In March 2020, Khalil Elzein was visiting the Seychelles, a group of islands off the east coast of Africa, with his wife, Lolo, when the world shut down. When they returned home to Santa Barbara, it was to that unwelcome news that so many received in the early days of the pandemic: The jobs they held no longer existed.
Forced to adapt, Elzein’s daughter Emilie had an idea: Marshaling more than 40 years of experience as a professional chef, Elzein could start a delivery business that would bring the mouth-watering dishes of his native Lebanon — from halibut with bulgur wheat and tahini sauce to succulent lamb shoulder braised with cumin and stuffed with rice and pine nuts — to the people of Santa Barbara.
And so began Meals by Khalil, which offers a variety of dishes that have something for everybody. Each week, the main dishes, which cost between $16 and $28, include meat, poultry, fish, and vegetarian options, with accommodations for factors like allergies and gluten-free diets. They’re all delivered free of charge by Lolo herself.
Also featured on the weekly menu are six different salads and six types of desserts, including the Middle Eastern confection baklava, which Elzein also sells by the tray due to its popularity. While the emphasis may be on Middle Eastern cuisine, it is not exclusively so. A recent week’s menu, for example, included lasagna, both beef and plant-based, and sweet and spicy salmon with grilled vegetables.
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For decades, Elzein worked as a private chef for the prominent Khashoggi family of Hope Ranch. He credits them for much of his success, but Emilie also recalls that, when the family had friends over when she was growing up, her dad’s cooking was always a central attraction. It’s easy to see why when sitting down at the table with the Elzein family at their home on the Mesa. The traditional Lebanese dish of chicken with bulgur wheat and garlic yogurt sauce bursts with flavor alongside a freshly chopped fattoush salad and stir-fried Italian-style vegetables.
However, even with decades of experience, the business was a leap of faith filled with excitement and anxiety. “He’s in his seventies, and this was his first time starting a business for himself,” said Emilie. “In the first few weeks, when we weren’t sure if people would go for this or not, it was very emotional.”
Thankfully, customers took notice. Today, Meals by Khalil typically serves six to eight clients a day, not to mention catering for mid-sized events. Beyond helping to sustain the family financially, the business has also been a validating experience. “When people started showing interest, it felt so good — all the stress of starting a business was worth it,” said Elzein. “It showed me that I can still use my cooking to make people happy. As a chef, that is the important thing.”
See mealsbykhalil.com or text (805) 452-8562. Orders must be placed by 10 p.m. the day before, and deliveries are between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m.