If you’ve ever visited Beirut’s Gemmayzeh area, you likely don’t need an introduction to Le Chef.
The quaint family-owned restaurant has long been a favourite with tourists and residents alike, even earning praise from the late Anthony Bourdain, who called it “a legendary spot, famed for its simple, straightforward homestyle classics”.
Le Chef has seen quite a bit in its 53 years. It has persisted through war and economic hardship. However, the port explosion on Tuesday, August 4 – which has affected hundreds of local businesses – has put its future at risk.
And so a fundraiser has been set up to help the restaurant reopen its doors. “Le Chef has been a staple of Gemmayze, the neighbourhood closest to the blast site, since it opened in 1967,” the GoFundMe campaign reads. “The restaurant's warm food and even warmer hospitality have been a constant source of comfort for so many over the years.”
With a target of $13,000 (Dh48,000), the campaign is collecting donations to replace the windows, refrigerator, gas stove and other essentials that were damaged during the blast. At the time of writing, more than $10,000 had been raised for the restaurant, half of which has come from one man: Russell Crowe.
"Someone called Russell Crowe made a very generous donation to our Le Chef fundraiser," Richard Hall, one of the campaign's organisers, tweeted. "But I'm not sure if it is the Russell Crowe."
It didn't take long for the Gladiator star to reply: "On behalf of Anthony Bourdain. I thought that he would have probably done so if he was still around. I wish you and Le Chef the best and hope things can be put back together soon."
Bourdain, who died in 2018, visited the restaurant at least twice during his lifetime. Both visits were featured on his show No Reservations.
"This place felt kind of familiar, much like a New York diner," Bourdain said during his first visit in 2006. The restaurant's frontman, Charbel – who was injured during last week's blast but is expected to make a full recovery – can be seen in the clip, greeting patrons with his famous long-drawn "welcome".
A montage then shows food being prepared in the kitchen. Hummus is soaked in olive oil, lemons are diced and set next to large slices of kibbeh, and pine nuts are cooked with oil and drizzled on a plate of fatteh. The dishes are laid out in front of Bourdain and as he takes a bite of kibbeh, he nods approvingly. “Oh, yeah,” he says with a mouthful. “I like that.”
Soon after Bourdain’s first visit to Le Chef, the month-long war between Hezbollah and Israeli forces broke out. Bourdain was in the city when Israeli forces bombed the airport and he managed to film the precise moment when Beirut tipped over into war. It is a sombre and revealing episode, and went on to earn an Emmy nomination.
Some might be hesitant to return to a place where they paradoxically “spent eight days watching bombs and rockets fall holed up in the surreally luxurious confines of the Royal Hotel”, yet Bourdain returned to Beirut in 2010.
"Last time I left Beirut it was a heartbreak, something to feel ashamed of, saddened by, angry about, incomplete," he says in the follow-up No Reservations episode. "I'm back. And this time I hope to do it right."
The famed chef and travel documentarian proceeded to take a gastronomic tour of the Lebanese capital in a way he couldn’t in 2006. He visits beachside cafes and food markets – but his first stop is Le Chef.
"I decided to come back here because it's the best restaurant in town," Bourdain is seen saying in the 2010 episode. "Good to be back."
There are pictures of Le Chef as it currently stands on the fundraiser’s website. The steel shutters are closed and there is a pile of rubble and debris in front of the restaurant. A picture of the interior shows layers of blasted glass covering tables and stairs. It is a devastating sight. But updates on Twitter are uplifting.
"Just passed Le Chef," Adam Baron, a patron of the restaurant, tweeted on Thursday, August 13. "Rebuilding underway. Charbel was still beaming about the Russell Crowe news. 'You’re famous now,' I said. 'We’re famous because of our customers,' he responded with classic humility. 'We’re famous because of all of you.'"