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Passing Down a Legacy of Ethiopian Cuisine at Zemam’s

Amanuel Gebremariam is chef-owner of Zemam’s and Zemam’s Too restaurants in Tucson, Arizona. Zemam’s was the first Ethiopian restaurant in town. Gebremariam’s children Favin, Noah, and Lucas now help manage and promote the restaurants, and the family plans to expand their original location with an international sports bar later this year.

AMANUEL GEBREMARIAM: I came to this country from Eritrea thirty-something years ago with nothing in my pocket. I used to work in a company that rebuilt large-body airplanes as an assistant administrator. But one day I had an argument with my boss because we lost a deal with a multi-million-dollar company. From that day onward, I said, I’m not going to work for anybody. I wanted to start my own venture, so I started a restaurant with four tables, with my family members as waitresses and my dishwashers. And here I am, 29 years later, with two restaurants of my own.

I don’t have any formal training for cooking. However, I used to watch my mom cook. Back home, cooking is domestic work and is mostly reserved for women, not men. But I like the chemistry of cooking. My major in college was chemistry. And that’s why I named the restaurant after my mom’s given name, Zemam.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

FAVIN GEBREMARIAM: I’m one of six kids. I was in the fourth or fifth grade when he said he was going to open up a restaurant. There was a resounding “Wait. What?” in the house, because he only ever made us his “famous” spaghetti.

We knew that he knew how to cook. But in the house, it was mom that did most of the cooking. We were like, “Dad’s opening a restaurant? What’s he going to make? Is it going to be a spaghetti restaurant?” It was a wonderful experience for all of us because it was an all-hands-on-deck kind of thing.

AMANUEL: Most people here were not familiar with Ethiopian cuisine when we started. Actually there was a radio talk show host who said at that time Ethiopia was having a famine. It was really starving and there was a big problem in Ethiopia. And this guy said, “Oh, a new restaurant opened in Tucson. And what do Ethiopians have to offer? They are dying of hunger.”

FAVIN: He said that on the radio?

AMANUEL: He said that on the radio. Three months later, he came and apologized. He said, “I was so wrong. I’m so sorry, I was not familiar with any Ethiopian restaurant.”

FAVIN: But here in Tucson we weren’t just the first Ethiopian restaurant. We were the only African restaurant for years.

AMANUEL: So when people came here to eat, they expected to get forks and knives. We certainly had to educate people. There was an element of ignorance around the cuisine and how you ate it and the ingredients. People that would call us and ask, “How can you have an Ethiopian restaurant? I thought Ethiopians eat bugs and slugs.” We got a couple of pretty ignorant comments like that.

Now I think everybody’s familiar with how to eat Ethiopian food. Tucson can be a transient town, and so people are coming here from bigger cities that have Ethiopian restaurants. It’s just becoming more and more mainstream. People come from a long way, as far as Phoenix and New Mexico, to eat at the restaurant.

All of the recipes are my mom’s. I did my homework from other Ethiopian restaurants in the United States. I went to California and Los Angeles on Fairfax Avenue. There are so many of them there. I started experimenting by myself, and 99.9 percent of the recipes are mine based on my mom’s old recipes.

My mother knew there was a restaurant named after her. She asked me, “What could a man cook in a restaurant?” And I said, “Ma, you should come and test my food. It is so good.” I tried to buy her a ticket to come to Tucson from Eritrea and she declined it. She was scared of flying, so she didn’t come.

I still experiment all the time. What tastes better? What if I was to cook it with Ethiopian oil? The cooking fat in Ethiopia is butter. It can be a little bit greasy and oily. Here we do it with vegetable oil. Americans often diet and are worried about what they eat.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

FAVIN: He has really catered to the American palate—he’s really sensitive to the oils, really sensitive to the diet restrictions—while keeping the authenticity of the flavors, how it’s prepared, what it looks like, and how it’s served. There are also Ethiopians and Eritreans here in Tucson that come in, and we want to make sure it tastes like the food that they remember. This whole process is being considered when he’s cooking and when he’s trying new recipes. It’s all very, very thoughtful.

I think COVID definitely affected everybody. At one point we had to close both restaurants for three months without serving anything. The government gave us some help, some financial aid.

We got hit with a double whammy. One of our restaurants is on a main street in Tucson—Broadway. We’ve been severely impacted by a project to widen the street. We had to close that restaurant for the last year and a half because you can’t get into it. The construction is right up against the front door. So not only were we dealing with the pandemic, but we really only had one functioning restaurant.

