Kollel Milhamta Shel Torah of Queens A Spiritual Home for Torah and Tefillah

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By: Ellen Geller Kamaras

   “How did I choose my career?  I was always in the kitchen, especially as a teen. If I was home on a Sunday and my parents were out for the day I would go into the kitchen and pretend that I was Julia Child, down to the accent, and I had my own show. I cooked up a new and “exciting take” of pasta with marinara sauce – Aliza.”

Meet Aliza Hamra Salem, the teenager who dared to dream and make her aspirations come true!   Aliza is a wife, mother, foodie, caterer, chef, food blogger, cooking instructor, and Instagram star, @theghettogourmet.

I was fortunate to first meet Aliza at the Moms on a Mitzvah fifth annual Challah Bake on November 28th, 2018.  I introduced myself as Aliza mingled with guests and provided dough kneading and baking tips to fulfill the huge mitzvah of baking challah for Shabbat.  After seeing Aliza’s vivacious smile while chatting with the women, I was determined to connect with her after the Bake, explore her joie de vivre, and introduce this dynamic culinary expert to my readers.

Let’s get to know Aliza, the young girl, the teenager, and the woman, before diving into her extensive and exciting career.

A Little History

Aliza is the daughter of Lillie and Abdo Hamra, who emigrated from Damascus, Syria to the U.S. in the late 1970s. The Hamras didn’t have any family in the U.S. to help them jumpstart their new lives.  Abdo worked hard as a salesman in electronics, and eventually succeeded in opening his own jewelry store.  Lillie was a devoted and loving stay at home mom.  Aliza’s big sister Latina was born in Syria, and Lillie gave birth to Aliza and her younger brother, Joey, in Brooklyn.  Aliza and her sibs were always close but got much tighter once they all married.

Aliza grew up on Ave P and East 8th Street, and attended Yeshiva of Flatbush elementary school and Shaare Torah High School. Summers were spent with her family in Brooklyn and at day camp.  After high school, Aliza enrolled in Touro College and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in speech and communication. 

Remember that joyful energy I noticed at the Challah Bake?

“As a child I definitely liked to have fun! Or in the words of my teachers, I was ‘energetic and bubbly.’ I liked being involved. School functions and plays were definitely my thing. I’m passionate about life and living every moment to my fullest. My family’s happiness is everything, and is my passion...”

The Hamra children helped out Dad in his jewelry company.  Aliza was a salesgirl, and believes that her experience was particularly valuable in helping her to form relationships. “I learned how to speak to people. I wanted to get to know them, their stories, and what they were about.”

Aliza emphatically declares that her mother is her mentor and role model.  Lillie strongly influenced the profession Aliza chose and the type of mother she herself became.  What higher compliment could a daughter pay a mother?  “If you looked up the definition of the word mother, there would be a picture of my mom there.  Her work ethic is do for others, and do it with a smile, and wholeheartedly. I learned to do my best and to do with a smile and that nothing comes before family - NOTHING.” 

Aliza Meets Her Naseeb

At 22, Aliza was introduced to Albert Salem, four years her senior, by a mutual friend.  The funny part was that Albert lived less than a block away, and Aliza knew everyone nearby except the people who lived in his house.  “I would walk by and say to myself, ‘I wonder who lives there?’”   Hashem planned their meeting when the time was right.  Albert, of Lebanese descent, showed Aliza “what it meant to be treated right, how to be valued, and respected.” Aliza and Albert became engaged four months after they met.

Albert is a CPA/auditor.  The couple has three children, Max (10), Eddie (7), and Mia Grace (2).  The boys study at mom’s alma mater, Yeshiva of Flatbush.

From Dreams to Reality

So, we know that from her teen years that Aliza envisioned herself as a famous chef, “force feeding” her creations to her parents.  Although she enjoyed earning a degree in speech and communications, Aliza always knew the kitchen was her calling.

Aliza connects food with love and family.  Lillie Hamra’s loving warmth and homemade cooking fueled Aliza’s passion for cooking!  Her mom is what Aliza calls an “old school Syrian mom.”

