Owner and chef of beloved Burlington restaurant Kismayo Kitchen dies at 36
Imam Islam Hassan started going to the gym with Ahmed Omar a few years ago. They would meet in the morning a couple days a week. Omar, as he was known to everyone, was always encouraging.
“Every day I say to myself, ‘this is not the day,’” Hassan said. “He is telling me, ‘Every day is the day. Every day is the day.’ We turned the workout from being a stress or something, toward a nice time that we spent together.”
Hassan was the leader of Omar’s mosque at the time. He knew Omar had experience with weight training — he'd entered bodybuilding competitions in his 20s and once talked about becoming the first pro Somali bodybuilder in the world. That dream wasn’t about vanity: Omar was always thinking about how he could help his community.
He spoke about this in an interview in 2013: “The dream that I have is, maybe one of these days, opening my own gym, or helping the community,” he told then-Vermont Public Radio. “Even it’s not only Somalis, not only my community, but for everybody living in Vermont.”
At the time, Omar also said he dreamed of opening a restaurant in Burlington that served Italian-influenced Somali food. He did that a few years later, and named it Kismayo Kitchen. If you went there, you couldn’t miss him.
“He was always smiling at people,” Hassan said. “And if there was something he knew he can give — he can provide, he can help with, I don’t think he would hesitate.”
Omar was the youngest of 14 siblings. He arrived in Vermont as a teenager in the early 2000s, after his family left Somalia during the civil war and spent six years at a refugee camp in Kenya.
He worked hard in school, learning English. He got a job at a fast food restaurant in Burlington soon after moving to Vermont, took cooking classes, worked in catering, got into culinary school, and finally opened Kismayo Kitchen in 2019.
His food was well-known. During Ramadan, he would cook for hundreds of people that came to the mosque in South Burlington to break the fast, a meal called Iftar.
“Everyone loved his food,” said Fuad Al-Amoody, the vice president of the Islamic Society of Vermont. He remembers Omar’s Somali sweet tea, a spicy red chicken dish, pasta, samosas, soup and rice.
“He would bring it right before people start opening the fast,” Al-Amoody said. “He wants it to be hot so that people can enjoy it. So he brings it there freshly cooked. And while he was cooking it, as a Muslim, he’s fasting, so he’s fasting and cooking. I remember those moments.”
During the pandemic, Omar started filming cooking videos on YouTube to promote healthy eating. He'd share recipes in Somali, interspersed with English.
“He was hoping to really, you know, grow that into something big,” said his friend Oliver Parini, who worked on the videos with him.
“Omar didn't do something if he didn't love it,” Parini said. “When he did it, he just went full force. If you watch the YouTube videos, you can just sort of see how excited he would get about food.”
All this time, Omar also still loved working out. Even after a long day at the restaurant, he would go to the gym late at night — sometimes at 2 am.
The thing he loved most though, was his family.
“His wife and his two kids were the most important thing in the world to him,” Parini said. And he had a way of making others feel like family too.
“Really like everyone was Omar’s family. He always called me ‘my brother,’ and I don't think I was the only one that he did that to. Everyone was his friend.”
A service for Omar will be held at the Islamic Society of Vermont in South Burlington on Friday morning.
Lexi Krupp is a corps member with Report for America, a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and regions.