Full Belly Files | Goodbye Chef Karim
This edition of Full Belly Files was originally emailed to subscribers on March 3, 2023. To receive Matt Kettmann’s food newsletter in your inbox each Friday, sign up at independent.com/newsletters.
Nearly a quarter century ago, as I transitioned from the crowded Isla Vista life of a UCSB student to the scrappy downtown existence of a young journalist, the Santa Barbara dining scene was nothing like it is now. There were a handful of fancy places, lots of casual ones, and very few that elevated dinner to the entertainment level that we take for granted today.
Except for Chef Karim’s, a dimly lit Moroccan restaurant where diners sat on the floor and ate with their hands as belly dancers whirled across the heavily carpeted floors.
Conveniently located in a tucked-away corner of Victoria Court beneath the then-offices of the Santa Barbara Independent, I found myself there numerous times, both with big groups of friends and on dates, including one with the woman who’d later become my wife. Chef Karim Chhibbane was a constant presence, warm and welcoming and the epitome of joy, even when he made you get up and dance when you really didn’t want to get up and dance.
Little did we realize that such a style of interactive eating would be so fleeting in Santa Barbara. When Chef Karim’s closed in 2010 — a victim of the recession, no doubt, but perhaps also due to a fast-modernizing restaurant scene — we lost that pairing of fine food and up-close entertainment, wrapped up in cultural lessons personally taught by a charismatic proprietor.
While today’s restaurant scene is more varied, competitive with big cities, and sustainably minded than ever, there’s still no place that I can think of where we sit cross-legged on rugs, dive in with our fingers, and lay back to be mesmerized by sparkly dresses, spinning midriffs, and smiling chefs. For all the amusement and pleasure we take from the latest exotic ingredients and trending techniques, it feels like we’re missing the visceral, even sensual experiences that restaurants like Chef Karim’s once provided.
I didn’t really think about all of this until I read Chef Karim had died last year in a very short obituary that we published on our pages. Wanting to learn more, I reached out to the author, Michael Shapiro, and asked him to tell us more about Chef Karim’s life. He does so below.
I hope you enjoy reading his memories, which stretch from the souks of Marrakech to solo couscous dinners in Victoria Court.
We should all raise a glass to Chef Karim this weekend to toast his one-of-a-kind nature. And if anyone has any designs on bringing floor-eating and dancing back to our dining rooms, let me know. I’ll be your first table.
Abdel “Chef Karim” Chhibbane: 1958-2022
By Michael Shapiro
Karim Chhibbane was born in the Atlas Mountains outside of Marrakech as part of the ethnic group known as Berbers, the first people of Morocco. When we first met in 1980, I asked him how old he was, but wasn’t sure. At the time of his birth, no records were kept for the people who were born and died in those mountain villages.
He’d come to Marrakech to learn English in the American school, and I spent many days in the souk at his small carpet shop, a trade he learned from his father. He already knew how to speak English quite well when we met, but I helped him get better through our conversations. People frequently came from the embassy in the Moroccan capital of Rabat to shop for Karim’s rugs, the finest in the souk, and he did much business with these clients.
Karim became my teacher when I started buying Moroccan carpets. I bought many of his special pieces, and I still treasure them. He visited me at my home in Ibiza, and we once drove from Barcelona to Amsterdam. Every day on that trip, he’d walk around just meeting and talking to all sorts of people.
On Friday nights, we’d go to the French part of Marrakech to visit his favorite restaurant. Wow, they sure had great wine, and we always finished a bottle or two. One time, we drank so much that, I’m not sure how, we ended up back at his shop in the souk. We frantically measured, priced, and boxed up more than 200 pieces. The next day, we took them through customs at the airport and sent them off.
A few days later, I was back in Los Angeles, ready to receive the carpets and take them through customs. They all arrived in great shape, but one critical component was missing: Being a bit drunk that night, we’d forgotten to put the prices and sizes on all of the carpets!. So I had to go down to customs to measure and price each one yet again. Only then could I bring the carpets home.
