An interview with our founder, Tony Kitous
1. You have an Algerian background, yet of all North African and Middle Eastern cuisine, Lebanese appears to be a favourite. Why is that?
I was brought up with Algerian food and still love the many different cuisines from all over the Middle East. The reason I choose to have Lebanese food a lot is because it’s easy to eat on a daily basis without getting bored. There is so much variety that I can eat it 3x a day for 7 days a week and never have the same thing. It’s also great because it’s so healthy and easy to throw ingredients together to make some impressive looking (and tasting!) dishes.
2. Arabic cuisine and in particular Lebanese dishes have had a surge in popularity. What do you think prompted this and why does it have such broad appeal?
Lebanese cuisine is a cuisine that has always been popular but it has never had the opportunity to be made accessible to the Western world. It is only in the last few years that few operators started this Middle Eastern food revolution and to be honest it’s long overdue. It’s a no brainer that it has such a broad appeal – it’s healthy, light, fresh and vegetarian friendly. Mezze is amazing for sharing and it’s very simple and affordable.
3. What differentiates Arabic cuisine? Are there particular herbs and spices that are not commonly used in British dishes, or is it the preparation, the cooking methods…?
Lebanese cuisine is divided into many categories: mezze, which is for the Lebanese what tapas is for the Spanish; grills, salads, stews, pulses and a huge selection of sweets and desserts. There is a heavy use of spices to season and marinate dishes as well as for salad dressings and dips. There are certain ingredients that are not commonly used in British dishes, such as tahina, zaatar, sumac and pomegranate molasses. However, these ingredients are very easy to understand and to use in many dishes.
4. How authentic are your dishes in Comptoir? Have you had to adapt them to suit the local palate and ingredients?
Our dishes are very authentic but like any other cuisines from all over the world, there are always innovations and we will never stop. We didn’t have to do anything particular to suit the local palette as our the food of Lebanon is very Mediterranean, therefore people are very familiar with the food of the region.
5. What are your favourite places to eat and drink in London?
I’m happy with any food as long as it’s healthy and delicious! You can find me anywhere from eating chicken and salad at Nandos, grilled kebabs in the many Turkish restaurants in North London and sharing mezze with friends in Edgware road.
6. What is your favourite dish to cook at home?
Lebanese food is the kind of food that is based around sharing. It’s very difficult to put just one dish on the table so I like to create a spread of different tastes and flavours. Sometimes I just grill or fry whatever vegetables I have at home, such as cauliflower, aubergine, courgettes and then just dip them in the simple yoghurt and tahina sauce. Simple yet delicious.
7. What can you always find in your fridge?
Labneh! It’s easy to make at home just by straining yoghurt through muslin overnight. It’s so versatile that you can flavour it in many ways, such as olive and zaatar or beetroot – my personal favourite as it turns bright pink! Labneh is a staple accompaniment to any dish – it’s like the Lebanese equivalent to British mayo.
8. What do you like to do outside of work?
I spend a lot of time with my friends and family and like to eat at one of my restaurants every night. They’re like extensions of my home so it’s a great place to relax and entertain. I also train in the gym a lot as I like to keep fit – I have just come back from the Oman Desert Marathon – 165km over 6 days!
9. What is your greatest achievement?
Being in the restaurant industry for 21 years almost to the day! I opened my first restaurant when I was 23. It took a lot of hard work and determination, having come over to London for a ‘holiday’ with £70 in my back pocket. I fell in love with the city so was determined to build a life here and have been here ever since. I still feel like I’m on holiday!
10. What else would you be if you weren’t a restaurateur?
I would have loved to be a designer. I love doing all the creative bits to do with Comptoir Liabnais.