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DATELINE: CHICAGO : Islam Brings Fine Dining to Ghetto : In effort to advance black entrepreneurship, Farrakhan's movement opens 3 restaurants. Venture is seen as a test of group's acumen.

April 11, 1995|JOHN BECKHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oprah's Eccentric, Harry Caray's and Michael Jordan's Restaurant all stand among antique stores and art galleries in the gentrifying River North neighborhood near Chicago's glitzy Magnificent Mile. But the latest celebrity to open a restaurant in this heartland metropolis chose a site 12 miles to the south, in a setting where tourists rarely stray.

Minister Louis Farrakhan proudly describes the location of the Nation of Islam's new Salaam Palace of the People as "the heart of the ghetto." In a community where the only competition is two fast-food chicken outlets, Salaam combines three operations under one mosque-like roof: a fast-food restaurant, a buffet and an elegant dining room robed in cherrywood, marble and brass.

Between vitriolic speeches that advocate black self-sufficiency and excoriate whites and Jews, at a time when he has been a target of an alleged assassination-for-hire plot, congressional hearings and media investigations, Farrakhan found time to oversee the recent opening of Salaam. He attended a press reception--a rare event--and released a diverse list of investors and contractors that details the ethnic background of each (21 are described as black, 9 Caucasian, 3 Jewish, along with 1 Indian, 1 Egyptian, 1 Italian and 1 Chinese).

Building on the Nation's doctrine of black entrepreneurship, the $5-million Salaam means 100 jobs on Chicago's South Side and, in Farrakhan's words, "shows the people that we love them."

The "nickels, dimes and dollars came from the people" to finance the restaurant, Farrakhan declared, as well as other new business ventures planned by the Nation in a bid to return to the days before the death of Elijah Muhammad, who built the movement during the 1950s and '60s.

Farrakhan's Nation already has bought back part of a Georgia farm operated by the organization in Muhammad's time. More restaurants in other major cities, more farms and a trucking firm are in the planning stages.

This grandiose picture recently was scrutinized by the Chicago Tribune in a lengthy four-part series reporting that Farrakhan and his family live lavishly while the Nation's business endeavors--which sell a range of products from soap to security--have languished or failed. Contributions by the faithful, the Tribune concluded, have subsidized questionable enterprises, lavish estates and luxury cars for the Nation's top cadre of leaders.

Farrakhan denounced the series as the product of "envy and frustration" and part of a shadowy conspiracy to destroy him.

In the wake of the allegations, Salaam becomes a high-profile test of the Nation's business savvy and its commitment to poor African Americans.

Christopher Muller of the prestigious Cornell University School of Hotel and Restaurant Management thinks that Farrakhan has a good chance of success with Salaam. "People are buying into an image," Muller said. "He has a desire and the community has a desire--it is a matter of pride to keep it open."

Although Salaam is just minutes from gang-infested housing projects and searing poverty, it is also adjacent to a stable black middle-class neighborhood.

Designed by Maria Farrakhan Muhammed--Minister Farrakhan's daughter--Salaam stands on what appears to be the Nation's Main Street. The restaurant's parking lot and the offices of the Final Call newspaper fill out the block. From the Nation's bookstore, pedestrians can hear the amplified, recorded voice of Farrakhan exhorting "the black man" to work for self-sufficiency.

The surrounding 20 square blocks are quietly patrolled by the Fruit of Islam, the Nation's security apparatus.

Inside the lavish Salaam Fine Dining, chandeliers hang even in the windows, effectively blocking what might be considered an unappetizing view. Soft contemporary music emanates from a baby grand player piano.

"The restrooms are as opulent as Saks 5th Avenue's in New York," commented Manhattan transplant Paul Ehrlich, seated at a table set with Reed & Barton flatware and English china.

"The service is so good at Salaam, I had a piece of food on my cheek, the waiter wiped it off for me. I was scared to go in the bathroom," jokes local comedian Bernie Mac in his standard routine. "At Salaam, the service is so fast they serve a three-minute egg in 1 1/2 minutes. They cook minute rice in 30 seconds."

The bakery sells the Nation's famed Supreme bean pie. But nowhere on the premises are alcohol or pork available, in keeping with the tenets of the Nation's dietary laws.

The clientele one recent day ranged from a wealthy woman in a full-length mink to a teen-ager, clad in sweat pants, with three generations of his family.

The place was packed. James Anderson was buying his second bean pie in two days: "For five bucks, you can't beat it." In the fast-food line, Matt Johnson said: "It's not cheap, but it's better than the other places for what you get."

Chef Early Primus has served as staff cook for boxers Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, but the reflected glamour of those jobs pales beside the Nation's computerized kitchen, he said. "The Salaam is elegance," Primus said. "This is away from a dream, further from any dream I ever had."

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