The making of a falafel king

'Freddy' making falafel. (Photo by Gillian Reagan.)
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The King of Falafel was in a bad mood. It was early on a recent weekday morning and Feres “Freddy” Zeideia, the ringmaster of the Astoria-based King of Falafel and Shawarma cart that has done business on 30th Street and Broadway for the past eight years, was in a warehouse under the Queensboro bridge, which shelters about three dozen food carts overnight.

The towering, barrel-middled man from Palestine jabbed his head out from from a makeshift prep kitchen and barked orders in Arabic to his workers while he boiled basmati and yellow rice on a massive stove. His new food cart, which he bought just three days earlier, was having technical difficulties—the flat-top grill was too hot to sizzle the lamb and beef schawarma at the temperature he liked. His son-in-law was fiddling with nuts and bolts to replace the new grill with the old one and kept using the wrong ones.

Dozens of food cart cooks hustled around him, dressed in grimy jeans and aprons, piling Home Depot carts with bags of lettuce, green peppers and onions. They prepped to stock their carts, latch them to their cars and zoom into the city in time for the early lunch hour (or late-breakfast hangover shift).

“Hey, are you going to run me over?” Zeideia shouted at a van that was backing up too close to him. The driver honked in return. “Keep going, see what happens,” Zeideia said.

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The storminess in Zeideia’s expression cleared for a moment when he saw me approaching. He flashed a grin. “You need to give me a minute,” he said, before answering one of the two phones he keeps in his black-and-burgundy-striped, pantaloon-like pants.

Zeideia had to cook his rice, grind his falafel, mix his hot sauce, whisk his tahini dressing, drive to his location, and set up his cart by 11 a.m. There were only a few hours left, and he was losing his patience.

“Usually, I’m not this calm, I’m not this patient,” Zeideia told me. “I yell a lot. I’m good at it.”

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Zeideia, 44, lives in this chaos every morning, starting at 7 a.m. He drives from his home in East Elmhurst, stopping for a Dunkin Donuts coffee along the way, and arrives at the “Food Carts Garage,” as it is officially named, on 12th Street near Silvercup Studios (crews for NBC’s comedy “30 Rock” set up catering tables just a few blocks away at 43rd Ave and 13th Street). Carts with names including “Halal Big Boss,” “Sammy’s Halal Food,” “Hooda Halal Food,” “Halal Express Grill” and the admirably straightforward “Halal Food” crouch along the walls, with generic pictures of chicken, lamb and falafel plates smeared with tahini plastered on their sides.

Zeideia and the rest of the vendors pay a monthly fee for the safe space to park their trucks. There is a gas supply, and giant refrigerators in the back of the warehouse are stocked with vegetables, chicken and beef supplies bought by the managers. Zeideia buys chicken, lettuce, onions and parsley from the garage, but gets his own lamb from a local Queens butcher.

He shuffled to a back room, where shelves are lined with canned tomatoes, cases of sodas and Snapples, and red-netted bags filled with onions.

He cradled supplies to make his famous falafel, the food that has gotten him finalist trophies at the Vendy Awards, a kind of James Beard ceremony for street food vendors, that takes place on Sept. 25 on Governor's Island this year. Each year, Zeideia vows to win the top prize.

“They tell me the judges aren’t going to like the falafel,” he shouted over the rumble of a rusting fan circulating the smell of wilting lettuce in the air. “Too bad. I’m not going to change my recipe.”

Zeideia dug his gloved hands into 30 pounds of chickpeas, which had been soaking overnight in a white container, and guided them into a pan over a commercial Hobart grinder. He pulls together eight bunches of fresh parsley and 10 diced onions into neat piles next to the chickpeas.

He flipped a switch and the machine churned. He cupped the chickpeas, scooping in bits of parsley and onion, and ushered them into the grinder. A mealy mixture dropped into a bucket under the machine. Excess water gushed from a separate spigot into another bucket.

“We use all fresh ingredients, see?” he said. “The only thing that could go bad is the onion.”

After the falafel was done grinding, he poured the mixture back into the pan for a second turn in the grinder. Zeideia left the room and came back with a bucket full of dried spices that he had already mixed and began shaking it over the chopped chickpeas. He wouldn't tell me exactly what’s in it. “There’s paprika and garlic, and"—he looks at me for a theatrical pause—“other spices that can’t be revealed.”

“Everybody has a different way of making the falafel,” he said. “Some make it very green or very red and overpower it with flavor. Mine has nine spices, so I have the edge.”

After the mixture's second plunge into the grinder, he pours the excess water over it and churns the falafel with his hands. Chickpea and parsley bits speckle his meaty arms up to his elbow.

There are plenty of falafel stands and carts peppered throughout the city and Queens. Zeideia said his is special because it is made from a recipe from his homeland—the West Bank of Palestine. The falafel are oval-shaped, with a larger, crunchy surface that allows the fluffy flavored chickpeas in the middle some breathing room, unlike the constricted golf-ball-sized falafel typical of food carts.

By the time he was finished grinding the falafel mix, enough to make 1,200 balls, most of the warehouse’s food carts had already rumbled out into Manhattan.

Before he could make it to his corner to serve up his falafel, Zeideia had to grind dried chiles for his hot sauce and whisk together his tahini dressing.

“I’m already late,” he said. “I’m very frustrated.”