Ahmad “Ozzy” Azzawi’s culinary journey has taken him more than 10,000 kilometres, from cooking at military bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, to running a soup and sandwich shop in northern Alberta.
In February, Mr. Azzawi became the new owner of Fourteen 14 in Grande Prairie, an unlikely destination for the 41-year-old chef from Kuwait.
“It’s beautiful. I love the city,” Mr. Azzawi says of Grande Prairie. He compares the town, best known for the oil and gas industry, to a malleable dough that can be shaped various ways to create a gourmet pizza. “Whatever you give this city, it will give you back,” he says.
Mr. Azzawi’s journey to restaurant ownership in Alberta began in a kitchen in Kuwait. His late parents were both good cooks. As a child, Mr. Azzawi would help them prepare food. His early love for cooking grew into a passionate career.
Moving to Canada was not part of his original plan. After studying hotel management at university in Jordan, Mr. Azzawi trained in hotel kitchens.
In 2005, he began working for a subcontractor to the United States and Canadian armies, moving between Iraq and Afghanistan. As head chef, Mr. Azzawi planned 21-day menus and cooked breakfast, lunch and dinner for thousands of soldiers. Hygiene and sanitation were crucial to ensure soldiers didn’t become sick.
Being in an active war zone was frightening. Mr. Azzawi grew used to it, though the fear never completely went away – especially when the base was hit, which happened occasionally. Still, he says it was a good experience, where he strengthened his cooking and English skills. He also says it’s easier to serve thousands of people in a cafeteria-style environment than individual picky eaters.
After almost six years, Mr. Azzawi returned to Kuwait. He honed his culinary skills at a Japanese restaurant, a steakhouse and a pizzeria.
When Mr. Azzawi was approached by a recruitment agency offering to find him a job in Canada, he thought it was a scam.
Mr. Azzawi says that scammers often target young university graduates who want to leave the Middle East with promises of passage to North America – taking their money and giving nothing in return. As a joke, Mr. Azzawi agreed to send in his documents and was surprised when he was presented with a two-year work visa and an offer for a job in northern Alberta.
In 2019, Mr. Azzawi moved to Grande Prairie and started working as a kitchen helper at Pizza Hut. He didn’t see his new position as a step down from being a head chef. “Put me anywhere, I will work,” he says. “At the end of the day, I will pay my bills, pay my rent, have food – I’m totally fine.”
At first, Mr. Azzawi regretted moving so far from home. He had to learn to adapt from 50 C temperatures in the summer to -50 C in the winter. He didn’t know anyone in the community and felt lonely.
“My mom, she passed away in 2020, and I couldn’t go back. It was so hard for me,” Mr. Azzawi says. Between the limitations of a temporary work permit and the emergence of COVID-19, travelling home was impossible.
After 1½ years at Pizza Hut, Mr. Azzawi got his permanent residency and started working as a food delivery driver. He aimed to get to know the community better. He stayed in Grande Prairie because, he says, “I’m the kind of person, if I put something in my mind, I’m going to do it.”
When Mr. Azzawi heard that local restaurant Fourteen 14 was for sale, he put in an offer. By Feb. 17, 2022, Mr. Azzawi owned a restaurant.
The number 14 was special to the previous owner and references Grande Prairie’s tallest office building, the 214 Place, nearby. Mr. Azzawi kept the name and stayed under the umbrella of sandwich and soup restaurant, with a few notable exceptions.
For example, Mr. Azzawi added five homemade sauces to the menu, along with new sandwiches and burgers
In the beginning, Mr. Azzawi was worried because he knew people would see he was from a different country, and not born locally like the previous owner. He wasn’t sure how the community would respond. Fortunately, people loved what he brought to the table.
Inside Fourteen 14, local artists display and sell their paintings. On the restaurant’s façade, Mr. Azzawi translated “Fourteen 14″ into Arabic, Ukrainian, Japanese, Hindi, Albanian and other languages.
He had noticed there were many people from outside of Canada living in Grande Prairie and wanted to make them feel welcome. “Since I put this sign, I have people like me that weren’t born and raised in Canada start to come to the restaurant,” he says.
Mr. Azzawi faced hardship while chasing his dreams, from his unexpected international move and the death of his mother, to the risky purchase of Fourteen 14. “I’m so excited and happy, but always I try to stay humble, because I know what I suffered to reach this point and still, I’m not satisfied,” he says.
Every three weeks, Mr. Azzawi donates to Wapiti House, a homeless shelter, as part of the program “Everybody Eats in GP.” He cooks meals, such as lasagna and soup, using his own ingredients and recipes.
Things have changed since Mr. Azzawi first moved to Canada. Despite the brutal winters, he feels at home. He plans to open more restaurants in Grande Prairie, including a Japanese restaurant and a pizza place.
“Now most of the city, they know me by my name, Ozzy, and they know where I work,” he says. “They give me respect; I give them respect. It’s good.”