BEIRUT: Some 20 years ago Lebanese food in America consisted of thick pita passing itself off as Khibiz Arabi, falafel sandwiches paired with romaine lettuce and carrot shavings, hummus scooped directly out of a dusty, imported can of mashed chickpeas.
“It was Lebanese but very, yani, Tex-Mex,” recalls Philippe Massoud, owner and chef behind Manhattan’s acclaimed Lebanese restaurant ilili.
Since his days as an overambitious hospitality undergrad, Massoud has dreamed of revolutionizing the state of Lebanese food in America. He spent his late teens and 20s antagonizing Lebanese restaurant owners, attempting to buy a chain of lackluster falafel joints in upstate New York and watching several projects for his own place fall through.
Opened in 2007 in the Flatiron district of midtown Manhattan, ilili is the culmination of a life’s work pushing to elevate Lebanese cuisine from the equivalent of foreign fast food to its rightful place as a sought-after delicacy. Food critics and peers have not only lauded Massoud as a fantastic cook but also recognized him as one of the essential matchmakers in America’s recent love affair with Mediterranean eating.
The menu is about 60 percent traditional Lebanese and 40 percent innovation derived from the cuisine’s flavors. Next to staples of Lebanese cuisine – kibbeh nayeh, chicken liver in pomegranate molasses, stuffed vine leaves and skewers of taouk – are inventive bites drawing on authentic flavors while pleasing discerning Manhattan palates.
“The concept fulfilled two purposes: one, to fill a void in what we believed to be traditional, authentic flavors. ... The second was to represent our interpretation of the future of the cuisine,” Massoud explains.
Take the duck shawarma, for example, which Massoud claims was the first of its kind. At brunch, classic American eggs benedict is on the menu, but in the place of round slices of Canadian bacon there is traditional Armenian basterma and black-truffle oil.
“I do a foie gras with carob molasses and halawa,” he says. He called his innovations “little things like that” many times. Those little things also included gnocchi clearly inspired by the flavors of shish barak, comprising potato pasta, yogurt and pine nuts. There’s also two versions of fattoush on ilili’s menu: one with kale and one with classic lettuce.
“We allowed ourselves to dream and take risks through combinations that were never thought of before,” he says.
After working or living in the business since he was 4 years old, Massoud had piles of recipe cards, accumulated like merit badges, from all the restaurants he’d worked in before. He learned the trade in places such as Burj al-Hamam in Antelias, Lebanon, Paris’ Lebanese fine dining hit Diwan and another Paris spot called Nora, when “they were not as big as they would later become,” Massoud explains.
It was the name, therefore, not the menu that posed the biggest challenge when Massoud was putting together his business plan.
“We got hung up on the name. I mean what were we going to call it? ‘Baba Massoud house of falafel?’ Or ‘Beiti Beitak?’ Or ‘Dounia.’ I didn’t want to give it that ethnic feel; I wanted it to be a true interface between cultures. I wanted New Yorkers to own ilili,” he explains.
Friends of his stumbled on the name by coincidence. “Tell me,” a friend of his wrote to another online in transliterated Arabic: “ilili.” The name appealed to Massoud for its almost numerical aesthetic.
“I love numbers, I’m a number guy. Even the ZIP code for ilili is 10001; it’s also a palindrome, very kind of ‘Da Vinci Code,’” he quips. “Visually, I knew it had an appeal. It captivated me instantly. I knew also that I’m telling my story by opening ilili so the name was very fitting in the context of the restaurant.”
And what a story Massoud has to tell. Massoud’s flair for hospitality comes down to genetics, as the family is credited with jump-starting Lebanon’s hospitality industry.
Massoud credits his grandfather with igniting the entrepreneurial spark in his family’s hometown of Dfoun in Aley, where a number of neighboring families went on to open some of Lebanon’s iconic businesses, such as Aziz deli, Roadsters Diner and, of course, the Coral Beach Resort in Jnah, the family’s hotel where they lived out most of the Lebanese Civil War.
Massoud describes the chain of events that led the family to move permanently into their own establishment. “At the age of 4, when the Civil War broke out, we were in Aley and we also had a house in Kantari [Beirut]. So, we packed our suitcases really fast and went straight down to the hotel as sort of a waypoint,” Massoud says. As they left Aley, the family could see men breaking into their home, then looting and destroying it.
“Then our home on Kantari Street also got destroyed and burned and looted. So here we were with one suitcase at the hotel and that’s how my life at the Coral Beach started,” Massoud says. It was a perverse kind of blessing living at the hotel, where he could watch pastry chefs prepare creme patisserie in the morning and then help flip burgers at the beach cafe in the afternoon.
“I was able to see the entire operation at a very young age, from A to Z.”
Terrifying violence would finally move Massoud’s parents to transplant their son to Scarsdale, a bedroom community outside New York City, to live with an aunt.
“My father never wanted me to be in the business because he knew how hard it was. He knew how much of a toll it takes on your family life, your personal life because you have your one and only wife, which is your job,” Massoud says.
His adolescence in the U.S. would help define the character of his food years later, as he dove headfirst into assimilating into American culture.
“I went to American high school; I played American football for the Scarsdale Raiders. For me it was like, I’m here I’m going to be as American as apple pie. I’m going to go for the whole experience.”
Massoud’s father was assassinated in his final year of high school, the Coral Beach Resort subsequently sold by the time he was a second-semester freshman at Cornell University and his adolescent dreams of returning home and expanding the business were destroyed.
“Around the time I knew I wasn’t going into the hotel business, I took my first class in food and beverage management, and I discovered the blank recipe card,” he says. “I’m very mathematically inclined so I started writing things down and doing trial and error. Fast-forward to graduating in 1994, prior to graduating, I decided I was going to open a Lebanese restaurant in NYC.”
Before that dream was realized in ilili, Massoud helped conceive and create Neyla, a Lebanese restaurant in Washington. “The Neyla concept, which was named after my sister and one of the daughters of one the investors ... became one of the big success stories in Washington.”
In 2006, Massoud made his return to New York, where he brought together the team that would open ilili in 2007. It is the ultimate mixture of New York sophistication and healthful richness of Lebanese culinary traditions. Massoud brings many of the traditional ingredients – the essentially Lebanese flavors like pomegranate and carob molasses – straight from Lebanon.
Manhattan’s flavors are present at ilili, too, however. The restaurant is located in the Asian-populated neighborhood of Koreatown. To honor his multicultural neighbors, he’s made Korean-inspired falafel. He’s also added foods popular among the city’s trendy gourmets, things like garlicky ramp greens and aged steak.
With seven years of success, Massoud is set to take a step back from the daily grind to plan an expansion.
“I don’t want to use the word franchise. ... Franchise is an ugly word. It would be to branch out. We’re looking at other markets and we just launched a fast food concept called ilili Box bringing mankousheh to New York.”
With his plans for expansion is the possibility of a homecoming to the Beirut market.
“We’re looking at London and Miami and Dubai, and hopefully Beirut when the situation settles.”
One day, he said, when Beirut’s restaraunt industry is ready to start evolving and taking risks again: “Once there is enough stability I’m fully confident Beirut will take its place as a culinary capital in the world.”