Chez Grace chef serves joy in one of Iowa’s smallest restaurants

David Zaghloul checks his mascarpone enriched orzo as he prepares Wild Alaskan King Salmon and Mascarpone Enriched Orzo with Balsamic Glaze June 1 at his restaurant in Coralville. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

CORALVILLE — To chef David Zaghloul, owner of Chez Grace in Coralville, cooking is neither an art nor a science — it’s a passion.

“It’s what you put in from your heart,” he said.

At a nondescript location in Coralville, the French restaurant of just four tables lit by candles and his charisma is where he thrives.

Since he came to attend the University of Iowa in 1979, Zaghloul has worked in just about every role offered in the industry, his first on the line in the cafeteria at Burge Hall. On the way to owning his first restaurant, he was also a pizza delivery driver and dishwasher.

David Zaghloul serves only four tables per night by reservation only at Chez Grace in Coralville. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

Now, the self-taught chef, with no formal training, serves every role in both front-of-house and back-of-house at Chez Grace — manager, maitre d’, server, busser, bookkeeper and dishwasher.

But perhaps what’s unique about Zaghloul’s determination at the height of his career is not so much his success in being the jack of all trades — an unusual sight in fine dining — but his dedication to maintaining the integrity of the dining experience by staying small. While other chefs may set their eyes on bigger restaurants as they gain success, Zaghloul decided to do the opposite.

Since reducing his capacity with a move last summer from the restaurant’s former Second Street location, where he could serve dozens more people — occasionally with the help of others — he said he will never look back.

“If 58 people came into my restaurant for Valentine’s Day, I was not happy the next day,” he said. “Because I didn’t get to talk to people.”

Now more than ever, he relishes spending as much time at his guests’ tables as he does cooking behind the bar of his open kitchen.

Therein lies the heart of his passion: to him, the people he serves are as important as the food he cooks for them. While he cooks with finesse, those uninitiated to fine dining with his prix fixe menu need not be intimidated — he serves with humility, defying what is perhaps a stereotype of high-end cuisine.

Chez Grace’s Wild Alaskan King Salmon and Mascarpone Enriched Orzo with Balsamic Glaze prepared by David Zaghloul. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

Don’t understand why medium-rare is the default temperature for an A5 Wagyu steak from Japan? He’ll explain it. Don’t know how to even pronounce that ingredient in a line of mostly French words? He’ll show you what it is.

“The fun is when people come in and say ’Oh my God, I’ve never had anything like this in my life,’” Zaghloul said. “I want to spoil you so much that when you go out and eat somewhere else, you’re not going to have the experience anywhere else. Because I want to be treated like that when I go out and eat somewhere.”

In an industry with a high failure rate, the Christian credits God for his success after stumbling in business, practicing the golden rule that has bred the loyalty that keeps him in business. Hence, the restaurant’s name: House of Grace.

His first restaurant, a mix of Mediterranean and Italian food at Cafe Z on Iowa City’s east side from 2001 to 2009, “didn’t go well.”

Before opening his first restaurant, multiple restaurants declined to hire him. Some even declined to respond to his application.

“Apparently, I wasn’t qualified enough,” he said. “But that was a blessing for me.”

Chez Grace only serves four tables per night, by reservation only at 424 Sixth Ave. Suite 101 in Coralville. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

The reason Chez Grace came to be was because he didn’t give up.

“I heard so many stories about the greatest chefs in the world, how miserably they failed the first time,” Zaghloul said. “When it comes to food, you have to have a passion to do it. If you don’ have a passion to do it, you don’t need to be in that business. So you can’t give up.”

Armed with a strong memory, the man with an electrical engineering and math degree took the technique he saw on the original Iron Chef and started over.

“Everything I make in here is all mine, but I never wrote a recipe in all my life,” he said. “I never followed a recipe.”

To the layman, the thought of refined French cuisine might conjure images of complexity. But to the Palestinian who grew up in Amman, Jordan, the French style is the ultimate simplicity that allows him the freedom to create as he pleases. He exercises that freedom with discretion — all of his dishes have five ingredients or less.

With a good head on his shoulders for math — something he says he got from his parents — the chef’s mark of talent is demonstrated without the use of measurements. At Chez Grace, a soup might taste slightly different on any given week, but its essence remains the same.

And with humility, he revels in the moments big and small as those young and old experience some of the best meals of their lives.

One man he remembers, a federal judge from out of town, ate there two days in a row.

“David, I’ve lived all my years and I’m the happiest person now that I’ve had the best meal in my life,” the man, 72, told Zaghloul.

He made another reservation for three months later, but wasn’t able to make it. He died days after he was given the best meals of his life.

“That’s worth all the money in the world,” the chef said of reactions like that.

At 61, Zaghloul said cooking and serving is the easiest part of his job.

“The hard part is everything else,” he said.

Despite the challenges of being a one man show, he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Because you have to love what you do.”

For the Jordanian immigrant who never knew the United States before college, the American dream is delivered one reservation at a time.

David Zaghloul checks his mascarpone enriched orzo June 1 as he prepares Wild Alaskan King Salmon and Mascarpone Enriched Orzo with Balsamic Glaze at his restaurant Chez Grace in Coralville. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for The Gazette)

Chez Grace only serves four tables per night, by reservation only at 424 6th Ave Suite 101 in Coralville. Photographed on Tuesday, June 1, 2021. (Cliff Jette/Freelance for the Gazette)

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Rebecca R. Ammons

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