Last month saw the launch of Feasts From The Middle East, the second instalment from chef and creator, Tony Kitous. The Sybarite sat down with Tony to find out more about the man behind the restaurant brand Comptoir Libanais and his passion for simple and delicious food.
Tucked away from the hustle and bustle of Oxford street, beyond the backstreet eateries and high-end boutiques of Mayfair, I arrived at restaurant lounge, Levant. Welcomed by a candlelit staircase and the exotic aromas of incense, I happened upon a beautifully engraved doorway. Leaving London behind, I was transported across continents by the luxurious settings and authentic sights and smells, to a Middle Eastern lounge and the venue for our interview.
Growing up in a food-orientated family, where the kitchen was the centre of the home, Tony’s love of food was ignited from a young age. “ I absolutely love food, from the smells, the tastes the colours. I love how a simple smell can take you back to a specific memory – it’s a beautiful thing”, says Tony. Learning about the joys of food from his mother, Zohra; who is present throughout the book, continues to influence and motivate much of Tony’s drive to bring great, Lebanese food to the masses. “She taught me the joy feeding people. Come into any Middle eastern home and you will never walk away from the table hungry”, explains Tony. As if on queue, the table is laden with plate after plate of enticing Lebanese dishes. “I want to show people how beautiful Lebanese food and culture is. My goal is for Lebanese and Middle Eastern food to be eaten on a daily basis and become as popular as Italian or Indian food”.
Feeling like a child in a sweetie shop, I began to fill my plate with hummus (cooked in so many ways I couldn’t tell you my favourite…) beautiful Arabic flat bread and aubergine dip, spiced potatoes, and gorgeous meat and vegetarian pastries to name a few.
Tony arrived in London at 18-years-old, with £70 in his pocket, no job, nowhere to sleep and only basic English. “I spent my first night in London sleeping outside Victoria station”, says Tony. However, this didn’t stop the fire in his belly to work hard and make his family proud. For the next few years, he worked two full-time jobs in London kitchens, bars and restaurants every day from 6 a.m. until late. After some time, a lot of hard work and saving even harder, opportunity came knocking. At the tender age of 22, Tony signed a contract and opened his first restaurant. Some 25-years later, he still owns that restaurant, along with 30 others across London and Europe.
Many of Tony’s recipes featured in the cookbook (Feasts From The Middle East) and served in many of his restaurants are inspired by his travels. From his mother’s kitchen in Algeria, to his later adventures across the Middle East, Lebanon, Tunisia, Morocco, North Africa and beyond. “When I travel and visit friends, they know not to bother taking me for a burger or to tourist places. I want to experience the local cuisine, eating with their friends and family at home to truly enjoy the flavours of a place”. Whether you’ve eaten in your local Comptoir Libanais or fancy something healthy and full of flavour, Tony Kitous’ Feasts From The Middle East, gives everyone the chance to enjoy recreating lebanese cooking at home. “ I don’t want this to be a one time thing, or something to just be enjoyed at one my restaurants. I want them to enjoy it at home too. This is why we stock and sell all sorts of products, such as jams, oils and orange blossom water, just as you would find in a souk, so our guests can buy them easily and recreate their favourite dishes at home.”
The passion for cooking never stops for Tony Kitous, from when he gets up in the morning and begins his working day, to returning home. “My everyday is about bringing you simple food, that is cheap to buy and easy make, but enjoyed again and again because it is delicious”. It’s not all work and no play, as Tony shows me a clip from his Sky News interview, from earlier that morning. “I love food, so I love my work” says Tony. Since arriving in London, he describes his life as a permanent holiday. “I know I am privileged to do something that to me, doesn’t feel like work. So from the outside world it might look like a glamorous life, but its very, very hard work and the thing that keeps me going is simply that – I love it”.
The clear message of this book is to spread the love of Lebanese food and culture, with each recipe complimented by beautiful photographs, anecdotes and Tony’s personal family photos. “ This cookbook is about my story, my journey and for sharing recipes. My life really is an open book”.
Our copy of Feasts From The Middle East has already made its way home with several members of the team. You can buy yours via the link below.
Facebook: Tony Kitous