The service and dining room experience must be experiential. People must be wowed. Dinner must be more than sit down, dinner, drinks, goodbye. You must elevate your execution to stand out.
As part of our series about “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Restaurateur”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Philippe Massoud, Executive Chef & Owner, ilili, New York, NY & Washington, D.C.
Born into a restaurant and hospitality family in Beirut, Lebanon, Executive Chef and Owner Philippe Massoud opened ilili in New York City’s Flatiron neighborhood in 2007, fulfilling his dream of introducing New Yorkers to his native cuisine. Today, the restaurant is considered a leader in Lebanese food culture and hospitality values in America. As one of the first chefs to introduce the U.S. to a sophisticated presentation of Lebanese cuisine, Philippe has been through an extensive journey as a restaurant owner. As the brand grows, with ilili’s Washington, D.C location coming summer 2021, his passion for the food of his ancestors continues to burn as strong as ever, as does his desire to share it with each and every guest who steps through ilili’s doors.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef? What was it that first drew you to cooking? Can you share a story about that with us?
It really all starts with my first childhood memories living at the hotel that my grandparents owned in Beirut, called Coral Beach. When the civil war started in the seventies, we fled our home and were fortunate to have the hotel to find refuge. Food played a special role in many different parts of life at the time. The hotel had a fine-dining French restaurant, and living on the property gave me this access to food, cuisine, and technique in a way that I did not know would, later on, serve me. When it was finally safe enough to leave the hotel, we moved to an apartment and I didn’t have that immaculate kitchen at my disposal — I missed it. I would call the hotel chef and say ‘hey, I want to make this dish, how do I make this or that?’ My missing of this life in the hotel compelled me to start cooking.
Like many, I’ve also been greatly influenced by my grandmothers. I remember my paternal grandmother Marie always had little candies and special foods that she would only bring out when we visited her room. Going to her room was like an adventure; I always looked forward to discovering what I would find there. I also remember going to my maternal grandmother’s home, Gilberte, in Aleppo Syria for Sunday lunches with the entire family. We would eat Kibbeh Bi Laban Halabiyyeh (from Aleppo), which are dumplings stuffed with butter and shredded chicken with a sauce made from chicken stock and labneh. I remember eating this dish like it was yesterday, and the comfort and joy it brought me. My parents also hosted and entertained a lot, and I would spend the whole night during their parties in the kitchen working with chefs as they were plating glorious and glamorous buffets. I learned early on that I prefer to be in the kitchen rather than socializing with guests.
Everything I have created at ilili is from my memories — what do I remember this dish being? How do I remember it tasting? To answer shortly, my life pushed me into this business.
Can you share an interesting (or can be funny) story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or takeaway you took out of that story?
A fond memory I have at ilili was a visit from President Clinton in 2010. I had spearheaded a dine-out program to raise funds for the earthquake in Haiti. I convinced chefs around the city to join in, and we raised around 85,000 dollars for the cause. One night, I was expediting, and my food runner comes and says, “I just dropped food on President Clinton’s table!” I was flabbergasted. We are very mindful of celebrities at the restaurant and want to respect their privacy, but this felt different. After internal deliberation, I decided to go out and introduce myself. It turns out that he was there to thank me for my work for Haiti. It was a beautiful moment. He even wrote me a personal letter after that thanking me again.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
You must realize, as a refugee, I have been through the wringer. I have been bombed at, shot at, beaten by Syrian army troops, interrogated for freedom of speech, had a knife on my throat. So, my skin is thick. When people were questioning my sanity in opening a 10,000 square foot independent restaurant in Manhattan, I knew I had something to prove. I was taking Lebanese cuisine from street food -how most Americans recognized it at the time — to an elevated level. We tasked ourselves with educating and giving Lebanese food a seat at the global table. This takes work, dedication, and hardships to reposition a cuisine, especially in a market like New York City. I carried the weight of my family’s history and reputation. And put a lot of pressure on my team to be consistent and take that charge seriously. We were not as well-received in New York City as we had hoped, but our commitment to excellence remained steadfast. I told the team to not think about the outside noise and take it one seat at a time. I must give credit to my team. They each busted their chops and became ambassadors of Lebanese cuisine and culture. I truly believe we have given Lebanese food a platform, and that was no easy task.
