How Soraya Khoury became the mother hen at Hen Mother Cookhouse

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Soraya Khoury followed her instincts to Hen Mother Cookhouse.

Any new venture carries an element of risk, but when chef Soraya Khoury launched Hen Mother Cookhouse in May 2018, it was gutsy.

The space she selected for her breakfast and lunch concept — a strip mall in Johns Creek — was hardly a dining destination. “I had so many people in my ear saying so many places have failed there,” she recalled.

It was also her first time owning a restaurant. And she hadn’t had much time to develop a local following among diners, having recently relocated from the West Coast to Atlanta to serve as executive chef for the new Rumi’s Kitchen location at Avalon in Alpharetta.

But it only took a few years for the restaurant to peck its way up the brunch ladder. Nearby residents were converted into “regulars who are so regular it’s insane,” while intown folks ventured past the Perimeter to fill up on bialys, cinnamon rolls, Market hash made with smashed Yukon potatoes, puffy pancakes and wobbly quiche in a thick, flaky crust.

On Mother’s Day, the 50-seat restaurant served 750 diners and packaged an additional 870 takeout orders.

Her biggest supporters, including family, colleagues and employees, aren’t surprised by Khoury’s success. Bold, determined and stern, yet protective and nurturing, she has everything it takes to be a mother hen in the hospitality world.

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Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

The childhood coop

Growing up in Highland Park, Illinois, Khoury’s earliest example of hospitality was her father, who made food the center of family life.

Izzat Khoury was an exuberant cook who fed his four children the flavors of his Jordanian heritage and those of his Persian wife; they both immigrated to the U.S. in the late 1960s. His daughter remembers just how much he literally threw himself into feeding people with his hairy arms elbow-deep in bucket-sized batches of yogurt, a staple at every meal, made from a generation-old culture.

The man made eating an event no matter the hour. “My home was always bustling with people. He would set a table at 11 at night if people came home hungry,” Khoury, 41, recalled.

And he drilled into his kids the secret to delicious food: “It’s all about the combinations.”

Izzat Khoury died in 2010, but he would nod in approval at the unexpected combinations his daughter thinks up for the Hen Mother Cookhouse menu — from peach compote on avocado toast to sweet sambal chili glaze with pimento cheese on a killer chicken biscuit.

“She puts whackadoodle stuff together, and you’re like, ‘This is good!’” said Khoury’s older sister and business partner Sarah Khoury.

A job as a server at a mom-and-pop breakfast place at age 14 exposed Khoury to hospitality as an industry and the possibilities it offered. “I imagined opening my own restaurant, but I imagined being the cook. I wanted to be the food creator.”

She fueled that desire throughout college and graduate school, burning through her waitress tips to prepare impromptu dinners for classmates at the University of Illinois-Chicago, where she studied Middle Eastern history and Islamic studies.

In 2009, it became clear that a future in academia wasn’t for her. As she grappled with what to do next, hospitality came to mind, but the prevailing mindset among food-service employees gave her pause. “So many people make the restaurant industry a steppingstone to act or pay off loans. ‘I’m just here until.’ It’s so ingrained as ‘until.’”

She got over the mental hurdle when she realized “that doesn’t have to be what I make it.”

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Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Gut feelings

Attending the Culinary Institute of America in Napa, Khoury looked for opportunities to expand her palate, like the night a date took her to dinner at esteemed Napa restaurant Redd.

“I was broker than a joke. I wasn’t interested in him, but I was eager to eat,” she recalled.

A repeat visit to Redd, this time on her own dime, got her in conversation with chef-owner Richard Reddington and an invitation to stage there. Ultimately, it led to a job as a line cook at Redd and later at his pizzeria Redd Wood.

“Richard taught me hustle, drive. I didn’t want to let him down so I was like, I won’t fail at this. Even though, at the beginning, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I don’t know if I can do this.’”

By the time she left Reddington’s tutelage a few years later, she also had a ring on her finger from line cook Jesus Loyola. The “secret lovers” were outed after six months. They tied the knot in 2012.

