Lebanese cuisine’s ambassador brings exotic and vibrant spirit in the UK

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LONDON // It’s a rainy Saturday in Chelsea, central London, but the wet weather has not deterred at least a dozen people from queuing outside the King’s Road branch of Comptoir Libanais, a restaurant chain that has put Lebanese cuisine in the foodie spotlight by offering generous portions of healthy dishes in a setting that evokes the exotic and vibrant spirit of the Levant.

Inside, Tony Kitous, 45, the chain's founder, is wearing a colourful Comptoir apron but The National's photographer does not think it fully captures the marathon-running, Algerian-born restaurateur. Mr Kitous is adamant. "But this is what we wear in the kitchen. Home-cooked food and evoking an atmosphere of home is what we're all about." And so we go with the apron, for a few photos at least.

The restaurant is packed to the gills, the diners hardly noticing the impromptu photo shoot. “Everything around you is true to our culture,” Mr Kitous says, posing with a plate of grilled aubergine in one hand and a pomegranate salad in the other. “It is a memory bank of my childhood and my travels. The tiles, the tables, the chairs, the glasses, the Turkish delight, the baklava, the aprons, the bags, the teapots and even my cookbooks; they all tell a story. I want to take our food into people’s homes, and these are my tools.”

Now eight years old, Comptoir is a £18 million-a-year (Dh91.7m) business with 16 restaurants in London as well as Manchester in north-west England. “We knew people up there would get it. They are cosmopolitan and affluent,” Mr Kitous says. It also has outlets at Heathrow and Gatwick airports, and in total employs about 700 staff. By the end of the year, this number should reach 26 restaurants and over 1,000 staff. By the end of 2018, he anticipates the business turning over £51.7m.

Mr Kitous recently opened Shawa, a Lebanese grill, which he hopes will transform the image of shawarma, the popular but oft-maligned Mediterranean wrap. And as if that were not enough, he also wants to be the first major face of Lebanese food on global TV. “We are looking at doing a show that focuses on food, travel and culture.” The apron is off and we are tucking into grilled halloumi with fig jam and what looks like a sojouk pizza. “TV is a powerful way to enter homes.”

The notion of “home” clearly figures a lot in Mr Kitous’ philosophy. It was at home that his entrepreneurial spirit was nurtured. The Kitous family lived in the northern Algerian town of Tizi Ouzou in a house near the home of the local football team Jeunesse Sportive de Kabylie. His parents were, by his own admission, less well off than his aunts and uncles and he felt the need to stand on his own two feet from an early age. On match days he scalped tickets and then made and sold merguez sandwiches and lemonade. “I would earn the equivalent of a £100 on a good day,” he says. “That was a fortune back then, but more importantly, I was making food and meeting people. I was, if you like, running my own street restaurant.”

He says that his parents were not entirely happy with his business activities but he needed to be independent and only money could provide that. “My mother was my confidante. She would look after my money but my dad would have preferred if I didn’t do it.”

And with this independence came wanderlust. When he was 15, he travelled to Tunisia with the money he had saved. The next year he went to Spain and the year after to France. Then at 18, after taking his high school baccalaureate, he and a friend set off for London. It would change his life.

“August 6, 1988,” he says. “I still remember the date. We arrived with £70 each. On the first night, we slept at Victoria station and the next morning some people were handing out free chocolate. I had never seen chocolate given for free before. It was amazing.”

It would not be his only new experience. Later that day, he moved into the squat, a building occupied rent-free, usually by homeless people, where his friend’s brother lived. Mr Kitous spent the next three months doing various jobs around the capital. “It was a fantastic experience. I did all sorts of work. I never missed home.”

The seed had been planted. He returned to Tizi Ouzou to tell his parents he was going back. It was not an easy sell. “We’re Arabs. I knew what to expect. They gave me all the drama. There was the crying and then they mobilised friends, cousins, grandparents, neighbours, even old teachers. I told them that although I was in Algeria, my heart and my soul were in London. In the end my mother gave me her blessing. With my father it was less easy, but he gave in.”

