Philippe Massoud had just completed a six million dollar, 5000 square foot restaurant opening in the Flatiron district of Manhattan, yet he couldn’t have looked more relaxed on a Friday afternoon, just hours before he would begin directing another booked-out weekend in his 200+ seat establishment. By the end of the interview, it was not difficult to understand his confidence, for his life to that point had already been filled with enough instances of good fortune, disaster, disappointment and loss to dampen anything this restaurant may bring to bear. Massoud came to the U.S. at fourteen as a guest of his Aunt in Scarsdale, New York. One day, his parents called to say he should not come back, for his own safety and security. His parents owned one of the finest hotels in Beirut, the Coral Beach Hotel on the beautiful waters of the Mediterranean. He helped his family run it since he was a child, and after high school he entered Cornell University’s Hotel and Restaurant Management program to learn the trade that many generations of his family had known. A year into the program, his father was killed in Beirut, and shortly after that his family had to sell the hotel. Massoud left Cornell – their Lebanon hotel was the reason he was there – and took some time off. Not long after he went back to school to study the hotel and restaurant business, this time at Rochester Institute of Technology.
During his first summer off from RIT, an opportunity came for the young hotelier in training to opening his own restaurant. “I was sitting in a café in Paris after my second semester at Cornell,” Massoud said. “I was planning on going back to Lebanon, I had not been there in such a long time and I was looking forward to it. My sister called me from Spain and said, ‘your uncle built this beautiful restaurant with a partner and the guy who was supposed to open it up has cold feet. Why don’t you come and open it?”
And so he did. At age 21 and still officially in school, he helped open the newly constructed 120 seat La Mairena Resort Restaurant in Costa del Sol, and spent the summer as the Food and Beverage Manager. After graduating from RIT he came to New York City, where his front of the house jobs included Assistant General Manager at The Saloon Restaurant, assistant manager at Carmine’s Restaurant, then General Manager at Chez Josephine. After gaining this experience, Massoud became a restaurant consultant for International Restaurant Concepts, where he worked with Tadashi Ono in developing a new concept surrounding Tadashi’s unique style of cuisine.
With a group of partners, Massoud developed the Lebanese cuisine-based Neyla concept which opened in three markets; Washington, D.C., Detroit, and Las Vegas. The Washington D.C. restaurant, which Massoud ran, was the only one that survived, and he ran it successfully for several years until he was finally ready to realize his dream; opening his own restaurant in New York City.
NYRI: What was it like helping your parents run a high-class hotel in Beirut in the 1980’s?
Massoud: I was very fortunate. Even though I was living within war and destruction and death, we had this little oasis of peace in Beirut where people were still able to have some semblance of a normal life: culinary experiences, hospitality, and to forget the sorrows of the war. The last thing that goes is eating out when people go through difficulties. And the hotel really survived because people refused to give up, so to speak, during the many difficulties of the country. We were a prominent Christian family living on the Muslim side. And Beirut was the “wild, wild west” for quite some time. Ironically, we were being harassed by right wing Christians for living with Muslims, and by fundamentalist Muslims for being Christians.
NYRI: After you finished school in Rochester, did you try to open a restaurant in New York right away?
Massoud: Yes, I moved back into the city in 1994, a rebel without a cause so to speak, because I thought I could open a restaurant back then. I had raised about $600,000.00 and I was convinced that Lebanese, or Eastern Mediterranean cuisine had to have its day in the light on the American food scene. When you see the success of all other ethnic cuisines, this is one cuisine that still had not broken the barrier properly. I visited about four hundred locations. I wanted to start very small. I made offers on about six locations, and lost all of them. So I finally realized, “Okay I guess it is not time to open a restaurant.”
NYRI: How did the opportunity to create the Neyla concept in D.C. come about?
Massoud: The owner of Capital Restaurant Concepts, who is Lebanese, called me and said, “Philippe, I know you’ve been trying to open a Lebanese concept for many years. I am planning on opening one so why don’t we join forces and do it together? And that is when I moved to Washington D.C. to help conceive the Neyla concept. It was a corporate environment and I tried to do the best I could for them. They tried to open three restaurants at once without testing or proving the concept. They all resulted in failure with the exception of the one in Georgetown which I kind of carried on my back working seven days a week for nine months straight. I was bartending, hosting, making the bread; because I was adamant about the fact that if my name was associated with the concept that the concept had to succeed. I took my hand out of Vegas and Detroit because I had no control.
NYRI: When did you decide to leave Neyla and come to New York?
Massoud: Culinarily we were not very aligned anymore. I wanted to go more progressive and push the envelope much further than they were doing, and the concept was a bit too ethnic for what I really wanted. I took myself out of it and took a year off. Plus I was exhausted - I really carried this thing on my back like a mountain goat. I am a Capricorn but, you know, I was worn out. Then a friend of mine who is very dear to me called and said, “Why don’t you come back to New York? You had the best days of your life in New York.” So I wrote a business plan and floated it around, and because people knew my name from our reputation back home and because of the success that I had at Neyla, I was able to raise the funds. So it is either I take off or I crash professionally, because these are the only two choices in New York. You either make it or you don’t, and when you don’t it is painful. And here we are. It has been quite the journey.
NYRI: Who is the designer?