Would you believe that Karim was one of the toughest guys in Marrakech? He was really into karate and his conditioning was amazing — all muscle. I used to have T-shirts made in Ibiza and then take them to Morocco to sell. Once, a guy in Marrakech wanted all of them to sell, but then decided he didn’t want to pay me. After a few days of going back to the guy’s house and returning with no money, I told Karim. “I’ll come with you,” he said. When that man saw Karim, he suddenly had my money. Everyone seemed to know about Karim.
I visited his house many times for dinner. He learned to cook from his mother, as did his two brothers and two sisters, and he also studied in France. What fantastic meals we had! Couscous, tagine, lemon chicken, and much more. You’d always leave his house stuffed. That’s one reason you could later find me at his restaurant in Santa Barbara every Friday night, sitting by myself and enjoying couscous with beautiful belly dancers to watch. They would remind me of how Karim always had a lady with him in Marrakech.
In the mid-1980s, Karim finally decided to come to California. I’d brought him over a few months earlier to see if he’d like it. He loved it. He arrived with his wife, Atika. They eventually had a son, Adam, who is in his mid-thirties. When they divorced, Karim took Adam to the San Fernando Valley. That’s where he met Kathy, whose son, Allie, attended school with Adam. Following the 1994 Northridge earthquake, they moved to Santa Barbara.
Together, Karim and Kathy opened Chef Karim’s in Victoria Court in 1996, enjoying nearly 15 years of success. I could never believe my eyes when seeing lines of people waiting to get in on weekend nights. People came all the way from Los Angeles just to eat his food. That sure put wide smiles on our faces.
Unfortunately, restaurants in Santa Barbara tend to come and go. Chef Karim’s closed in 2010 when the customers stopped coming, and he was hurt. He found work managing UCSB’s many campus restaurants for a while, but was never very happy there.
Then he met a man who offered him a 50 percent stake in a restaurant. Where? Lincoln, Nebraska, of all places. Karim moved to Lincoln and helped build the place. But it never really took off, and soon closed down too.
He moved back to Southern California, where he was with friends when his heart gave out on December 24 of last year. He was just 64 years old. His son, Adam, took Karim’s body back to Marrakech, where he was buried on February 6.
We all lost a very special friend, and I lost my brother.
If you want to read more about Chef Karim during his time in Lincoln, Nebraska, here are a couple stories from the Daily Nebraskan in 2016 and the Lincoln Journal Star in 2017. And here was The Restaurant Guy’s report on Chef Karim’s closing in 2016.
Press releases are posted on Independent.com as a free community service.
Burger Week Is Here!
By the time you’ve read this, you already missed the chance to eat at least two, maybe even three discounted-yet-delicious burgers as part of Santa Barbara Burger Week, which started yesterday, March 2, and runs seven full days until Wednesday, March 8.
Now in its sixth iteration, the Santa Barbara Independent’s annual campaign enlisted 15 restaurants to serve their burgers for just $10 in 2023. Yes, we upped the price a bit this year to help with inflation, but these $10 meals are still bargains, especially since many of these burgers are specially crafted for this week-long celebration. And it’s not just beef — there’s fried yuba at Tyger Tyger, a chicken club at Kyle’s Kitchen, and even a dessert burger at Andersen’s, and many of the places will swap in a plant-based burger for those who don’t crave cow.
The reporting process is a treat for our staff, at least compared to covering planning meetings. We all go out to sample one or two of these creations, snap a photo, and then write a brief report on our findings. You can find them all here.
My burgers this year were Validation Ale’s Validated Smashburger, which I found to be a satisfyingly meaty treat, and the Hook’d Bar & Grill’s Cachuma Burger, a classic rendition enjoyed on the shores of Lake Cachuma. (Their Impossible Burger version truly does rival the beef one, FYI.)
Remember to post your patty pictures to social media by tagging @sbindependent and #SBIndyBurgerWeek, and use independent.com/burgerweek2023 as your digital headquarters for this week of indulgence.
From Our Table
In the You-May-Have-Missed-It department, we’ve got:
- George Yatchisin headed down to the Santa Barbara Harbor to get the charming family story behind Anchor Rose.
- Leslie Dinaberg dusted off her food-and-drink writing chops to sample Uncle Nearest and the cuisine of Finch & Fork’s Chef Nathan Lingle to report on this whiskey-pairing dinner.
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