New steakhouse caters to the young and wealthy — in a conflict zone

'I never set out to do any of this'

By Ali M Latifi for CNN
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(CNN) - The owner of the new Kabul restaurant came bounding down the stairs, his hair in a short ponytail and his pant legs rolled up to show off his brown leather loafers, looking like a 2000s-era Johnny Depp.

Habib Khan Totakhil was excited -- he was about to host the opening night at the city's first proper steakhouse in decades.

That night, surrounded by dozens of Afghanistan's elite and well-to-do youth, Totakhil embodied both his own drastic personal progress and the dramatic influx of Western consumer culture throughout the Afghan capital since the US-led invasion of 2001.

Growing up across the Durand Line in the Kurram Agency, Totakhil led a very different life to the one he lives today, as owner of the Cabul Meat House.

As a teenage refugee in Pakistan, Totakhil was a voracious reader of everything from the Quran to Pashto poetry to the works of Pakistani author Naseem Hijazi. He, like so many other Afghan refugee children, also heard stories of his family's role in the fight against the brutal Soviet occupation of the 1980s.

"When I was little, I always pictured myself growing up to wage jihad," Totakhil said of his youth. "Most teenagers think about how to run off to parties. I was thinking of a good jihad."

But just as reading made led him toward jihad, it also later turned him away from violence. Totakhil went into the catering business: his first business venture was a Mexican restaurant that still operates in Kabul's "green zone" -- a fortified area sheltering the US embassy and key Afghan government buildings -- that was meant to be the kind of cool hangout spot most restless teenagers and 20-somethings hope for. "We needed a cool spot, and everything was always for foreigners," he said.

He wanted both of his restaurants to break a post-2001 trend of establishments that catered either exclusively or mostly to foreign clientele in the Afghan capital. Many of those establishments wouldn't let Afghans in.

He recalls going to Gandamak, a now-closed bar and restaurant in Kabul, with his former colleagues from The Wall Street Journal -- only to be told, "You're Afghan. You're not allowed in."

Although the high prices mean his own restaurant caters to a wealthy clientele, since its opening last week, Totakhil has managed to create an establishment that welcomes locals.

That evening, a dozen young Afghan men and women -- some who had spent their entire lives in Afghanistan, others who grew up as refugees across the Durand Line, or in Iran or the United States -- joined a 20-something guitarist in a sing-along of Afghan pop songs.

The Meat House conflicts with another childhood memory of Totakhil's, one which, ironically, led him to dislike meat, although he still eats chicken and has a penchant for the famed Karahi from Afghanistan's Eastern provinces.

"My father was obsessed with meat, we weren't rich at all, but every day we would have meat for at least one meal," Totakhil explained. It was his childhood diet that led him to a lifestyle free of red meat. "He fed me so much meat when I was a kid that I think it just made me hate it," he said.

Initially, he wanted to open a vegetarian spot -- a niche that has yet to be filled in Kabul -- but he feared that such an eatery wouldn't make money among the newly rich in a country where meat is a symbol of wealth and indulgence.

He ended up opening a steakhouse.

"In the last couple of years, people are starting to go out and be social again, so I wanted to give them something that was missing in the market," he said.

Although he has come a long way from his childhood days as a refugee in Pakistan and a 19-year-old returnee to Kabul who couldn't speak Dari, the war is never far from Totakhil's mind. He recalls an eight-day period in 2009 when he was on assignment for The Guardian in the Eastern province of Kunar and ended up in Taliban captivity. "I didn't think I'd make it out. They put us in what was basically an outhouse," he said.

Since then, he's avoided threats from the Taliban. Being on a main road of Kabul's commercial hub comes with its own risk as war continues in Afghanistan. "I invested a lot of money in this place, but all it takes is one bombing in the area and I'm done for," Totakhil said.

Still, he chooses to remain optimistic about his personal and economic prospects.

"I never set out to do any of this," he said. "But now that I have, I want to make sure everyone, young people and families, feel comfortable here."

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