How I Got the Story: Ben Ali of Ben's Chili Bowl
I had never spoken to Nizam Ali before, but somehow his call to the paper ended up at my desk. I picked it up my phone around 11:30 a.m. Thursday and learned that Ali's father had died the night before.
His father was Ben Ali, who wasn't exactly a public figure but the place he created certainly was a public institution: Ben's Chili Bowl. I casually mentioned it to some reporters and editors around me, and all of a sudden we were launched on multimedia whirlwind throughout the day. In less than 15 minutes, I put together a brief seven-inch teaser obit for our online Web site, letting the world know that Ben Ali had died. In no time, the story hit the wires, the blogs (including Post Mortem) and TV.
All of that's nice, of course, but my work was just beginning. People often think obituaries are fairly easy to do, with clean-cut blocks of information cleverly repackaged and locked in place. Well, that's hardly ever the case, and it certainly wasn't true about the story of Ben Ali.
Ben's Chili Bowl, of course, is a Washington institution, a meeting place for people of all races and classes that has endured through boom times and bust. (I regret trimming a sentence pointin out that, although Ben's is in a historically black section of town, its clientele has always included people from all races and classes.)
Every D.C. politician -- now including President Barack Obama -- comes to Ben's sooner or later to press the flesh and gain some local street cred. The chili is great (I discovered, pretty early on in my research that earlier this year Bon Appetit magazine called Ben's chili the best in America), and Ben's was famous for its "half-smokes," a smoked sausage served on a hot dog bun that may be D.C.'s lone culinary contribution to the world.
The walls of the tiny diner on U Street NW are covered with photos of famous celebrities and politcos (Serena Williams, Denzel Washington, Bono, Hillary Clinton), and it's been featured in movies and on dozens of TV shows, but the Chili Bowl is still a place where common folks come to eat.
In other words, Ben's Chili Bowl is world-famous but at the same time deeply local. There have been many articles and TV pieces about the restaurant, but -- and this is what made my job especially tricky -- nothing about Ben Ali himself. Bill Cosby was quoted more often in stories about Ben's Chili Bowl than the man who actually founded the restaurant and devised its chili recipe.
So here I was, working on tight deadline under a lot of scrutiny on a story of considerable local interest -- with practically no information about the story's central figure. In my initial conversation with Nizam Ali, I had gotten the names of the family members (who knew that Ben Ali's given name was Mahaboob?) and learned that Ben Ali had fallen down an elevator shaft and broken his back and had dropped out of dental school at Howard University. But Nizam -- who gave up practicing law to work in the family business -- couldn't talk for long, and when I tried to call him back, his cell phone wasn't receiving messages. Fortunately, I had asked him for a second number, just in case, which allowed me to get in touch with his older brother, Kamal.
When I reached Kamal, he was at the mortuary, making funeral arrangements. He said he'd call back when he could. Meanwhile, I dug through everything I could find about the restaurant, including its Web site, online reviews and -- most helpful of all -- stories from The Post on the occasion of the Chili Bowl's 40th, 45th and 50th anniversaries. From this stream of information, I was able to pick out the occasional nugget about the restaurant.
Ben Ali's sons had been interviewed, famous people had weighed in and ordinary diners had talked about Ben's food and ambiance. But, as I discovered, Ben Ali himself had given an in-depth interview only one time in his life -- in February of this year to a paper in India. When Obama had visited Ben's Chili Bowl in January, journalists in India noticed that Ali's sons looked Indian and looked into the family's story.
Mahaboob Ben Ali was born in Trinidad but described himself in the story as "100 percent East Indian." His grandparents had been born in northern India, and Ben Ali was an educated and well-traveled man of the world who had visited India many times. In his later years, he enjoyed watching Bollywood movies. He also said he had fallen down an elevator shaft and broken his back when he was a student at the University of Nebraska (my alma mater, as it happens); some of his family members thought it happened here in D.C., when he was at Howard.
Ben Ali was also a Muslim, and when he married a woman from Virginia, Virginia Rollins, she converted to his faith. In one of the articles I found, Nizam Ali had mentioned that he (Nizam) had never actually eaten a half-smoke because, as a Muslim, he was not allowed to eat pork.
When I finally reached Kamal Ali late in the day -- it was approachng 5 p.m. by then -- I asked whether his father ever ate the food at his restaurant (along with questions about his father's brithdate and his earlier jobs, including an intriguing career as a motivational speaker). Kamal reluctantly admitted that, as a Muslim, his father had never actually tasted a hot dog or half-smoke covered with his famous chili. He really didn't want me to include that in the obituary, but -- I'm sorry, Kamal -- something like that is simply too good to ignore. I knew right away that I had the perfect "kicker," or ending for my story.
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