By Tracy Gillette-Ricci | Photos by Yves Goyatton
In a small village in Jordan, Faisal Nimri, grew up in a beautiful stone house surrounded by gardens and olive trees. He grew up in a culture rooted in a tradition where grandparents were the center of the family and the vast extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins lived a short walk from one another. Togetherness was part of daily life. “We had lunch at one home and dinner at another,” says Nimri. Nimri cooked regularly with his grandmother and the family picked grapes and olives, sharing the 10-50 gallons of olive oil that was produced.
In his early teen years, Nimri was invited to a friend’s home, where he first heard the oud, an instrument that would capture his heart. He fell in love with the sound. In the summer, he took a job working from sunrise to sunset to earn the money to buy his own oud.
Following high school, he set his sights on studying engineering, but he found himself in an unlikely track of study: business and business administration. He excelled in academics and found time to play his beloved instrument with a small group.
While life in Jordan was full of family and culture, the United States offered certain opportunities not afforded in Nimri’s home country. With a brother and a sister already living in the U.S., Nimri reluctantly moved with his parents and younger brother to Monterey. He enrolled in the Pacific Grove Adult School, studying English, and then went on to study science at Monterey Peninsula College, where he held a 4.0 while working multiple jobs to help support the family. He flipped burgers at Wendy’s and ran the front of the house at his uncle’s restaurant, Petra. At Petra, he learned about hospitality. He began to accept his new home. “I began to see the beauty despite the different culture,” he says. He went on to open da Giovanni in Carme-by-the-Sea. Working seven days per week, he learned all aspects of the business. After two successful years, he continued his culinary education, going to work with his older brother at International Cuisine in Pacific Grove.
When Nimri arrived to the Monterey area at 19 years of age, he brought only his oud. Fourteen years into his life here, his music had been dormant. However, that changed when he met Bashar Sneeh. Sneeh was from Syria and grew up an hour away from Nimri. The two friends shared a love of music and a desire to bring a genuine cultural experience to dining. Their friendship evolved from playing music together. Three years later, they collaborated to open Dametra. “We wanted to bring the feel of old culture to Carmel,” says Nimri. Within months after its opening, the restaurant was serving a consistently packed house. Every guest was treated as family.
The signature music of Dametra inspired patrons to rise from their seats and dance. This effect was born spontaneously. Nimri spent his breaks practicing songs on his oud as Antonio sung while doing the dishes in the kitchen. When the two performed “Besamé Mucho” for a friend’s birthday, the energy in the restaurant exploded. “A light bulb went off to create more of an experience.” he says with a spark in his eye.
Today, Nimri is focused on Porta Bella in the Court of the Golden Bough. He refers to the restaurant as his “new baby.” It is where he continues to share his culture and serve from the heart.