your perfect meal: Where are you, who are you with and what are you eating?
I am at home with my family and my sister-in-law is cooking. I try to help out but, being a stubborn Lebanese woman, she insists I sit with the family. On the table there will be warak anab (rolled vine leaves), kibbeh nayee (pounded raw lamb with burghal) and arus labneh (yogurt cheese in mountain bread). Prepared at home, food always tastes different, tastes better. It’s the occasion, the extra love and attention that goes into it, plus the conversation around the table that seems to bring it to life.
If you could wake up anywhere in the world tomorrow, where would you be?
There are few things that appeal to me as much as the Lebanese mountains in the winter, which might be because I’m currently living in Dubai, where snow is unheard.
Where is the best service you have ever experienced?
In London last year, I was visiting a fabulous Spanish restaurant and I sat myself at the bar, eating tapas, of course. It was a busy, vibrant restaurant, with the kitchen right behind the bar. Despite the business, interaction with the staff and as well as the chefs was not only possible, but encouraged. For me, that’s the perfect kind of dining environment.
What is your favourite city in the world? Why?
At this point in time, Beirut. Its location and the generosity of its inhabitants make me want to return there time and again. It’s the most liberated Arabic city in the Middle East and an amazing place, considering all the conflict and political turmoil. People still try to break barriers down and to lead rich and fulfilling lives.
What does your dream home look like?
My dream home would have a bedroom in the kitchen. And the kitchen would have to be enormous, of course.
When did you first fall in love with food?
As a child, I was surrounded by an army of Lebanese women who nurtured me, chided me, fed me and instilled in me a great love for the food from their memories. My family initially disapproved of my involvement with food as it was considered a bit of an unskilled job with poor prospects. However, I was stubborn, and wasn’t about to let anything stand in the way of my love of food and my desire to reimagine the traditional dishes of my heritage. Today, I am proud of my work as a chef as much as I am proud of my work as an author. I can’t separate my love for food from my love of travel and the written word.
If you could cook for anyone in the world, or any figure from history who would it be? Why?
I think it would be a A combination of people that I would like to get together: for an amazing meal. The people I have in mind are by no means all mad foodies, but to me they are fascinating. My first choice would be Jerry Lewis – my brothers and I were brought up on Jerry; he was our favourite comedian and as a family we all enjoyed his movies and comedy shows. Gregory Peck – would be next. My mother was mad about him and I was actually named after him. I have actually already cooked for him in (when he visited Melbourne in 1999, but I would leap at the chance of doing it again. Frank Zappa would be an interesting guest as well. And my ex-wives (both of them!) would have to be there, too.
What ingredient do you love cooking with?
How do you want people to feel when they are eating in one of your restaurants?
I want them to feel the A sense of generosity, and that there is a point of difference in what they are tasting. The quality of produce is very important to me and I only ever serve the best and freshest ingredients I can find.
What was your first ever luxury purchase?
When I was a teenager, around age 16, I bought a massive painting in a junk shop. It was unframed and I bought it for next to nothing. I couldn’t afford to get it framed until I was nearly 30 – it’s literally the size of a door. The frame cost 10 times more than the painting. That was a luxury for me and I still have it.
Are you a collector? If so, what do you collect?
I have had various obsessions – over the years (marionettes, stuffed animals, Chinese porcelain – but the theme that runs through my life is a love and admiration of art. and I try to collect as much as I can. I love to be surrounded by amazing works of art and People often say that my house reminds them of a small art studio.
What is the most overrated luxury, in your opinion?
In my view, the most overrated luxury is overpriced restaurant dishes. For instance, in one restaurant recently I once saw a diamond-encrusted shell used to serve scallops at a ridiculous price. I simply don’t understand This approach … it detracts from, rather than brings out the joy of the food. Similarly, I also don’t understand the use of absurdly rarefied and expensive or endangered ingredients. To me this is not eating, it’s showing off.