Besides Reddington, the other chef instrumental to her culinary formation was Melissa Perello, chef-owner of acclaimed Frances in San Francisco, for whom Khoury also worked.

“The way she created food was so beautiful to me. It was so simple, but so incredibly elevated and delightful,” Khoury recalled. “And she was such a badass. She would be there at 5 in the morning. And then she’d leave it at 8, and then she’d come back. She was there all day.”

Once daughter Ada was born, Khoury didn’t hang up the professional apron. She picked up breakfast shifts at Poetry Inn, a boutique hotel in Napa. And she was frequently booked to cook for private dinners.

“Had I stayed in Napa, that could have been my career,” Khoury surmised. “I was doing financially very well. And creatively. It was really fun for me, and I could do it with the baby. I would prep while she was napping.”

Her career changed course in 2016 when Ali Mesghali, owner of Rumi’s Kitchen in Sandy Springs, offered her the executive chef position for the restaurant’s soon-to-open location at the Avalon in Alpharetta. A chance encounter some years earlier had led to their acquaintance, and he’d even offered her a leadership role with Rumi’s on a previous occasion, but the time wasn’t right.

Things were different this time around. Atlanta offered affordable housing. She felt prepared for her first executive chef position. And she could trade primary parenting duties with Loyola, who suffered from plantar fasciitis and needed a break from the daily grind of restaurant life.

In December 2016, the couple moved their coop to metro Atlanta. A month later, she was running the kitchen at Rumi’s.

Khoury admits that she trusts her instincts to make many decisions in life rather than following some predetermined plan. “I fly by the seat of my pants. If I think it is going to work, I go for it,” she said. Instinct is ultimately how she obtained the keys to Farmhouse Coffee at 11705 Jones Bridge Road.

While hunting for a new house to buy, Khoury and her husband would meet their real estate agent at the cafe in Johns Creek. Khoury noticed its underutilized kitchen and thought the place had far more potential. She also noticed a guy in glasses who came by frequently. An employee confirmed he was the owner and that he worked at a nearby urgent care facility.

One day, she went, unannounced, to the clinic, packed with patients during the height of winter flu season.

She bypassed the front desk, nurses in the hallway, and approached the unsuspecting man wearing glasses.

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Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Hi. I’m so sorry to bother you. Do you own the coffee shop?

Yeah.

OK. I’m a chef. You’re a doctor. Would you ever be interested in selling it?

Yeah, absolutely. Here’s my number, he said and scribbled the number on a sheet from a prescription pad.

“I came into the car screaming at the top of my lungs to my sister: Oh, my God!”

Sarah Khoury had long told her sister, “If you buy a turnkey, there is nothing better I would do than invest money in you.” Here was the turnkey.

She’d only been working at Rumi’s Kitchen for a few months when she informed Stephen Kaplan, then Rumi’s director of operations, that she had her sights on opening her own restaurant.

“Even though that wasn’t awesome for me, I told her, ‘Go do it,’” said Kaplan. “She’s a hard worker, very smart, dedicated. She puts 110% in everything she does. She’s an amazing chef. And tremendously successful. It’s been awesome to see.”

Cook who can bake — and post

From morning to afternoon, the 25-seat dining room and 25-seat patio see a steady rotation of customers who nab the next available seat — be it near an airy window or on a banquette against a wood paneled wall — and wait expectantly for a runner to drop off their omelet, cold salmon plate or thoughtfully composed salad.

But savory items aren’t the only dishes to emerge from the cramped kitchen. From biscuits to bialys to cinnamon rolls, quiches and scones, Hen Mother Cookhouse has become known for its baked goods — a feather in the cap for someone whose pastry skills are self-taught.

“I was never trained on pastry except for the one block in culinary school. I’m a line cook. I don’t measure,” said Khoury. “Savory comes more naturally, but I like to learn.”

As a native Midwesterner, she was intimidated to put a biscuit on the menu. Hers couldn’t possibly live up to Southern standards. Today, the XXL Cookhouse chicken biscuit is a top seller.

