Terasol: A story of love, beauty in a French café-gallery
Ethan McLeod | 11/28/13 7:14am
[Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in our print edition on October 25.]
Petite and glowing, Sabrina Ousmaal is the owner and inspiration behind Terasol, a one-of-a-kind café and art gallery located in upper Northwest Washington D.C. that serves French cuisine and doubles as an art gallery for the local community. An AU alumna, Ousmaal leads a dual professional life, working as an Associate Publisher for The Energy Daily during the weekdays and operating Terasol with her husband, Alan Moin, by night.
“Take a bite of life, smile at it, enjoy it,” says Ousmaal, 45, with a smile and a quiet exhale of a deep breath. Sitting at a front window table along Connecticut Avenue within Terasol, only blocks away from Chevy Chase, Maryland, Ousmaal elaborates: “Don’t do a job because it pays the bills, do it because you love it.”
At 45, Ousmaal, a native of France, has thrived while fighting against formidable obstacles. In 2005, she was diagnosed with Nasopharyngeal carcinoma, a form of cancer highly uncommon to Western countries that originates in the upper nasal passage and spreads through the upper respiratory tract. As she chronicles the story of her thriving business, she simultaneously receives antibiotics for an infection resulting from her illness from a catheter affixed to her left arm.
Over the years, Ousmaal has also battled with a number of other infections and side conditions as a result of her cancer. Despite years of the treatment and an uncertain prognosis for her cancer in the immediate future, Ousmaal’s body has been resilient through new levels of treatment.
“I’m not going to say it’s not difficult,” she says about the daily pressure of working two full-time jobs. “When I go to treatment, I tell them, ‘I have my day job, and then I have the part where I need to generate,’ help my husband on weekends and evenings at Terasol.”
Even before her diagnosis, Ousmaal had to learn how to cope with the illness that now affects her own body. Her father was diagnosed with lung cancer in 1994, and though surgery kept the illness at bay for several years, after a second bout of cancer he passed away in October of 1999. The way Ousmaal learned to deal with the pain and sickness was through art.
As a child, she had artistic tendencies, noting today her parents even gave her license to design the home they moved into when she was 12. But it was not until a number of years later, after her father’s passing, the very act of creating art began to serve a therapeutic purpose. That same year, a friend presented her with a gift of 10 pottery sessions, and the vital connection she formed with throwing pottery began there.
“When I got sick myself a few years later, when I did radiation and chemo, when you have to center yourself and you are throwing, you must put in an enormous amount of pressure.
“Walking out of two hours of throwing, it frees and clears your mind to start the workday again on Monday,” she continues. While the prescribed treatments for her cancer and other ailments are certainly vital for her, so is the act of creating art and meeting others who share a passion for pottery. “It’s a drug,” she says with a broad smile. “I love it.”
Promising beginnings in France
A deep connection to art runs in Ousmaal’s genes, leading back to her mother’s side of the family. Her maternal grandfather was a professional artist from a highly talented family of artists before him. Though Ousmaal’s parents pursued other professions away from art, her upbringing in France provided a perfect place to foster creativity.
Growing up in Paris as well as Montargis, which is close to Orleans, she learned to appreciate outside cultures by traveling often with her family on summer vacations. From her childhood, Ousmaal also recalls her introduction to her first creative passion and the practice of her daytime profession: writing.
“My elementary school was a perfect picture, a big mansion, turn of the century in the middle of a forest,” she reminisces. “The first 10 years I learned to write with a quill,” she adds, supplementing her story with a demonstration of beautifully written script on a napkin close by.
As a journalism and political science major at AU, where she graduated in 1990, Ousmaal learned from who she labels as some of the best professors in the School of Communication. She recalls today professors would criticize her writing style as “flowery,” particularly in her introductory Mass Communications 101 course, and she needed to suit her writing to a style of journalism that differed very much from the newspapers in her own country. Ousmaal also recalls her enjoyable experiences with SOC professor Iris Krasnow, who still teaches her feature writing course at the school today, and AU alumnus and former professor Leon Hadar.
