put towards food,” Conn says. Amri’s desire for change from his previous hookah lounge resulted in an opportunity to partner with Conn and raise the standards of hookah bar dining.
At the start, Conn was expecting to do a Middle Eastern menu, but Amri wasn’t keen on staying traditional. “Ironically, I was more in that frame of mind than he was,” Conn says. He then took to a combined style and created a menu with items like butter bean hummus, black-eyed pea falafel and tomato soup with cinnamon, cardamom and honey. Not to mention, the restaurant is non-pork and halal. “It’s a goodwill gesture and respect towards the culture that supports hookah,” Conn says. “When we started we wanted to be more friendly to any Muslim clients, but I still have a hugely Southern [influence] to the whole menu.”
He describes bacon as “gilding the lily anyways,” and it became his culinary playground to find ways around pork—paprika spices, smoked brisket fried crispy and rendered and fried chicken skin—to get a smoky or fatty quality. “My menu is adapting, but we’re getting people to open their eyes. This gives us a chance to make a culinary mark,” he says. “This might be the smallest pigeonhole I’ve worked in, but I love that.”
Opened in May, Nomad Grill seats up to 50 diners and offers a full bar with craft beer on tap and fresh juice used for cocktails, along with multiple flavored hookah choices. / Nomad Grill; 137 Spring St., Herndon