On the bright pink wall of a Perth restaurant, the Arabic and English languages join forces. Glowing in the middle of this space is a light installation that reads: “In hummus we trust”, surrounded by a painting with attractive, flowing Arabic script.
Together these words convey the ethos of a business that seeks to involve the community, while also “showing people the Middle East is cool, that it has so much creativity”. So tells me Ziad Zammar, co-owner of The Hummus Club, a restaurant he launched in my home town six years ago with his ex-wife Kaitlin Eterovich thanks, in part, to crowdfunding.
Paying homage to investors
The English slogan on the wall sums up their devotion to Middle Eastern cuisine, while the Arabic words are the names of the people who contributed to the crowdfunding campaign. Their restaurant – which serves four types of hummus, as well as 10 types of mezze sharing plates – has become one of Perth’s hippest dinner venues thanks in part to the Dh145,000 in financing from 299 crowdfund investors.
“[They] gave us money, so even if we’ve never met them, they’re a big part of our restaurant,” Zammar tells me. “So having their names on the wall of the restaurant, in Arabic, just felt right, and the script also showcases our Middle Eastern culture.”
Shattering stereotypes one dish at a time
Perth is a multicultural place, a city of 2.1 million people that brims with immigrants. About 43 per cent of Perth’s population were born outside of Australia. It boasts large Italian, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and South African communities. But compared to Australian cities such as Sydney, which is home to more than 150,000 people with Lebanese heritage, Perth has few residents with Middle Eastern ancestry.
Zammar says this contributed to many residents having a limited understanding of that region. “When people here see the news [about the Middle East], a lot of the time it’s serious or negative things,” he says. “Even the Arabic script is something some Australians might not understand or be intimidated by. That’s why we wanted to make the script – which is so beautiful – a big focus of our restaurant’s design, to showcase the beauty of Middle Eastern culture and let the people of Perth embrace it.”
That’s certainly a lofty aim for a restaurant. Most venues in Perth have a hard enough time just making a profit, let alone concerning themselves with, as Zammar describes it, “breaking stereotypes about the Middle East”. Yet his rhetoric doesn’t come across as hollow. Zammar is fiercely passionate when he talks about this subject. So much so that, if I didn’t steer our interview in other directions, we may never have got around to talking about the food.
'Obsessed with hummus'
Once we did, he sped off like a Ferrari once more. “I’m obsessed with hummus,” says Zammar, who was born in Lebanon and moved to Australia as a young boy. “Ever since I was kid, I just wanted to eat it all day. I’d even eat it frozen. That’s why hummus is the foundation of our restaurant’s menu.”
Eterovich, who was born in Australia and is of Croatian heritage, inherited this love of Middle Eastern food after dining at Zammar’s family home. The former couple considered opening a Middle Eastern restaurant for a long time, but it seemed too risky a move given they both had lucrative occupations – he was a petroleum engineer and she was a pharmacist.
In 2014, they finally decided to dip into the food business, and starting making hummus and other Middle Eastern treats in their spare time, serving them at markets across Perth. A year later, they took another step forward, moving into a small dining space in Perth’s Trinity Arcade.
The final leap, the moment they went all in, was when they were offered a far larger space to open a proper restaurant in Northbridge, Perth’s main entertainment district. Now they were officially restaurateurs. In their quest to produce authentic food, Zammar sent head chef Emily Heron on a fact-finding mission to the Middle East.
Together with Eterovich, the chef visited restaurants and markets across the region and even met Zammar’s mother and sister in Lebanon. “We wanted Emily to learn everything she could about the food, people and also the culture, because we wanted to showcase all of that in Perth.”
Heron, who is currently on maternity leave, helped to create the success of the Hummus Club, which has been booked solid on many nights since it opened. Local diners have become enamoured with the subtle flavours of the restaurant’s beef, mushroom, chicken and freekeh styles of hummus, which are made using Australian chickpeas.
Customers have also appreciated the communal dining experience of ordering mezze. These sharing plates variously feature labneh, lamb kefta, roasted cauliflower, zaatar fried chicken and samke harra, a spicy fish in Lebanese tahini sauce.
Many of these ingredients and flavours were unknown to local diners – before The Hummus Club opened, that is. The restaurant has made such an impact in the city’s main dining precincts that its owners’ aim of demystifying Middle Eastern culture and cuisine has, to an extent, been achieved.
In hummus they trust
Then the pandemic came along, and the emotional and physical demands of running the venue, coupled with the impact of lockdowns, almost brought the owners to to announce The Hummus Club’s impending closure. The restaurant was scheduled to shut down in February before Zammar and Eterovich had a change of heart.
“We just thought, we can’t go out on a low note after a tough year because of the pandemic,” Zammar says. “The passion to show Perth people how cool Middle Eastern food and culture can be is still there. So we’re not finished yet. Who knows, maybe we’re just getting started.”