By Diana DuCroz
Tamara Chubinidze adores New York City, her home of 23 years, but her native Georgia, the tiny mountainous country wedged between Russia, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Armenia on the east side of the Black Sea, is always in her heart. With Chama Mama, her new restaurant on West 14th Street, she wants to share the best of Georgia’s rich food and wine culture with New York.
“Hospitality is number one,” Chubinidze says of Georgians, who make an art form of eating and drinking. “We say that the guest is a gift from God.” Communal feasts – called ‘supra’ – are so central to Georgian life that an extendable 24-seat table is standard for entertaining.
The name ‘Chama Mama’ embodies the spirit of the restaurant. In the Georgian language, ‘chama’ means ‘to eat.’ “‘Mama’ in Georgian is actually ‘father.’ But for the rest of the world, it’s ‘mother,’” Chubinidze said with a laugh.
‘Chama Mama’ may sound funny to a Georgian speaker, but it perfectly suits Chubinidze’s wish to attract a broader audience to experience Georgian food and culture. “Every time you eat, you think of your mother, grandmother, all the wonderful mothers.”
Along with their own language, the Georgian people have their own alphabet. The most ancient of the alphabet’s three scripts inspired the curvy letters in the restaurant’s logo.
Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia on the old Silk Road, Georgia transformed centuries of outside influences and ingredients into a cuisine that, like its language and alphabet, is unique in the world. A variety of breads, cheeses, and meats is supplemented by an astounding array of produce, thanks to the country’s diverse geography and temperate climate.
Common vegetables like tomatoes and eggplant are featured alongside unusual fare such as ‘ekala,’ a wild salad green that grows on fences in Georgia, and ‘jonjoli,’ a pickled sprout similar to a caper. Chubinidze imports around 30 percent of the restaurant’s ingredients from Georgia, a task made easier by her father’s importing business in New York City.
With over 500 varieties of grapes, Georgia is considered the world’s ‘cradle of winemaking.’ In addition to modern mass production, small farmers continue the country’s 8,000-year tradition of making wine in huge clay pots buried underground.
“The wine is our blood, so we drink wine 24/7,” Chubinidze said.
Among the more familiar reds and whites is the distinctly Georgian ‘amber’ wine, with a color to match its name and bold flavors that complement the spicy cuisine. Diners at Chama Mama can order from a special revolving menu of natural ‘boutique’ wines produced in small batches as well as from the restaurant’s regular list of Georgian wines.
Chama Mama’s menu combines wildly decadent comfort food – the popular ‘adjaruli’ is a canoe-shaped loaf of bread stuffed with melted cheese, egg and butter – with healthy vegetable-, fruit- and nut-based side dishes, sauces, salads, and stews. Walnuts, pomegranates, garlic and cilantro make frequent appearances, but the secret ingredient to Georgian flavor is blue fenugreek, an herb unknown to most American cooks.
“Without it, there’s no Georgian family,” Chubinidze said, illustrating how elemental it is to Georgian cooking. She compares the herb to a magic wand. “All the sparkles are coming out of it, that’s how the spice is.”
But for every exotic spice or vegetable, Georgian food offers something familiar to American palates – cornbread, cheesy hominy grits, grilled meats, even a bean stew similar to chili.
Tamara Chubinidze grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital city. In 1996, at age 15, she left a country then beset by civil unrest and utility shortages to join her father, a former doctor, in New York City. Chubinidze eventually followed in his entrepreneurial footsteps with her own 15-year career in the footwear industry, but four years ago, she was ready for a big change.
With no prior restaurant experience, she persuaded Le Pain Quotidien to hire her as a general branch manager by proving her business savvy. For two years, she worked 14-hour days, learning the ins and outs of the restaurant business and getting up at 4 a.m. to open the restaurant.
With Chama Mama, Chubinidze said she no longer has to get up so early, thanks to the surprising lack of a robust breakfast tradition in Georgian culture.
Chama Mama’s menu features a pronunciation guide and brief description of each item for its non-Georgian guests. Through a glass wall in the airy, bright dining room, diners have a clear view into the gleaming kitchen, which is fronted by a ‘tone,’ a giant circular oven where the restaurant’s bread is baked fresh each morning.
Chelsea resident Eileen Millan, who lives around the corner, has become an ardent cheerleader for the restaurant. “The place is super beautiful and [the] food is yummy,” Millan said, giving a special mention to the “super cool unique round oven” on view in the kitchen.
Chama Mama is one of several Georgian restaurants that have opened in New York in the last few years. Georgian food, wine, and travel is trending right now, so the timing has been good, Chubinidze said.
In June, Chama Mama made Eater’s list of ‘Best Restaurants of 2019 So Far.’
Chubinidze plans to open a rear patio with outdoor seating next spring and is negotiating to open a second Manhattan location later this year. But no matter how much the business grows, she said she never wants to lose the personal touch so important to Georgian hospitality.
One of Chama Mama’s servers is the granddaughter of a cook in the restaurant. “The grandchild is delivering the food that her grandma made. I think that’s so magical.” Chubinidze said. “She can literally say ‘oh my grandma made this.’”