Massoud: The designer is Nasser Nakib. When I wanted to translate the concept, I looked at the New York architects and I said “Okay, how do I convince them of the vision that I have and who is going to be able to emulate and interpret what I am trying to say properly without me having to really hold their hand. Nasser was the perfect choice because he is an American Lebanese and he was a personal friend. I flew into Beirut where his design team was, just before the Israeli Hezbollah War of 2006. They showed me the renditions and it was really great. I left just before the war started and it was really traumatic for me because my entire design team was there, they worked with candle lights and whenever they had power they plugged in their laptops and worked on it. We submitted the plans on time though, but there was a lot of real serious trauma behind that. So it was really amazing.
NYRI: So tell me about your cuisine and some of the dishes, and your interpretations of Lebanese food.
Massoud: If you look at how Lebanese or Eastern Mediterranean food came to the United States, it was mainly through immigrants. When those people immigrated here, all of a sudden they want to eat their food and it wasn’t here! So they started trying to emulate their food, and all of a sudden you have their interpretation of what the food tasted like back home, being reproduced here. In Montreal you had entire villages and families migrate there during the ethnic wars in Lebanon. And there, authenticity remains. So, taking all of that into consideration, in the New York market more specifically, I felt that number one there was a market for authenticity. So, the first reason for the concept is the authenticity factor. The second reason for the concept is finding a setting in which to take that authenticity and re-plate it within a progressive presentation. And that is really what we do here. We give you what is authentic, and we plate it with variations and we also take you on a culinary journey of totally different flavors and tastes, or things you did not think could happen.
NYRI: You have two sous chefs, what were their roles in helping set up the menu?
Massoud: I have an executive Sous Chef named Erik Osol, and my other Sous Chef is Ryan Grant. Both were interviewed from putting ads in the newspaper and testing them in my apartment, having them shop and doing a tasting, and each one of them is hired for different qualifications. They are both very, very talented guys. So I just stepped back and tried to give them the reins. When we are bouncing ideas off of each other, I come to them with something traditional and I will make it for them. I will say “here, taste this, this is how we eat this.” They’ll say “wow, this is really interesting, but how about if we did something like that?” And we start debating. I am not one of those chefs who want to take full ownership of everything. I like to collaborate with my team, it is a lot of fun. I have even had Tadashi Ono (of Matsuri restaurant) come in and play with us, and hopefully, eventually many other chefs will come and do that.
NYRI: How did you come up with the name?
Massoud: The name, Ilili, means “Tell me” in colloquial Arabic. So I am trying to tell my story in this restaurant. But it means “tell me” from female to female or male to female, not male to male. But depending on how you pronounce it, it can be sexual, it can be provocative, it can be angry. It can be happy because when you speak Arabic, it is all in how you pronounce it like, tell me about your night, tell me about your meal, tell me about how it was in bed or whatever. It is male to female or female to female, but not male to male. Because man to man would be ili.
NYRI: Tell me about your experience putting together the service staff.
Massoud: When I hire people, I hire personalities, and then if you have the right personality and you have the right character, the skills can always be taught. My philosophy is to treat your people well and they will give back to you. I am somebody that generally cares about the people who work with me. I explain everything to them and how it eventually all comes back to their pocket and how it is going to influence them as much as it influences me. Clearly the staff has never served this type of food before, so the table’s pacing is a bit off. But I think within the next two to three weeks, it will improve. I am presenting something that nobody has ever eaten; my staff, some of them did not know what real hummus tastes like, let alone my culinary team. So it is like running a University, you have got to go back to the basics and build layers of knowledge slowly one step at a time. I do not believe in this bullshit of, it is hard to find good people. It is not hard to find good people; it is hard to keep good people. Treat them well, treat them with respect and give back to them, do not be a scrooge, and they will give back to you.
NYRI: How late did Ilili open compared to your original plan?
Massoud: Initially, it was supposed to open in the summer. I forced the opening; we could have tried to go another month because there is still a lot of work that is not finished. But as a business person, I had to say enough is enough. Besides that, I was taking away money that I could use to ensure the success of the business, to give it its best fighting chance, so to speak. Some restaurants open up and by the time they are open, they do not have one dollar in the bank account, and that is why many restaurants fail. We had a very fine balance that we were almost kind of flirting with disaster so to speak, but we made it, and now the real fun begins.
NYRI: Do you live in town?
Massoud: Right across the street. I am not going to spend an hour commuting; I would rather be in here producing than commuting. It was a decision I made even though it is costing me an arm and a leg. It is the right thing to do when you are opening a restaurant.
NYRI: You have cousins who own a vineyard, Paumanok Vineyards, in North Fork. Do you have any other family members who work in the food business?
Massoud: Yes, my brother Alexander Massoud is a partner at Ilili. He is our CFO and Director of Human Resources. He helps keep the ship steady on the back end.
NYRI: Out of all your cooking experiences in Lebanon, Spain, and France, and America, who had the most influence on you?
Massoud: The one chef that really inspired me the most was Iskandar Obegi, our hotel’s executive chef, and in my opinion Lebanon’s best kept secret.
NYRI: Do you think your experience growing up in Beirut made you tougher to withstand the rigors of running so many restaurants?
Massoud: This business is an ongoing journey in which all of your sensory inputs get stimulated; I do not think there is any industry that gives you that. As for restaurants and hospitality, it is a reality of life because you never know what is going to hit you and you have to be able to take it all in. People come to you to celebrate. They come to you to cry. They come to you to make a business deal. They come to you to cheat. They come to you to be correct and just. I mean they come to you for everything and it is so amazing because you have to take it all in and give back and you give back with the way you serve and the way you produce your food. It is amazing.