Well, this is the best April Fools’ Day gift yet! Zee was featured in the Edmonton Journal in one of their special profile pages. His amazing story is finally beginning to spread around. It is a well done article. Kudos to the Edmonton Journal’s Rick McConnell.
T o get to Remedy Cafe on Jasper Avenue from the ancient city of Multan, in the Punjab province of southern Pakistan, you have to travel 10,694 kilometres, assuming you follow a straight line. Sohail Zaidi took years to cover that distance, with stops in Singapore, Poland, Russia, Germany, New York City and Texas. He picked up about 10,694 stories along the way. Most will make you laugh. Let’s get the celebrity story out of the way first. Zaidi, called Zee by his friends and customers, drove a yellow taxi in Manhattan for most of the 1990s. One day, he carried a nice young man to a stop near Central Park. The man paid, got out and walked away. Before the back door closed, a young woman, a little freaked, leaped into the cab.
“Was that man just in your taxi?” she asked Zee.
“Where was he sitting?”
Which made Zee wonder if the man had left his wallet, or something worse, behind.
Zee told the lady the nice young man had been sitting right there, in the back seat.
“Do you know who that guy was?” she asked, voice rising with excitement. “That was John F. Kennedy June-yah.”
Zee shrugged. Never heard of him. Which goes to show how far it can be from Pakistan to Park Avenue, let alone Edmonton. Zee’s excellent adventure began in one of the oldest cities in Asia, where his father was a police officer and his mother raised 13 children, and taught them all to cook. Zee left Multan when he was 16, moved to Singapore to install computers, parlayed that experience into similar jobs in Russia and Poland, and later crossed into Germany, where he applied for political asylum and a work visa. For a time he bought T-shirts in Frankfurt and sold them in Stuttgart. He speaks Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and English, understands Persian and can read Arabic, learned from the Qu’ran.
At one apartment he rented, the landlord told him he was welcome as long as he didn’t cook. The guy hated the smell of curry, said it stuck to the walls like scratch-and-sniff paint. Zee ate out, mostly, but one Sunday cooked chicken curry and rice and invited the landlord. The guy came, sampled the food, loved it. Zee knew, right then, he could cook. After three years in Germany, he moved to New York City, got a green card and a taxi licence and lived with his brother and brother-in-law in a 400-square-foot, $980-a-month, rent-controlled apartment in the old Windermere Hotel, at 666 West End Avenue. Yeah, he noticed the address.
Zee and his brother-in-law shared a cab, and a bed. Zee drove days and slept nights, his brother-in-law did the opposite. Working 4 a.m. to 6 p.m., Zee took in $450 to $600 a day, got robbed a couple of times, never lost his trust in people. He has stories about women who tucked pillows under their shirts to pretend they were pregnant, so they could sit upfront to rob or scam the driver. “One guy put a gun on me and said, ‘Give me as much money as you have,” Zee says. “I told him, ‘You should take a robbery lesson, man. It’s nine o’clock. I only have $30. You should rob people at night, at least they have a whole day’s cash.’”
By his mid-30s, Zee had decided it was time to go back to Pakistan to find a bride. He had a niece in Edmonton who was about to marry a man from New York, and when she came down for the wedding she brought along a friend who had just graduated from the University of Alberta nursing school. Zee and Stacy met in Macy’s department store in 1994. “He could hardly speak English,” she says. “He was driving a cab then. But he was so kind. I said to my mom on the plane ride home, ‘I should marry that guy.’ And four years later, I did.” They moved to Edmonton in 2000, where Zee soon bought the Remedy Cafe on 109th Street. First time a customer asked for “coffee and Baileys,” he poured a cup and put a bay leaf in it.
He learned fast. “He has the ability to take a business from the start and not know anything about it, then be able to run it,” Stacy says. “He’s very driven and focused on what’s he’s doing.” The restaurants’ chai recipe he’s so proud of took him six years to perfect; he now sells hundreds of litres a week. When it came time to open another Remedy, he found what he wanted on the corner of Jasper Avenue and 103rd Street and promptly spent $500,000 on decor and a huge new kitchen he calls “heaven.”
People told him downtown was dead by mid-afternoon. He smiled, nodded. He keeps the place open until midnight; there’s a help-wanted sign in the window, for day and night shifts. These days, Zee divides his time between the cafés and his family. His sons, Gabriel, 12, and Azim, nine, play hockey, and Stacy owns Wicked Laser & Facial Studio on Whyte Avenue. Given time, Zee could list 10,694 reasons why he loves Edmonton. “This is the best city to raise your kids,” says the man who has lived all over the world. “This is a beautiful life here.”