Growing up in Algeria, I was always close to my mother and both my grandmothers. My relationship with food began under my mum’s influence in a very unusual way. I’m the eldest in a family of seven kids and my mum -like all Arabic mothers- would spend no less than six hours a day in the kitchen cooking for us all. I have strong memories of the fisherman who used to visit in his little truck and sell us fresh sardines, which my mother would either stuff or marinate. After all this time, she is still the best cook I know - just like any mother.
When I reached the age of eight, my mother and I became accomplices.
She used to help me prepare harissa and merguez sandwiches and make fresh lemonades, and I would set up a stall outside the football stadium near my house and sell them to the fans. This stall was my first experience, where I learnt that a place to eat is not just about food, it’s about making people feel welcome - it’s about hospitality and I naturally just love welcoming people, even on a pavement.
I have always had a need to explore and discover new things so when I was 18 years old, a childhood friend and I decided we wanted to go to London on holiday for a few weeks.
I have to thank my father for allowing me to leave – it was unusual for the family to let go of the eldest son in Arabic culture. He probably didn’t realise at the time, but this ‘holiday’ was to last 26 years! From day one, I loved London and knew that this is where I wanted to live. I wanted to stay, but I also knew that I’d need to work hard to survive. It wasn’t easy in the beginning; I spent my first night sleeping at Victoria Station and then thanks to a friend’s brother, the next three months I spent in a North London squat, with other travellers. I managed to find work in restaurants. At times I was working two to three shifts, doing up to 18 hours in a day but I saw it as all part of my adventure. It barely felt like work to be honest, because I was enjoying the restaurant business and I was driven by the love I have for it.
And so by the time I was 22 years old, I was ready to open my first restaurant in Wigmore Street.
A few years later I started my first Lebanese restaurant, Levant. I wanted to create a place to celebrate our food, culture and hospitality. The idea for Comptoir Libanais was brewing in the back of my mind. I would walk the high streets and see so much Italian food, Thai food, French food, but no Lebanese food. And I thought to myself, why not? This is what I want to do; open a Lebanese canteen that is accessible to everyone in terms of affordability and atmosphere, but most of all a place that will celebrate the warmth and tastes of our culture. I wanted to do for Lebanese food, what the Italians have done for Italian food. In 2008, I opened the first two Comptoirs on Wigmore Street and another at the Westfield shopping centre. In 2010, I asked Chaker Hanna to help out in the business. A few months later I asked him to become my partner. He has been an unbelievable strength and pleasure to work alongside, making my journey even more incredible. Since then we have continued to expand the Comptoir Libanais concept across Greater London and hope to introduce ourselves to other areas of the UK in due course. It’s really important to me that people feel like they are walking into a family environment every time they enter a Comptoir. Chaker and I choose our teams carefully, we want people who share the same passion and drive that we have for our customers.
Whenever I get asked for advice from people I meet, I always say follow your dreams, don’t lose focus and be determined as hard work can only pay off. When it comes back to people talking to me about what is the perfect homous, or what’s the best tabbouleh etc, my answer is: is there a perfect car, a perfect shirt or a perfect perfume? It’s a matter of personal taste. I am happy to recommend or show you my way but it’s your dish so spice it up, mix up the ingredients and play with the flavours. It’s down to you.