She spent a month fine-tuning her bialy, the Jewish bagel-like roll with a depressed center filled with grilled onions.

Her cinnamon rolls weren’t initially up to snuff either. “I didn’t know how to work with yeasted dough. They were so over-proofed that they were wobbly dobbly doo. When I baked them they would completely be gaping.”

Pastry recipes still get tweaked for improvement, she admitted. “I would never consider myself a baker. I’m a cook who can bake.”

The pandemic is partially responsible for Khoury’s deeper dive into pastry. During COVID-19, she went full-on with a pastry program, using social media as her megaphone.

“I was doing anything to keep an audience on Instagram. It started to be this pastry pop-up: custard pie, cookies, scones. It was to keep my audience engaged. It did. I would put a special that if you came in two hours, you’d get a slice of cake. I’d get 20 to-go calls in one hour.” Suddenly, pastry sales accounted for 60% of sales.

“The social media of this aspect of the business is where she gets to vent, say funny things,” said Sarah Khoury. “I think that’s an outlet of sorts for the actress in her. She loves to ham it up. It’s easy to get engaged because she’s funny and warm.”

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

When Khoury realized that social media could be a game changer, she started posting candid stories on Instagram, like a video of her with sister Sarah and daughter Ada taking to task “privileged” customers who left one-star reviews during the pandemic. “I started to put my real personality in it,” she said.

She even used social media to get comedian Heather McMahan to eat at her restaurant. Upon learning that McMahan had moved back to her hometown of Atlanta during the pandemic, Khoury — a self-described McMahan “fan girl” — began sending direct messages to her on Instagram.

The effort paid off. McMahan ate at Hen Mother and posted about her meal to her followers. “I went from having 2,000 followers to 4,000 overnight,” said Khoury, who credits the comedian for spreading the word about the restaurant. McMahan even hosted the chef on her podcast.

This past May, some ticket-holders to McMahan’s sold-out Fox Theatre performance made Hen Mother Cookhouse part of their McMahan experience. “Because of Heather, all these people from the city started coming here,” said Khoury.

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Credit: CHRIS HUNT

Breakfast rules

Like any good mother hen, Khoury sets ground rules. Hen Mother Cookhouse is first-come, first serve; does not seat incomplete parties; doesn’t split checks unless split evenly; charges 20% gratuity for parties of five or more; and limits dine time to 60 minutes.

“Those are the things I do put my foot down about,” she said. “I tell everyone that complains about our management they are putting up rules that I have given them.”

Her staff appreciates her management style.

“We’re very straightforward, which is really refreshing. What you see is what you get,” said Hen Mother Cookhouse manager Alisha Pfennig, a seasoned industry worker who met Khoury at Rumi’s Kitchen and has been part of Hen Mother since opening day. “We stick to our guns.”

“I remember when I interviewed, I thought she was scary,” said Lauren Walker, 22, who started four years ago as a server during college and has since added pastry chef and expediter to her resume. “She has an intimidating aura. She is no-nonsense and gets to the point.”

Khoury’s leadership style is one reason why Walker and Pfennig aren’t looking elsewhere for employment.

“I am not sure I would want to work at another restaurant,” said Walker. “It would have to be a really special place.”

“I believe in Soraya’s mission,” said Pfennig, who typically changes jobs every three years in search of more learning. “I care about her and her family immensely. Right now, I don’t have a reason to go somewhere else.”

Neither does Khoury.

“I feel like I was always meant to live in Atlanta,” said Khoury. “We live one minute from the restaurant, which is a chef-owner’s dream.” And operating a daytime dining concept is more conducive to raising a growing family that now includes 5-month-old Elias.

But she’s not about to shirk on those Hen Mother duties. “Being an owner is different from being a chef-owner. You have to be involved. No one’s gonna do it like you. They’ll do the best that they can, but when you’re there, it’s like when mom’s home.”

Find more stories about metro Atlanta culinarians at ajc.com/culinary-journeys


Hen Mother Cookhouse. 11705 Jones Bridge Road, Johns Creek; 770- 417-8404, henmothercookhouse.com