Today, Ousmaal has remained on the business side of publishing in her current role as an Associate Publisher for The Energy Daily, for whom she has worked for 17 years. While several different companies have passed off ownership of the print publication, the duties of her position have remained more or less the same over the years. As Associate Publisher, she remains responsible for increasing the scope of The Energy Daily’s readership, company growth and overall relevancy within the energy industry.
The evolution of Terasol
During her time as a student, Ousmaal simultaneously fell in love with the surrounding area, as well as her husband, Alan Moin. “We met once at a party in Potomac, Md.,” he recalls of first meeting Sabrina. Though Alan graduated and moved to San Francisco for one year shortly after, he returned in 1989 and, after dating for two years, they married and moved into a house on nearby Nebraska Avenue.
The two have been happily married for more than two decades, with Ousmaal finding success in publishing and Alan pursuing a career as a commercial real estate agent for Long & Foster. It was not until 2008, three years after Ousmaal began throwing pottery each Sunday, the two decided to open a space of their own.
The couple chose to sublet a gallery space in Chevy Chase, just up the road from their current location on Connecticut Avenue, for six months as an experiment. “It was a very small studio,” Moin recalls, adding, “Imagine one-third of this space right here.” After their success selling art created by Ousmaal as well as other local artists, the two set out to find a larger, more permanent space, with an additional idea in mind that they could open a restaurant to supplement the business from the gallery.
“One day we were driving down Connecticut Avenue to see if we could find any space, and we saw a lease sign here in the window,” Moin recalls. After working out the terms with the property owner, as well as an additional several months of much-needed renovations, Terasol had a new spacious home, complete with a gallery, kitchen, bar and ample seating space.
The variety of French cuisine at Terasol ranges from such treats as pain au chocolat and crepes for breakfast, hearty soups and jambon fromage sandwiches for lunch and specials that include steak frites and beef bourguignon for dinner. Terasol’s head chef, Hector Guerra, was once ranked as one of the 44 best American chefs in the 1995 book Home Food: 44 Great American Chefs.
Terasol caters well to the older audience in the area, but Danny Kelly, a server, notes, “students that come in like to come for lunch to relax, have lunch, have coffee.” Looking around the establishment, many of the older customers also seem to enjoy the quiet atmosphere and laid-back jazz tunes, giving them time to talk and enjoy themselves. “With a gallery like this here, it’s like you can transport yourself for a night to be in Paris basically. You can walk down the street, then come in and have your pain chocolat, coffee and listen to some quiet music.”
Kelly adds, “You can tell they really care about what they’re doing and it motivates everyone else to make sure we give customers the experience they envision. Being inside the restaurant, it’s clear from the authentic environment of Terasol just how much heart and soul the couple have put into their business.
“We’re putting our blood, sweat and tears into this, and it’s our place,” Ousmaal notes. “That’s Terasol.”
Living the history
Despite the ample amount of time Ousmaal has spent in the United States, it is clear that she is far from losing her roots back home in France. “I’m French, born and raised, and I can’t be American. It’s not that I don’t appreciate American culture by any means; that’s why I’m here. But I’m not of it.”
Ousmaal emphasizes just how much she aims to enjoy life and does not miss a beat when it comes to appreciating each day. “What’s the point of working your entire life and not having a perfect vacation in the end?” is the integral question she poses. She connects this thought with her culture back home in France: “I used to think while taking the Metro back in Paris, when I was studying World War II…I closed my eyes and looked around, and realized things had not changed. You are part of the history, you are living the space.”
Even as a trade publisher by day and a hardworking business owner by night, Ousmaal has a strong motivation to get the most she can out of life outside of work. “My goal at 55, after another 10 years of work, is to travel and enjoy life,” she adds calmly. “Life is not about working the rest of your life. It’s working to build something; then, let go.”
With a blossoming business, and a defiant and irrepressible will to overcome her cancer, Ousmaal cites a belief that has become the mantra of a family that was raised to work hard, achieve and stand by a code of ethics. Gazing serenely out the café window, she smiles and quotes her father: “There’s nothing an Ousmaal can’t do.”
In the print edition, we misidentified Sabrina Ousmaal’s age as 55 instead of 45. The story also said she receives chemotherapy treatment but she is instead using other antibiotics. At the end of the piece, she quoted her father while we wrote her grandfather.