Cecilia Saleh is sitting at a table in Sassool, the North Raleigh restaurant and market named in her honor. She is thinking about the daylong flight that will, for the first time in nearly five years, take her from her adopted home of Raleigh to the Lebanese village where she grew up.
She is imagining the heat of the day receding as the mountain air turns cool. When that happens, she will get a woven shawl from her dresser and gather it around her shoulders, just as she has done countless times before. And when the sun rises on Saturday, the day she turns 88, she will celebrate the same way she did as a girl—with a plate of steam-filled pita bread, local olive oil and freshly cut herbs.
"Oh, it is the best," she says enthusiastically in English, though she mostly speaks in lyrical Lebanese, which her son, Mounir Saleh, translates.
"It's all she needs to be happy," he says, beaming at her as employees and customers take turns hugging and wishing her a safe journey. "Faith and family, and good, simple food are what's important to her."
Though she will be 6,000 miles across the globe, the much-loved matriarch's birthday will be celebrated as #88on88 all day Saturday at Sassool, which opened as the third location of Neomonde in 2011. Mounir, who unabashedly calls himself a mama's boy, renamed the place in affectionate tribute to her—as a girl she was nicknamed Sassool—on Mother's Day last year.
Saturday's lunch will feature live music; dinner service will include specials such as lamb kebobs, complementary birthday cake and 88-cent baklava. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Susan G. Komen Foundation in recognition of Cecilia's enduring good health as a breast cancer survivor.
While she still longs to spend time in her homeland—this trip will last two months—the Saleh family has been firmly established in Raleigh since the mid 1970s. Their escape from war-torn Lebanon was facilitated by Cecilia's brother, Moussa Domit, a renowned U.S.-educated art scholar who served as director of the N.C. Museum of Art from 1974–'80.
"I got a message from him one day saying we had 24 hours to leave," Cecilia recalls, her gentle eyes instantly filling with tears. She touches the pendant of Mary that rests on a gold chain above her heart and takes a calming breath. "We had to get to Cypress right away. All I could take was my children."
Mounir, 19 at the time, was one of four siblings able to travel on his mother's visa. "We grew up with the sentiment that our uncle was a role model for success," he says. "Coming here, where he had already achieved so much, was very important to us as a family."
Older brother Samir had previously come to Raleigh as a student. While they had no experience in the food business, they trusted their mother's recipes to serve as a foundation of a small bakery that opened on Medlin Road in 1977. The demand for Lebanese-style pita bread was so great that they moved the bakery to a much larger space on Beryl Road, which in 1989 became Neomonde Deli. The bakery operations have since expanded to Morrisville.
"I thank God everyday that America welcomed my children," says Cecilia, who fretted when Mounir changed the name of the restaurant to Sassool. Her fears that it would not resonate with customers who knew the Neomonde brand were unfounded. In fact, Mounir will open a second Sassool this fall in Cary.
"She's always surprised by the success, but it's all because of her," says Mounir, whose mother still helps in the kitchen. "The most popular dishes we make here—the tabouli, kibbeh, mjadarah, and of course the hummus and baba ghanouj—all are true to her recipes. People know that she cooks with love. You can taste it."
Still wearing her white chef's coat, Cecilia is again surrounded by family and well wishers who treat her as a bonus grandmother. Her eyes shine with joy and her lined face brightens with ample evidence of once youthful beauty.
Youngest granddaughter Simone Saleh asks her to be on the lookout for a nice boyfriend for her. "Really?" Cecilia says, thrilled at the proposition of matchmaking. "Noelle has an American husband," she confides, smiling warmly at the elder granddaughter, who has been baking countless pita that afternoon. "He's a wonderful man. God bless America."
Jill Warren Lucas is a Raleigh writer who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.