Ithaca, N.Y. — It doesn’t take long for Hicham Oulida to find a metaphor to convey his excitement about Gateway Kitchen, the eatery a block up East State Street he opened in May.

“It’s like you have your own child: A lot of people love kids, but they love their kids better than other ones,” Oulida said.

“Ask your dad …. ‘Who do you prefer: Your child or your brother’s child?’”

Oulida, 42, has worked as a bus boy at a restaurant in NYC, as a kitchen hand at Collegetown Pizza and then as part-owner of Casablanca, the pizzeria on the Commons.

But he says nothing compares with having a restaurant to call your very own.

“American Dream, you know?,” he says with a wide grin.

The restaurant has found a foothold, Oulida said. And Oulida — who since moving to Morocco has lived in Maryland, Minnesota, Virginia and NYC — has found a home in Ithaca.

Oulida, 42. (Jeff Stein/Ithaca Voice)

Estranged in America

Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, Oulida was abruptly laid off from his job at an electrical company in New York City.

The company’s other Arab workers were also let go.

“I went to look for a job but couldn’t find it,” said Oulida, adding that few people appeared interested in hiring a Muslim, Arab man after the attacks. “Nobody called me back.”

Oulida, a native of Morocco — the Ithaca pizzeria Casablanca was named after the Moroccan city where Oulida grew up — said he felt estranged in America.

“It was hard to understand,” Oulida said. “Every religion has extremists, and it wasn’t my fault.”

Oulida said he never considered leaving America, even as he and his wife struggled to find work in the aftermath of the attacks.

“Don’t go back,” he said. “My dad taught me to go always forward.”

“I knew there was another door open for me — you got to just look for it.”

Oulida and his father, who was in the Moroccan army.

Return to Ithaca

After the attacks, Oulida heard from a friend living in a small city upstate called Ithaca. He soon began working at Collegetown Pizza. Oulida then bounced around for a stint, living in other communities around the US.

He’s always wanted to have his own place, and jumped at the opportunity to cook for the busy pedestrian and residential Gateway Commons area.

He said he wanted to do something different: “I wanted to combine Mexican and Mediterranean” food, he says.

The Gateway Kitchen bears this out, serving what Oulida calls “something for everyone” — tacos, gyros, calzones, subs and more.

Oulida’s kids — 3, 6 and 9 — and wife Nhezha Oubella, a business administration student at TC3, love the area, according to Oulida.

“I was looking for an established place, a business,” Oulida says. “And I found one.”

The restaurant’s ribbon cutting ceremony. (Courtesy of Gateway Kitchen’s Facebook page)

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Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the founder and former editor of the Ithaca Voice.