Meet the woman behind Clay Oven, the Indian-inspired restaurant with a new location in Selden

Three decades since she began her career as a chef, the most valuable lesson Lubna Habibi learned was not picked up in the kitchen.

“It’s not running a business,” she said. “It’s running a family.”

Habibi, who opened and shuttered numerous restaurants across Suffolk as years passed, unveiled her second Clay Oven halal Indian cuisine in Selden this past March. Her other Clay Oven has served her recipes in Hauppauge since 2017.

From Silver Spoons in Ronkonkoma to the Time Out to Eat food truck parked in Port Jefferson Station, the chef served more than food in her community. Younger customers, particularly Stony Brook University’s students and Muslim Student Association members, looked to her as a matriarch with hot meals and more importantly, an ear to lend.

“From the MSA, the kids used to come from Stony Brook,” Habibi said. “We closed 9 o’clock, and they used to call me ‘Auntie don’t close yet, we are coming’ so I used to wait for them. I have seen them from high school, went to college, graduated, all those things.”

The chef said she keeps in touch with many of the students who visited her at her various restaurants throughout the years. She recalled one young man, who after graduating and moving to California for work, came back to Long Island to request she attend and cater his wedding.

“I can write a novel or a book regarding all my costumers,” she said. “They come, they sit, they tell their stories. Some of the kids grown with me.”

South Asian cuisine and dining experience

Clay Oven, named for the cylindrical oven that cranks out naan and other breads, offers primarily South Asian cuisine. The joint also offers Afghan dishes and fuses even farther influences, serving halal tacos and tres leches.

The restaurant’s signature dishes include the karahi chicken with touches of ginger and garlic and the malrani chicken with a coconut flair. Customers can also fill up on chicken, shrimp or salmon tikka masala in a sauce loaded with tomatoes, bell peppers, onions and spices.

Habibi said Stony Brook students enjoy the affordable and quick kati rolls, or rolled up paratha bread filled with various proteins and veggies. With her Selden location much closer to campus than Hauppauge, she said her young patrons requested she offer the $10 lunch special at her new location, and she of course obliged.

“I was not planning on doing the lunch special here, so I did that for them,” she said. “And the other people are enjoying it too.”

When dining in, patrons can choose the sit at a table, or dine in a separate section seated on the floor. Habibi said parties call to reserve these few areas.

“In our country, we sit on the floor and we eat, so that’s the concept we brought here,” she said. “We made tables that you can sit around and you are sitting on the floor. It’s a little back-home touch.”

Woman of the world

Habibi’s forced foray into entrepreneurship came in 1983 when she opened a deli in Rego Park. While the venture proved unsuccessful, she did not give up on her talents.

She opened —and ultimately closed — a number of restaurants throughout Suffolk after traveling the world over as a chef for various airlines. She ventured to hubs across the globe for weeks at a time, shared recipes and techniques and supervised the cooking of thousand of meals daily.

Now, she is grounded in Selden and Hauppauge. At 62, she wants to have a manageable footprint, but has no thoughts of slowing down or retiring.

“I don’t go to the gym; this is my gym,” she said of Clay Oven. “I come, I run, I do this and that, I keep myself active.”