But because we had two restaurants, we were lucky enough to be stabilized a little bit more than some of our small-business counterparts in the city. It was terrible for everybody, but we’ve been really lucky. We have a ride-or-die base of customers that were here to support us the second we opened our doors.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

AMANUEL: During the pandemic, my son started making designs out of the injera dough. He does them to celebrate holidays or portray international icons like superheroes or cartoon characters. People who come—you can see the smile on their face when they see the designs.

FAVIN: It was a slow time. Both my younger brothers, Noah and Luke, work full time in the restaurant. They’re both talented artists. Noah was like, “I wonder if we could do something fun and funky with this.” They just started playing around with it.

NOAH GEBREMARIAM: My brother and I were always drawing little shapes with the leftover dough. It dawned on me one day that injera is already very light in the form that we make it. It’s malleable to anything we can do with it. So I added a little bit of color, then took the tie-dye bottles that you use for shirts and filled them with colored dough and started off with that.

It was just for fun at first. Then I thought, “Maybe people will like this?” Then it exploded. The one that really took off was a Kokopelli. He’s a local southwest icon.

On requests, I’ve done a couple of birthday injera. But more than that, I just kind of gauge whoever’s in the restaurant. If I think they’ll enjoy something I’ve drawn that day, I’ll be like, “Hey, do you want this?” They’ll be very skeptical at first, and then they’ll see it and they’ll be really into it. Those really intricate ones take a lot more focus.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

FAVIN: When we were in high school, we all worked. The emotions of having to work with our siblings for our dad was like, “why do we have to do this? I want to go to a party. I want to have a Saturday morning, I want to have a sleepover.”

So there was maybe a little bit of resentment as we were growing up because we didn’t choose this. And he was our boss, but also our dad, so we literally had to do everything he said. Now that we’re in our 30s, I’m so much more aware of all this takes to do. It’s bonkers that he’s been able to keep it up.

Now we’re like, “Okay, dad, it’s time for you to take a nap. It’s time for you to go. Let us do this hard work now. These are your golden years.” He’s done all the legwork. He’s created the brand and the reputation, and it’s up to us to continue moving it forward.

We would say “I have to be there at what time? I don’t want to be there at 6:30.” And he’d say, “Yeah, me neither. But guess what? We’re going.” We’ve since put our egos aside and created this wonderful experience for everybody. We have respect for it. This is our family business. This is not only my father’s legacy, it is what keeps the lights on. If we don’t participate, we’re not hurting anybody except for our own family.

NOAH: The family dynamic we had at home overlapped a little bit at first with how we’d do things at the restaurant. But then as we got to understand each other’s work ethics and business sides, we’ve actually managed to bond more. It’s been nice to experience learning more about my dad and my brother.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

AMANUEL: If it was not for my family, I would not have been successful. I was very demanding of my kids. I deprived my kids from some of the stuff they wanted to do with their friends, but in my deepest heart, I felt that this was going to be an opportunity. I wanted to teach my kids work ethics. I’m so fortunate my kids are polite. They listen to what I say, and I listen to what they say. Sometimes I feel like I know it all, but I have learned a whole lot from them, too.

I wanted my kids to carry the torch. That’s why I trained them—that’s why I have them all around me. In the restaurant business, there is no margin of error. If one customer gets sick, you lose your entire reputation. We have checklists that we need to do every day, and we have to train our employees. To have a successful restaurant, you have to have a good location, good food, consistency, and good service.

FAVIN: The food scene in general in Tucson has really changed. There are a couple of Middle Eastern and African fusion restaurants. There’s one other Ethiopian restaurant that isn’t attached to us or our family, but they are friends of ours, so we are supportive of them as well. Tucson is a college town, and it’s evolved to be something of a food scene. But there are only three Ethiopian restaurants in the city, and two of them belong to us.

Photo: Shannon Dudley.

The restaurant on Broadway has been closed for over a year and a half, but we are really excited because actually in that process, some of the businesses have moved away from Broadway and left some of the buildings surrounding Zemam’s. We have started construction on what is going to be called Z Street. We’re not only going to reopen our original restaurant, but there will be some really cool additions. It’s going to have an internationally themed sports bar where we’ll show soccer games and cricket games, and there will be a café, food vendors, and outdoor seating.

We’re working really closely with the city to get updates on when the construction is going to be done to a point where people can actually access the buildings. So we are hopeful that we can open our doors and are ready to serve customers before the beginning of the World Cup this year and to be able to play those games at the sports bar.