Tony Kitous, owner of restaurants Comptoir Libanais, Levant, Kenza, Shawa, Yalla Yalla; a man full of passion when it comes to talking about food, family and life. The dedication, devotion and excitement when Tony speaks about what he does is wonderful and honest. He tells me owning and running the restaurants is his life.
His love of Middle Eastern food is truly fascinating. It came from watching his mother and grandmother at home in his kitchen in Algeria. Good hospitality he informs me, is the way you would treat your own family. It is an attitude not experience which counts. He started from the very bottom when he arrived in the UK 29 years ago; washing dishes, cleaning floors, to waiting on tables and going from there. He now owns and runs 20 chains of Comptoir Libanais around the UK plus Levant, Kenza, Yalla Yalla and Shawa. His passion for Arab food and popularise it is Tony's driving force.
His story of how he arrived in the UK with pretty much nothing, to owning and running so many restaurants, is inspirational. Meeting Tony and savouring some of his exceptional dishes at Levant Restaurant in Wigmore Street, London, where his dream first started, was wonderful. Even before I had met Tony, I had always visited the Comptoir Libanais at Duke of York Square, Kings Road or South Kensington, as I absolutely love the food, service and atmosphere there. The staff are always so helpful, charming and excited to explain and share their knowledge and love of the food they serve.
The Comptoir Libanais in South Kensington, the one I usually pop into on my way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, my spiritual home, I love the selection of Mezze dishes, the variety of flavours in one dish is perfection, or the Fatoush Salad is another of my favourites; the queen of Arabic Salads.
Within the Comptoir Libanais restaurants, you can buy great ingredients used in Lebanese cooking: cook books by Tony: Home range goods including herb tins, tangines, teapots and much more, all within the Souk Shop.
The Kings Road branch is also my other favourite en route to the Saatchi Gallery.
Tony invited me to a delicious lunch at Levant Restaurant in Wigmore Street, I asked him a few questions following our conversation over the superb mezze:
Why did you decide to pursue a career in the restaurant business
Hospitality is an important part of our culture, I love cooking for friends and entertaining, the best thing about my job is meeting new guests everyday.
What’s your secret to keep customers coming in
There is no secret, we treat our guest just like at home and our team is our family. We own everything to our team. For me it’s all about having a very happy team and family.
What are the challenges of being a restaurant owner
Challenges are everywhere, but the biggest challenge is not enough access to skilled labour.
One of London’s legendary restauranteurs has stated that a good restaurant should cater for people of all ages, that a good mix makes it interesting. Do you agree and do your restaurants encompass all?
That is what we do, our restaurants are for kids, families, ladies, students, nurses..
The face on your menu’s at Comptoir Libanais, who is she and why?
She is called Sirine, I saw the poster of her at the friend’s house, it was an old movie poster but I instantly fell in love with her and now she is all over my life.
"All my restaurants are inspired by my life experiences and are the result of everything I've seen and tasted. They offer fresh and delicious Middle Eastern food in colourful, inviting spaces. I don't want people to feel like they are strangers in my restaurants, instead I'd like them to want to come back again and again." - Tony Kitous
Huge thank you to Tony for taking part in my interview.
To find out more about Comptoir Libanais restaurants, cookbooks, souk shops round the UK, visit their website www.comptoirlibanais.com or follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram comptoirlibanais.com and tonykitous.com