Philippe Massoud and ambassadors for Lebanese cuisine spread the word far and wide

If, as we are now told, food is the new rock ‘n’ roll, then Philippe Massoud is riding high in the charts. The 44-year-old New York-based Lebanese restaurateur is the creative force behind Ilili – or “tell me” – the Fifth Avenue restaurant that is credited with taking Lebanese cuisine out of the ethnic ghetto and into the hearts and mouths of the city’s ravenous foodies.

Mr Massoud is leading a growing crop of hospitality entrepreneurs taking Lebanese and other eastern Mediterranean influences – a movement started by the food writer and chef Yotam Ottolenghi – to a new tranche of consumers. Not only is this in and of itself good news for Lebanese food, which is ideally suited to today’s health-conscious diets, it is a powerful ambassador for a country that has always had a tricky image problem.

In London, the Algerian marathon-running restaurateur Tony Kitous is rapidly turning Comptoir Libanais into a global brand, while in the foodie heaven that is Borough Market, James Walters’ Arabica Bar and Kitchen is packing them in by fusing Turkish, Lebanese, Iranian and Israeli influences. In Copenhagen, the Michelin star brothers Mikkel and Sammy Shaffi have married Lebanon with lounge at Manzel. In all cases, the dining experience may make you want to hop on the next plane to the Levant.

It’s happy hour on Friday night on Fifth Avenue and the well-heeled Manhattanites are propping up the bar. “I never wanted to open a Baba Philippe falafel joint,” Mr Massoud says at his offices above Fifth Avenue. “Integrity underpins everything we do. Ilili is made in New York, by New Yorkers, for New Yorkers. I wanted it to be up there with Balthazar, Zuma, Pastis and Spice Market. I want it to be a successful restaurant before a Lebanese restaurant, but in adopting this approach we have taken Lebanese food to a new level.”

Two years ago, he opened Ilili Box, a gourmet fast food concept, and The Village Voice promptly voted his falafel the best of 2014. Mr Massoud admits that its success has caused something of an, albeit happy, dilemma. “At some point we’ll have to separate the two concepts, probably by developing a brand for Ilili Box.”

But it was never always thus. Mr Massoud came to the United States in 1985 from civil war-ravaged Beirut, where his family owned the Coral Beach Resort in south Beirut. He was just 14. He wanted to open his first restaurant at 23, but “no one took me seriously so I got a job and learnt the business from a front of house perspective. The cooking I always knew, but I needed to understand the logistics”.

In 2000, Mr Massoud once again dipped his toe in the entrepreneurial waters and opened the successful Nayla (named after his sister) in Washington. Ilili opened in November 2007 and today is an US$8 million to $10m operation employing as many as 160 staff at any one time. Mr Massoud is looking at Dubai, London, LA and other locations in New York, but the “dream” is to one day be in Lebanon.

“I would open in Beirut tomorrow if I knew the situation was stable, not just to have a presence, but to set up some kind of culinary exchange and initiate a debate on [our culinary heritage]. At Ilili we respect the tradition but we are not slaves to it. Too often we Lebanese are held back by what we perceive to be the correct way to prepare our dishes, but I have always wondered whose authority binds us to these rules. Innovation is everything. We’re at version five of our hummus and version seven of our tabbouleh. The dressings have changed six times. We’re in a perpetual state of R&D.”

But at the end of the day, it is hard to totally shake off the Lebanon factor. “In many cases people find out about us because typically they have a Lebanese friend; they were taken here and then they come back by themselves or with another group. So in that way [the Lebanese] are all ambassadors, because even if most of the time we are often distressed by the issues our country inflicts on us, at the same time we are so blown away by its potential. The US gave me the chance of a new life but I’m still Lebanese and I represent my country with my food.”

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton

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