“My mother made everything from scratch, no store bought mazza (not that there is anything wrong with that), and she always smiled. Her home smells like love, always warm and comforting. Think of warm hot chocolate on a cold day. That is the feeling you get when you enter my mom’s house.”  

Aliza, who considers herself a foodie, has a multi-faceted career.  “I dabble in everything.  I love to cater, organize, and lead cooking parties and demonstrations.  I specialize in birthdays and mother/daughter cooking events.”

The Ghetto Gourmet is Born

Before Aliza gave birth to her oldest child, Max, she specialized in custom homemade chocolates and cookies.  She continued this specialty for a few years and then became pregnant with Eddie. After his birth, Aliza took some time off to focus on baby Eddie.  As Eddie got older, Aliza found herself struggling with balancing motherhood and maintaining her sanity when trying to feed her two picky eaters.  She explains that social media blogs were becoming popular and she came up with the name The Ghetto Gourmet, and created an Instagram account for it.  Her goal was to provide quick and easy recipes that looked and tasted delicious.  Aliza kept the page anonymous for six months. “I wanted people to follow me because they liked the recipes, not because they knew me. I named it ‘The Ghetto Gourmet’ simply as a play on words, an oxymoron.  You can’t really be a gourmet if you are ghetto.”

Seven years later and Aliza has 25.8 thousand followers. Yes, you read correctly, almost 26,000! 

What excites Aliza about food blogging is seeing how kosher cuisine has changed. “I love finding so many new ingredients and flavors in the kosher aisle that you wouldn’t have seen years before. Kosher oyster sauce, lamb bacon, and kimchi (which is my new fave in the kitchen), and taking these new trends and adapting them to ‘tried and true recipes’ is what I love to do.”    

About a year after The Ghetto Gourmet was launched, Aliza was approached by the Sephardic Community Center management to run culinary classes.  One class became two, two became ten, and the rest is history.  Aliza then began to offer cooking workshops in people’s homes.  Day or night programs, birthdays to couple’s classes, to bat mitzvahs, The Ghetto Gourmet made it happen. Two years ago, Aliza added a catering branch to her business, which has been growing.

A Balancing Act

Maintaining a healthy work life balance doesn’t come without challenges. “My family is the most important part of my life. The minute I see my career is negatively impacting my family, I will walk away from it. I work while my kids are in school and after they are in bed. It’s hard but it’s the only acceptable option for me. I never understood what my parents meant when they said they do everything for their children.  Now I feel it in my bones - creating a bowl of comfort on a cold night or their favorite dessert to make their Shabbat extra special, that’s what I think about:  how to make every moment a special memory for them.”

And where does Aliza’s husband fit into her fulfilling career?

 “I always say I must have done something right, that I have Albert to share this ride with me. He’s an amazing man, fully supporting my passion and business.  He is my rock. When I feel tired or defeated, he is there to lift me up and root me on.  He helps me do what I love.  If I have a night class, he is home early to do homework with the kids and tuck them in.”

One of Aliza’s biggest challenges was stepping back from her beloved blog when she became pregnant with Mia (now two). “I feared people would forget me, but my family came first. I committed to return my focus to The Ghetto Gourmet once my daughter is old enough for playgroup. I’m so blessed to be back - and loving every second of it.” 

Labor of Love

Her advice to young people about dreams and goals? “GO FOR IT, and have fun doing it. Don’t take yourself too seriously, be yourself, and don’t forget those around you in the process.” 

 I leave you with Aliza’s heartfelt hakarat hatov – “I’m humbled and thankful to Hashem for giving me the opportunity to do what I love. I have met incredible people and appreciate and love each and every follower. Words can’t describe how touched I am when a woman waves, says she follows me, and feels like she knows me, or someone screams, ‘Ghettttto!’”

Look out for Aliza’s cookbook!  It’s in the works, and she calls it her new baby – a labor of love!!

Ellen Geller Kamaras, CPA/MBA, is an International Coach Federation (ICF) Associate Certified Coach.  Her coaching specialties include life, career, and dating coaching. Ellen can be contacted at ellen@lifecoachellen.com(www.lifecoachellen.com).