Eddie Chamat knows firsthand the value of an act of kindness. It is something he learned on his first trip to the United States.
Chamat was 20 years old when he left his home in Damascus, Syria, to study at Oklahoma State University.
“Back then, if you wanted to study in the United States, you went to the American consulate, and they helped you get accepted to an American university,” he said recently. “I wanted to study programming, and it turned out I was accepted to OSU.”
From Damascus, Chamat flew to New York City, then caught a bus to Stillwater in late December.
“I lost my bags in New York, and all I had was the clothes on my back when I got to Stillwater,” Chamat said at his restaurant, Duffy’s, in Broken Arrow. “It was freezing, sleeting and snowing when I got dropped off at the bus station.
“At that time of year, Stillwater was a ghost town. I didn’t know where to go or what to do. I noticed a guy at the bus station made a phone call, and pretty soon an older lady in a big Cadillac picked me up, bought me a Big Mac and took me to her house to get warm. I’ll never forget the taste of that Big Mac. It was delicious.
“Then she helped me get where I needed to go, and she even helped me get enrolled. I don’t remember her name, but I never will forget what she did for me, a perfect stranger.”
Chamat has found a way to pay it forward in his career. He has fed thousands of perfect strangers with free Thanksgiving dinners since 1989, the year he purchased Duffy’s. This year, he will be serving traditional dinners with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, dressing, pumpkin pie and coffee, tea or soft drink from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“Everyone is welcome,” he said. “Of course, we didn’t have a lot of people the first couple of years, but now that more people know about it, we usually get close to 1,000.”
Chamat said he wound up transferring from OSU and graduating from Rogers State in Claremore. During those college years and the early years after college, his career path took a turn as he became more and more embedded in the restaurant business.
He worked in every Lebanese steakhouse in Tulsa, including Jamil’s, Eddy’s and Silver Flame.
“Tyrone (Elias) at Jamil’s and Eddy Joe (Elias III) at Eddy’s could really cook a steak,” Chamat said.
The late Tyrone Elias and Eddy Elias III are cousins and sons of the founders of their restaurants. Eddy’s has closed, but Jamil’s continues to be run by the same family.
“I worked at Silver Flame when it was in The Farm Shopping Center,” Chamat said. “Abdul (Ahlou), who owned the Silver Flame, and I also became good friends, and our families still visit.”
Chamat said he also worked at the Celebrity Club, The Palace and Frank’s Café.
“The Palace was a club behind a building at 61st and Sheridan,” he said. “It was a nice place. One day, the owner, Joe, came in with this big blond guy and told me he was The Boz. I never had heard of Brian Bosworth before then or knew he was a big football star.”
Chamat said he worked less than a year at a place called Sunshine Café before it was purchased by Frank Alchami and turned into Frank’s Café. Frank’s Café also was known for giving away Thanksgiving dinners.
“I was mostly a dishwasher, busboy or server at those other places, but I cooked at Frank’s,” he said. “That’s where I learned to cook cinnamon rolls, biscuits and breakfast dishes.
“Frank and I went together to get the Duffy’s at 15th and Lewis, oddly from the same people who had the Sunshine Café. But we sold it later. I also had a place called Golden Grill on 71st Street for a while.”
Chamat said he has a loose connection to another restaurant that gives away Thanksgiving dinners, Tally’s Good Food Café.
“Before it was Tally’s, it was Mark and Mary’s,” he said. “I was a dishwasher at Mark & Mary’s.”
Chamat said it is unlikely he will be involved with another restaurant outside Duffy’s in Broken Arrow. He said he is content there and at the time of this writing was looking forward to Thanksgiving.
“I start cooking the Monday before Thanksgiving, and then have a busy weekend coming up after Thanksgiving,” he said. “It’s the hardest week of the year for me, but it is worth it. It really is worth it.”