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
There are two types of dishes: one that has an emotional connection related to your culture or heritage. Something you have eaten that is as good as or better than what you remember eating from your mother or grandmother’s hands. Then there is the more “chef-y,” elevated approach that requires more precision — the balance of umami, acidity, texture, and seasonality. At ilili, we work on both, but mostly the first, reproducing dishes that would otherwise not be found unless cooked in a traditional Lebanese home.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
The perfect meal for me is the meal I would eat if I were going to die tomorrow; it would be a sharing meal, a Mezza extravaganza that lasts for hours and hours. At ilili, I’d start with several Mezza and Arak, then move on to rosé with seafood mezza, then on to red wine with proteins like lamb, our mixed grill, roast chicken, or a whole branzino. I like to finish with limoncello, a little mint or orange blossom tea, and a nice 15–30 min walk afterward.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My childhood is the driving force behind my creativity and inspiration and there is so much to do within Lebanese cuisine. The opportunity I have with such a wealth of dishes is unimaginable. I will never run out of dishes or flavors, and that is inspiring.
Inspiration comes to me in many ways. Sometimes, I wake up and an idea pops up in my head, and I execute it. Other times, I will be at the farmers market and something will stick out, so I write down the recipe, send an email to the team, and we go play. Often, I dine at colleagues’ restaurants and get inspired by the incredible things they are doing in their kitchens.
It is important to stay inspired and never stop evolving. We continuously work on improving what we have. For instance, we just rewrote our hummus recipe to make it better and we are reworking our tabbouleh for our DC restaurant.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
ilili is officially opening its doors to Washington, D.C. this summer. We have a magnificent space on The Wharf with a warm, festive environment. We have poured our hearts and souls into this restaurant and think it will make an impact in our nation’s capital. D.C. has evolved and improved in a way no one expected. When I left D.C. in 2005, it was at the beginning of the surge that has lasted and continues today. ilili is an exciting addition to the capital city where we feel what we have a lot to offer towards the city’s growth that I know will be embraced. We look forward to being a part of the city and the hospitality evolution taking place there.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
It is never easy, and never perfect, but on Sundays, I try not to answer my phone. I have me time. It is important to step away. Sometimes I do think it is necessary to force yourself to go home early and take a breather. You can always find something else to stay for, but there is benefit in taking that beat, that breather.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. The most important thing I have learned is to start from a good financial foundation. You must be properly capitalized. The amount of stress you are going to be under as you operate and open is going to be plentiful, so for you to worry about your financial well-being or the amount of debt you are taking on, instead of worrying about creating and running your operation will be astronomical. So, start from a good financial base. You don’t want to be handcuffed by the financial baggage you have; you need that space to create.
2. You must have a good team. As a chef, I especially appreciate a tripod of three essential people: a strong front-of-house person, a good admin, legal, financial person, and yourself.
3. You must be consistent. If you are not, you will fail. Consistency is everything. Some chefs will change menus so frequently they cannot catch their breath and business never stabilizes. Changing dishes every two weeks is a good thing, but not if you cannot execute it well. I have also seen the benefit it gives your team to have the muscle memory of a group of dishes, which allows the space for creativity in other things.
4. Create a positive work environment and culture. In my first eight years, I got hit with a recession for three years. We were in survival mode. In 2018, I chilled out, and my intensity dropped. Before that, I was difficult and demanding. The pressure made me act in a way that is not my nature, and if I could go back in time, I would do things differently.
5. The service and dining room experience must be experiential. People must be wowed. Dinner must be more than sit down, dinner, drinks, goodbye. You must elevate your execution to stand out.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
ilili is a place for a feast. It is not a one dish restaurant; it is a multi-dish experience with a multitude of choices. No one comes for a linear experience at ilili. That said, if you are a steak tartare connoisseur, I recommend our Kibbeh Naye Beirutieh. If you are a Brussels sprouts hater, we will convert you with ours; we serve them with grapes, fig jam, walnuts, and mint yogurt.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would not allow countries to go to war against each other without a one-year conversation between the people. I hate war. Death is unacceptable. As we evolve as a species, war should be something of the past. Let people speak to each other.
My movement would be about generosity and healing through conversation, dialogue, and helping others. Something I have learned, and I am sure a lot of others did as well this past year, is that giving is more important than your bottom line. On August 4th, when the Beirut Blast hit, we knew he had to do something. Even while operating in the red during the lockdown, we were able to raise over 60,000 dollars for Beirut, in counting. You cannot stop being charitable when you are in distress. It is these times when your charity matters most.
Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!