Not long ago I met restaurateur Tony Kitous, the man behind Levant, Pasha, Kenza, and more recently Comptoir Libanais, an incredibly passionate advocate of Lebanese, Middle Eastern, North African food and culture. I couldn’t help but ask him a few questions, and of course share them with you.
Tony, born in Algeria, opened his first restaurant in London, Baboon, at the tender age of 22. At 43 he is now an accomplished entrepreneur with magnetic sexy eyes, a love for football, gruelling sports events, and his mama. Despite his indubitable success, he comes across as an extremely grounded and very accessible person. His story is a fascinating journey of food, travel, marathon running, friends and family love.
What was the inspiration behind Comptoir Libanais and how involved were you in the concept development?
I wanted to make Lebanese food accessible, and make people feel at home. I have worked with a designer to bring some of the memories of my childhood alive. The tiles you see in the restaurants, for example, are a tribute to my grandparents house.
I brought the best of my culture in a way people in London I knew would like, because I have lived here 25 years. At Comptoir Libanais we want to offer a lifestyle experience, as well as fresh Lebanese food. Everybody can enjoy our food, if you are on a £9 per hour wage or you have just spent £1k on a handbag in Selfridges.
Where do you see ‘Comptoir Libanais’ going in the next 5 years?
We want to open more restaurants, and continue our journey to promote our food, and become what Italian food is today.
Are you planning to expand globally?
We are not ready yet, but I am flattered we receive so many requests, from NYC to Lebanon and the Netherlands, just to name a few. Opening restaurants is not like opening an online shop, you need to make sure you deliver consistently on quality, and this is why it’s so complicated.
Tell us about your cookbook Comptoir Libanais: A Feast of Lebanese-Style Home Cooking.
I wanted to make Lebanese food accessible for everyone. I have collected many recipes on my travels; and when I know a friend’s mother is a good cook, I invite myself along for dinner and I steal her cooking secrets. I have also included quite a few recipes from my own restaurants. Because Lebanese food is ethnic food, and sometimes some of ingredients or spices may not be readily available, I have also suggested a few substitutes.
What else would you be if you weren’t a restaurateur? A designer
What’s your vision of a perfect society? A simple society, with no mobile phones or technology. Like at the time of my grandparents.
What were your dreams as a child? I wasn’t dreaming. I was selling already, football tickets, lemonades, sandwiches…
How do you start your ordinary day? 3 shots of coffee and I head to the gym to train.
How does it end? Dinner with friends at Levant, my restaurant.
What is your idea of perfect happiness? I ask myself this question every day. It’s a very deep question.
What is your greatest fear? I don’t have any. I am only afraid of seeing my mum suffer if I am unwell.
Which living person do you most admire? Alex Ferguson. He is a life coach, not simply a football coach.
What or who is the greatest love of your life? My mum.
When and where were you happiest? When I opened my first restaurant, and when I published my first book.
What do you consider your greatest achievement? Seeing people happy when they walk out of my restaurants. For me it’s not just business, it’s my passion, what I love.
If you could choose what to come back as, what would it be? Alex Ferguson
What is the quality you most like in a man? Generosity, genuineness
What is the quality you most like in a woman? Generosity, genuineness
What do you most value in your friends? Loyalty
What is your motto? The harder you work, the luckier you get. I believe that luck comes from hard work.
The first Comptoir Libanais opened at Westfield Shopping Centre in November 2008, and there are now five Comptoir Libanais restaurants in London. This autumn four new Comptoir Libanais restaurants are due to open, including Duke of York Square (next to my favorite Zara shop) in Chelsea, Bluewater in Kent and London Gatwick.