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Why should we all be eating Middle Eastern food, Tony?
It’s got all the healthy components of the Mediterranean diet – olive oil, vegetables and herbs – but with different spices. It’s also affordable, delicious and easy to prepare. For example, put a bit of honey on feta cheese with some sesame seeds and you have the most delicious snack.
So you want to educate us about your food?
Yes – that’s my passion project. I want people to think of Middle Eastern food the way they do about Italian food. The idea behind Comptoir Libanais was that it would be an affordable canteen where the woman who buys a £2,000 handbag would sit next to the saleswoman who served her. And now I want to take that further with the book and get into people’s homes. The people I most want to seduce with my food are mothers, because they often teach the whole family. That was how I learned to cook. My mother was very inventive, making meat and fish stretch to feed seven children. She spent hours every day cooking.
You came to London when you were 18. Were you planning to stay?
No – I just came on holiday. I only had £70 in my pocket, and £50 of that was borrowed from my uncle. But I fell in love with the city, and when it was time to go home I realised how much I wanted to stay. I went back to do engineering at university, but walked out of my first lecture. I couldn’t see that being my life.
You write in the book about working three shifts a day in London...
Yes. I did everything from cleaning the toilets to preparing food. I didn’t have a choice – I needed the money, and I didn’t speak a word of English. But I didn’t see it as work; I loved being in restaurants. There was one job, though, where I was only being paid £1.50 an hour. It was quite satisfying when, five years later, I bought my first restaurant. I still love what I do.
What are your earliest food memories?
I grew up in Algeria, but ate all kinds of Middle Eastern food as a child, including Lebanese (we use a lot of the same ingredients). I remember the men selling sardines from their carts. They’d shout ‘Yalla sardine!’ and everybody from our apartment block would go out to buy them. That evening the whole block would smell of cooked sardines, which I loved. Everyone cooked them in a different style, so we’d swap dishes and have a feast.
You had a small stall when you were a boy. Did that spark your entrepreneurial spirit?
I think so. I’d take bags of merguez [spicy sausage] sandwiches and lemonade that my mum helped me make, and sell them outside the football stadium. It wasn’t about making money as much as being hospitable; I wanted to welcome the other side’s fans to our town.
Sharing plates are a big part of what Comptoir Libanais does, aren’t they?
Yes. It’s just the way we eat in my culture – everything is shared, and food is always available, even if you visit unannounced.
What’s the etiquette with sharing platters?
You just dig in. I always prefer to eat with my hands – that’s the way I was brought up. Dip your bread in here, layer on some cheese, add some houmous. Anything goes.
Are you pleased that houmous and shakshuka [eggs poached in a spicy tomato sauce] are so popular these days?
Yes, but I don’t want it to be a trend; we should eat this food daily! Shakshuka is a humble dish that’s eaten all over the Middle East and prepared in a variety of different ways. I love aubergine, so for the recipe in my book I’ve put that in too. I’m a great believer in marrying up flavours you love.
How do you come up with your recipes?
Ingredients are almost like clothes in your wardrobe – you see what you have, how you’re feeling and what you need to do. It’s the same with cooking – there are a million ways to make the same thing.
How do you deal with the stress of running your business?
I’m a passionate runner. I did my first marathon when I was 27, and I’ve been hooked ever since. I’m considering doing the Marathon des Sables [a six-day ultra marathon of 251km in the desert] for the fifth time. I run to help with stress, and to combat my greedy nature.
You’re greedy, then?
Oh yes! If the table is full of food, I will eat it all. I don’t understand how anyone can practise moderation around food. As a boy I’d hover around my mother when she was cooking, hoping for something to eat!
Don't miss Tony's feta and nigella-seed falafel recipe.