Rare is the person whose life follows a linear trajectory. Childhood career plans rarely materialize; instead, defining one's niche in the professional world is an iterative process that is constantly shaped by both personal and societal circumstances. This pattern is common in the restaurant industry where, despite a plethora of professionally trained chefs and managers, many have arrived quite by chance. Sohail Zaidi, founder of the wildly popular Remedy Café, followed an especially meandering path—one that originated in Pakistan, passed through New York City and Texas, and found its terminus in Edmonton.
Zaidi, known as "Zee" to his many friends and customers, grew up in Pakistan and immigrated to the United States in 1991 after obtaining a Green Card through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program, also known as the "green card lottery." He found employment in New York City as a taxi driver, where he interacted with many well-known public figures. A paparazzo once hid in Zee's trunk for many hours while he tailed Madonna's entourage; Zee notes that this was among his most unusual tasks as a taxi driver. He subsequently moved to Texas and opened a gas station, but in 2000 ventured north of the 49th parallel to settle in Edmonton.
Zee perceived a significant void in Edmonton's restaurant scene. Existing Indian restaurants could be categorized as "fine dining" or as "ethnic restaurants" but not as casual institutions where one could simply relax with a warm mug of richly spiced chai. He recognized an opportunity to fill this niche but concedes, "I hadn't run a restaurant before, but you learn as you go." Zee planned to serve coffee as well as chai, and chuckles as he recounts a customer who ordered a cup of coffee with a shot of Baileys. "I don't drink and I wasn't quite sure what he meant, so I went into the kitchen and crumbled up bay leaves into his coffee!"
Zee quickly became versed in the lingo of coffee and observes that the great volume of coffee shops in the university area is a boon for his business. He remarks that the recent opening of Transcend Coffee, which is a mere stone's throw from Remedy's doorstep, initiated a significant exchange of customers between the two businesses. "People go to Transcend for coffee and then come over here for chai and food. The Transcend staff comes here for lunch. [The opening of Transcend] has been a very good thing for this neighbourhood."
Indeed, the chai at Remedy Café is legendary. Zee does not use a premixed base. Instead, he imports whole spices, such as star anise and cardamom pods, directly from India and no fewer than 32 spices comprise his distinctive blend. He estimates that Remedy sells between 300 and 400 cups of chai each day.
Remedy Café, in its early days, did not sell the classic Indian and Pakistani dishes that are now synonymous with this spot. One evening an inquisitive customer noticed Zee tucking into a bowl of homemade dhal and requested a taste. The customer was deeply impressed and, according to Zee, "The rest is history." Remedy's food menu quickly blossomed and presently includes, among others, butter chicken, palak paneer and vegan curried chicken. Zee explains that providing vegan options is a priority, given the rarity of such dishes in Edmonton. Gluten-free menu items are similarly rare but Zee notes that Remedy's masala dhosas, which resemble a large crepe composed of rice and lentil flour and stuffed with curried vegetables, fit the bill.
Zee marvels at the nonlinear trajectory of his life, a journey whose many twists and turns ended in Edmonton. "Edmonton is home now," he concludes, adding that the city is easy to navigate both in terms of his daily commute to work and his interpersonal interactions.
"The people here are great," Zee explains. "After 9/11 I was scared that people would stop coming here, but nothing changed."
In essence, the trajectory of Remedy, like the line or curve described by an object moving through space, has established a sound reputation in past time, a loyal and ever-expanding clientele in the present, and is moving inexorably toward a future of continued excellence. V
Sohail "Zee" Zaidi
8631 – 109 St, 780.433.3096