Chef Philippe Massoud is Lebanese, a fact that has made both his life and his cuisine complicated. While the times now are at a dizzying high (his restaurant, Ilili, has grown into a rave hit for the midtown crowd and is attracting executives, celebrities and royalty alike), he was also forced to flee his home country when he was a child in 1985, during the Lebanese civil war. Prior to that, he had been living in his family’s hotel in Beirut that had been started by his grandfather, Alexander, and passed down to his father, George. While the hotel was idyllic, the surrounding landscape was anything but, and the civil war was coming to a head on all sides of the seaside resort. “It was like the Wild West out there,” he recalls. “People walking around with AK-47s all the time. It was really bad.”
His family had been forced to evacuate to the hotel, where he lived for eight years and spent time wandering, often finding himself in the kitchen. It was here, barricaded inside, that Chef Philippe fell in love with cooking, and the cuisine of Lebanon. After death threats and stray bullets became too intense, Mr. Massoud’s parents decided to send him to visit his relatives in Scarsdale, New York. It was only when he had arrived stateside that he was told he was never going back. “It was like coming from a land of chaos to the civilized world,” he says. He was enrolled in high school, and well on his way to becoming a normal American teenager, when one year into his high school experience, he was told that his father had been assassinated.
Philippe continued with his education, even carrying on the family tradition by entering the Hospitality program at Cornell. However, with disagreements on campus, steady news of the chaos surrounding his friends and family, and the loss of his family’s hotel (“my second father,” as he refers to it), he quickly finished up his degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology and left to seek his culinary fortune. He first struck out for New York, where several restaurants were offered to him, only to have the deals collapse one by one. Then he was off to Lebanon, where he trained under the country’s top chefs, most of them former employees of his father. He returned to America in 1999, and soon after opened up Neyla in Washington, D.C., where his signature version of Lebanese cuisine first took root. In 2006, he left Neyla and Washington to launch his full-scale attempt to bring high-fashion Lebanese food to the savvy New York public, resulting in the cult phenomenon Ilili, which is a phrase that is whispered in a woman’s ear, meaning “Tell me…” Thanks to word of mouth and Chef Massoud’s obsession with quality, Ilili has become a New York culinary hot spot.
NYO sat down with Chef Massoud over a smattering of mezza, the Middle Eastern equivalent of tapas, to gain a better understanding of the long road he has traveled to get to where he is, and where he sees the future leading.