After 5 years in prison, chef AJ Hedary gets back to making Lebanese food in Fort Worth

March 28, 2023 | Sarah Blaskovich | Dallas Morning News

“I’ve had a lot of missed opportunities.”

That’s one of the first things chef Antoine “AJ” Hedary said as he stood inside his new food truck in Fort Worth.

Hedary’s family has made falafels, kebabs and gyros for nearly 50 years in Fort Worth. AJ’s grandfather and namesake, Antoine Joseph Hedary, opened Hedary’s Lebanese in 1976. AJ’s dad started eclectic Fort Worth restaurant Celaborelle Phoenician in 1998, and AJ grew up washing dishes, waiting tables and cooking with his family. Other family members have opened Lebanese restaurants in Allen, Azle, Richardson, Dallas, Las Vegas and beyond.

AJ might have taken over Celaborelle someday; he’s a natural in the kitchen and comes from a long line of Lebanese restaurateurs. But he was arrested a half-dozen times between 2011 and 2015 on charges that included drug possession, aggravated robbery, fraud and unlawful possession of a firearm by a felon.

“I was depressed,” he said as he looks back on his life a decade ago. “When I started doing drugs, I felt less depressed. So I kept doing them.”

For a vicious six years, AJ said he didn’t go more than 10 days without doing meth. He’d have panic attacks in the walk-in fridge of his dad’s restaurant. One time, he thinks he was awake for a week, doing drugs and and trying to stay focused in the kitchen.

His last arrest might have saved his life. In a desperate attempt for a more intense high, he started injecting meth intravenously.

“Deep down, I was trying to hit rock bottom,” he said.

AJ spent five years in prison, getting sober and trying to earn a release before his daughter turned 15 years old. Celaborelle had closed, as had Hedary’s in Fort Worth. AJ was released in 2020.

“It was just enough time for me to get out and dance with her at her quinceañera,” said AJ, who is of both Lebanese and Mexican heritage. He smiles, but his eyes fill with tears.

“I do not dance, but I danced with her.”

Starting over

Standing inside his cramped food truck kitchen, AJ and his new wife, Elissa Hedary, hustle through a typical dinner shift, warming pita bread, tossing veggies in a saute pan and frying hand-cut potatoes.

AJ was released from prison almost exactly three years prior and has been quietly making Lebanese food at events in North Texas since late 2020, when his mom, Susan Hedary, bought him a food truck.

“She is his biggest fan,” Elissa Hedary said. Elissa Hedary was working at Susan Hedary’s insurance company and met AJ not long after he got out of prison.

Hedary’s Fresh Mediterranean food truck is the first time the Hedary name has been on a business in Fort Worth since the family closed Hedary’s. Nearly 50 years of family recipes are tied up in AJ’s new venture. (They’re also used at family member Marios Hedary’s Fort Worth restaurant, Byblos Mediterranean. Other family members have restaurants in Allen and Las Vegas.)

“I love when people eat my food, and they say it brings back memories,” AJ said.

Longtime Fort Worth residents have started asking AJ where they can find his food truck. He does ezCater and scheduled events only — neighborhood meet-ups or a pop-ups outside of a hospital, for instance — which makes it tough for fans to get a gyro. AJ will be at the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival’s Night Market on Friday. Tickets cost $65 for general admission and $89 for early access and include “all the food and beverages you can (responsibly) consume at the event,” according to the FWFWF website.

A new normal

Given the family’s history with restaurants, AJ could consider opening a brick-and-mortar someday. But dropping out of high school to work at the family restaurant, then dropping out of culinary school because of run-ins with the law — then serving time and probation as a felon — have shifted AJ’s ambitions.

He thinks back to long hours in hot kitchens, made easier with the numbing power of drugs.

“You get burnt out on a restaurant,” he said. “That’s your whole life.”

“Here,” he said, gesturing inside his food truck, “I know I can plan for a few days off, to reset.”

AJ now has three daughters: a teenage daughter, plus two step-daughters with his wife. The youngest step-daughter, an elementary schooler, is close to the age AJ’s daughter was when he went to prison. He missed a crucial five years with her.

He’s inspired to grow his food truck and point his life in a new direction, he said.

He passes fattoush salad with sumac and a gyro doused with garlicky sauce. He checks to be sure I like his favorite, the crispy falafel sitting on basmati rice with house-made pickles. I do.

I asked him what was different about his life today, when many of the recipes are the same.

“Everything,” he said.

“I am not the same person. I don’t have the same thoughts. I don’t have the same desires.”

Hedary’s Fresh Mediterranean has a food truck schedule posted online at AJ Hedary’s next big event is at the Fort Worth Food and Wine Festival’s Night Market on March 31, 2023. Details here.

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