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.
Q: How would you describe your restaurant experience so far?
A: The restaurant world has taught me how strong a man’s body is. As a kid, I never got the dose of reality that I did after the first year of employment. It wasn’t until I opened a restaurant that I realized there was another level of energy. Restaurants are made for people crafted out of steel, and they’re not for the faint of heart. It’s perfection, 24/7. The seat you don’t sell today can’t be sold tomorrow, and your product must be reinvented daily. I will always hire a restaurateur to go into other industries, but I will not hire anyone from the outside to be a restaurateur. It takes a special breed.
Q: Tell me more about your childhood.
A: It was magical, adventurous, tragic and horrific, all at the same time. That was what living in Lebanon was all about when you were growing up in a conflict zone. There’s never really time to be a child; you’re an adult as soon as you can stand, in essence. When I compare my childhood with my colleagues’, I realize there is a child penned up in me, looking to have fun and just be a kid.
Q: What’s your favorite thing to make for your family?
A: I keep family meals simple. Perfectly roasted chicken, whole roasted fish with farm market vegetables; the simpler the better.
Q: What restaurants inspired Ilili?
A: None, it has been in my brain since 1989. It is a very personal story of perseverance, of the American dream. Take a guy out of a war zone, give him the opportunity to have a normal life, tell him that he has his rights and see what he can do. It comes from the line between survival and creativity.
Q: What is your favorite dish at Ilili?
A: Ugh, that’s a tough choice … The steak tartare.
Q: You’ve worked for many years as a restaurant consultant. Are there any keys to making a great restaurant?
A: First of all, there is no magical equation to a success. I’d say bring something missing to the market; if it’s already on the market, it better be the best goddamn thing out there! If you’re not opening to be the best, don’t open at all.
Q: How do you balance formal dining with the intimacy of Lebanese cuisine at Ilili?
A: I think, first of all, fine dining is actually eating mezza because if you look at the portions, you’re in essence eating small pieces. The only difference is a linear versus social mezza. The whole point is that it breaks the ice and brings out the community in a group, and that can work in a refined or a casual setting. The menu is vast enough that our guest can steer their meal towards a formal or a social affair, each table is like a mini restaurant, and they decide how they want their restaurant experience to go. I’ve had U.S. presidents dine here, and bachelorette parties that would be censored in any normal circumstances. It really is a restaurant for all occasions.
Q: What are your thoughts on the Mediterranean diet that has been getting such good press these days, like the recent New York Times piece calling the Mediterranean diet the new hot health buff’s obsession?
A: I think calling it the Mediterranean diet is misleading because that sounds like it’s an exercise in doing things we don’t want to do. Eating the Mediterranean way should come naturally to us, like it does to the rest of the world. Different ingredients can supply the same culinary experience giving you a tenth of the daily fats. When you’re out drinking in the Mediterranean, they have nuts out and people always end up eating a handful while they’re out socializing. Tabbouleh will give you 300 percent of your vitamin C, 130 percent of vitamin A, 50 percent of your fiber and iron, so you’ve already fulfilled half of your needs for nutrition for the whole day. Add some meat and a vegetable, and your body is completely fueled. We’ve seen diets come and go and there’s already diet fatigue in the market, but it is proven eating a balanced diet will help. Your mood will improve, your sleep will be better, and the rest will follow.
Q: Will the Mediterranean diet elevate Lebanese cuisine to the level of Spanish, Chinese or Nordic cuisine?
A: I do believe that what we’re doing in regards to Mediterranean is the beginning of the journey. The cuisine has been dormant for quite some time, but it is a cuisine with an amazing level of fusion thanks to the Silk Road. We have 200 years of culture mixing with each other, which has created an amazing encyclopedia of food treasures yet to be reproduced. Should that interest remain, it will help Ilili further push their message. I’d say it’s a wind that’s blowing in our sail; if it’s a wind that will sustain has yet to be determined.
Q: You’re known for reintroducing Lebanese classics, as well as putting inventive new spins on the cuisine. How far can you take Lebanese before it loses authenticity?
A: You have to realize, the restaurant opened to say: Now that I am in a country that has peace and I don’t have to worry about whether I’m going to live or die tomorrow, how do I see my cuisine evolving? The same way it has evolved in France, in Japan, in Spain, there is no such thing as not being able to keep it Lebanese because that means we’ve stopped evolving. The cuisine is, in my opinion, a barely walking toddler, because there was a hijacking of the evolution of the arts within all the conflict. The only reason I’m getting a lot of credit these days is I was able to dream because I didn’t have to worry about a bomb falling on the head. If everyone had the same advantages I had, I’m sure these culinary arts would have progressed the way we try to do it at Ilili. Tradition is a foundation, and creation is an evolution. If I want to inject a Japanese technique into a Lebanese dish, that’s my creative right; that’s what being creative is all about.
Q: What do you say to people wary of Lebanese food?
A: Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back. The number one comment we hear is, “Oh, my! I did not know Lebanese could be this much fun!” Unfortunately, that’s because there are not enough of us doing what Ilili is doing on the market, and I’m hoping that will change over time.
Q: What is the future of Middle Eastern cuisine, and cuisine in the Middle East?
A: I think Middle Eastern cuisine is tied to the evolution of the region, and because of social media and the Internet, things are moving faster in a more fluid direction. However, we’re not anywhere near what the potential will be in five or 10 years. I believe it will be the next to cross the ethnic divide and make its way up to fine dining. As for the Middle East, I think the evolution of the cuisine in its own soil is tied into the security of the region. Aleppo, which is one of the most amazing culinary capitals of the world, is decimated, and a lot of history has been eradicated. The cuisine of the Middle East is in critical condition as long as the region suffers. However, on the artisanal level, there is a powerful movement for slow food and women showing their craft in pop-up restaurants. You have chefs taking pride in the fact that they work as chefs. It’s an uphill battle over there.