CINCINNATI -- Salimah Mari Abdul-Hakim wants to make her mark in Cincinnati's food scene and she has the hustle to get it done.
As the owner and chef of L. Mari Catering, she's dishing up a full menu of urban cuisine steeped in multiculturalism.
"Urban cuisine is an infusion of soulful and multicultural dishes," said Abdul-Hakim, who goes by L. Mari ("L" is short for Salimah). "It's made from a place with a lot of love and soul."
Having lived in Atlanta, Abdul-Hakim is used to having abundant choices when it comes to international food.
"When I relocated to Cincinnati, I noticed that there weren't a lot of restaurants offering cultural cuisine," she said. "I decided to change that."
L. Mari Catering showcases a broad range of multicultural dishes, with flavors from Caribbean, Indian, African, Italian, Cajun and Creole cuisines.
"We include a lot of herbs, spices, and infuse traditional recipes with alcohol to enhance the flavors on some of our signature dishes," she said.
L. Mari Catering offers services that range from catering to meal prep to pop-up dining. Halal and vegan options are available, but pork and pork products are not. Popular menu items include blackened salmon, Cajun shrimp pasta, spiced maple Hennessy wings and baked ziti.
You also can find dishes such as sweet potato souffle, butter chicken, Korean-inspired sesame barbecue wings, Ghanaian jollof rice and jerk chicken.
Committed to both her craft and her business
Abdul-Hakim is a graduate of MORTAR, a business accelerator for local entrepreneurs of color.
"MORTAR helped me develop my hustle into a business," she said. "They gave me access to tools I didn't have previously to learn how to grow my business."
Derrick Braziel, MORTAR's co-founder and managing director, remembers Abdul-Hakim well.
"I've been so impressed by her dedication to her business and how creative she is in growing it," he said. "(I have) nothing but absolute respect and admiration for her. Her food is amazing."
Braziel's respect is well-founded. Abdul-Hakim's commitment to her craft and business was on display during the 2017 Cincy Soul food festival. She worked through the entire weekend in spite of a second-degree burn she sustained across her front torso; she was pulling spiced maple Hennessy wings out of the convection oven when the pan tilted and hot oil spilled onto her.
"I always finish whatever it is I (start)," she said.
'Food is unifying'
The Cincinnati native grew up in Walnut Hills, developing her love for cooking from her parents and grandmother.
"In the summertime, I love it when my dad barbecues and has this whole buffet of food," she said. "My mom makes this potato salad the family stalks her for. But she's only given the recipe to me."
Raised as a Muslim, she has fond memories of the holy month of Ramadan, when she would break fast at the local mosque with families of various ethnicities.
"I loved seeing the different dishes they cooked. There were African, Indian, Pakistani, Malaysian cuisines," she said. "Food is unifying."
Up until fourth grade, Abdul-Hakim attended the Academy of World Languages. She then switched to an online school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), where she remained through high school. She went on to pharmacy school at the University of Cincinnati, but after the first year realized the full weight of her student debt.
She pivoted and moved to Atlanta to get a fresh start. There, while working for Delta Air Lines, her love for travel blossomed.
"I traveled a lot, to Europe and all throughout the country," she said. "I had the best food in Paris near the Louvre."
In 2014, she returned to Cincinnati and worked for an insurance company, eventually moving up to the position of project analyst.
"I loved it … the organization, forecasting and trends," she said. "It taught me so many tools that I utilize in my business now."
Ultimately, though, her father's lingering words and her first love -- cooking -- won out.
"My father has always said, 'Why don't you become a chef? You need to have your own business -- that's your personality,'" she recalled.
Turns out, her father was right -- Abdul-Hakim is doing so well as a business owner, she's already looking to expand. She also has her sights set on a food truck to add to her business.
However, as she plans to grow her business, she is remaining true to what food fundamentally represents to her: connection.
"It's almost like you make this intricate connection with people you may not even know," she said.
Address: 1719 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine
Information: 513-545-1687; lmaricatering.com
Upcoming event: Noire -- A Pop-Up Dinner Experience: A fusion of soulful cultural dishes, acoustic sounds and art. 6:30-10 p.m. Feb. 25. Ages 21 and up. General admission: $35; VIP: $50. For details, visit the Facebook event page.
Grace Yek writes about food for WCPO Digital. She is a certified chef-de-cuisine with the American Culinary Federation, and a former chemical engineer. Questions or comments? Connect with her on Twitter: @Grace_Yek.