Mr Kitous returned to London with what he calls the “luggage of responsibility”. It would mould his attitude to life for the next five years. “I couldn’t let my parents down, I couldn’t let myself down. I looked at my friends at university who were training to be engineers and doctors and pilots and so on, and I made a commitment that in five years I was going to open my own business. I had a goal. I looked at it everyday and I prayed to God everyday. What was that business going to be? I wasn’t sure but I suspected it would be in hospitality.”

With a further pledge to forgo alcohol, cigarettes or narcotics, he worked 18 hours a day and did not take a day off for two years. When he was 22, he saw his first chance. “I’d been working at the Arts Bar and Restaurant off Wigmore Street [in the capital’s West End] when one day I came to work and was told we had been closed down. I spoke to the landlord and he was willing to rent me the property but I still needed to raise the money.”

He went out and bought a suit, a briefcase and a tie, which he did not know how to tie. “On the way to the meeting with the bank I stopped off at a clothing store and told them I had hurt my arm and could they help me with my tie.” He got the money for the restaurant. “It was and still is my baby.” But after a year of serving European cuisine, he had an epiphany. “I asked myself, ‘what am I doing? I’m like a fisherman selling vegetables. I’m an Arab. I should be serving our food.’”

And so began a journey that has taken him from Lebanon to Morocco to Tunisia to the Arabian Gulf to bring what he hopes is the best of Arab cuisine to the world. “I love Indian food and I love Chinese food, but I can’t eat it every day. Can you? Lebanese food in all its varieties can be eaten every day.”

Mr Kitous cites Italian food as the closest in style to Lebanese and the fact that it is a cuisine not tagged by a nationality. “We don’t think of Italian food as Italian any more. Why shouldn’t Lebanese food be the same? It’s so healthy. It’s in my blood, I’m addicted.”

But there is a cultural message he wants to spread. “Our food is a true experience of our culture. It shows our generosity. We use food to greet people. It’s how we show our sense of hospitality. You never walk away from an Arab table hungry. I wanted it to be for everyone, while staying true to my identity and values.”

He also wanted to change people’s perceptions about the Middle East and food was a simple and enjoyable way to do that. “I wanted to get away from the images on CNN.”

To do this Mr Kitous needed to take Lebanese food mainstream. The Comptoir idea was born and the touchpaper lit. The first Comptoir Libanais opened in 2008 at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Shepherds Bush in the west of the capital. It was the first Middle East restaurant in a major UK shopping mall but Mr Kitous was confident that his formula of colourful souq-style decor with tasty, generous helpings of healthy Mediterranean food would work. “On the first day we had 3,500 customers,” he exclaims. “Imagine?”

Soon another venue was opened in Wigmore Street, and the brand was born.

Mr Kitous credits the success of the chain to his partner and chief executive Chaker Hanna – “He is the nerve centre, I just work on the vision,” Mr Kitous says – and the staff whom he describes as “my family”. The next step is to go truly global in joint ventures with like-minded partners across the United State, Europe and the GCC.

“We get at least five [joint venture] enquiries each day, but we can’t rush,” he says. “We have to choose our partners carefully: they can’t be too big that we drown and not so small that they can’t build the brand.”

A bachelor – he says he “can’t find anyone to put up with me” – Mr Kitous still finds time for his other passion, running. He has run four Marathon des Sables, the gruelling seven-day, 250km race across the Sahara, and has competed in more than 50 regular marathons, in almost all cases, raising money for charities such as breast cancer, Unicef’s Children in Iraq and Macmillan Cancer Support. Cancer is a cause close to his heart. His cousin, Nassim, died of the illness aged just 20.

“To have a 20-year-old die in your arms makes you realise that you are only rich if you are healthy,” Mr Kitous says.

His face quickly lights up as he adds: “Listen, I’m healthy and I’m living my dream. Life’s been good to me. God’s been good to me.

“I’m a kid in a candy store.”

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