Philippe Massoud, owner and executive chef of New York’s Ilili, often talks about creativity born out of necessity., activity that makes up for the absences.
Ilili is celebrating its 15th anniversary, an unlikely success for a restaurant that opened shortly before the 2008 recession to a wave of bad press, according to Massoud, and recently weathered the COVID-19 pandemic in one of the hardest-hit cities in the United States. But Massoud, who grew up in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, lived through crises long before opening Ilili. Much of his life followed the form of a metaphor that his memories of war suggested to him:
“Life will flourish, no matter what, because life is strong. Life is powerful,” Massoud said, referring to a conversation he had with his staff at the start of the pandemic. remember plants and trees growing on sidewalks and concrete. And I said, ‘We’re going to be that green plant that’s going to grow out of this desperation and darkness that COVID has brought upon us.’
Now, about two years into the pandemic, Ilili has returned to its pre-COVID scale of operation, having recently resumed lunch service. Additionally, Massoud opened a second Ilili location in Washington, DC last October.
“[Ilili] DC is a celebration of [Ilili] The success of New York,” Massoud said. “If New York hadn’t been so good to us, we wouldn’t have had the confidence or the strength to open up to another market. But we knew the brand was tenacious and that New York had really helped put us on a pedestal. And we went to DC, and DC embraced us with open arms. The restaurant is a departure, from a decor point of view, because I’m not trying to make cookie cutters. I really make stories in every city. The menu is different. Our team there has creative license.
Where the decor of the 10,000 square foot New York location is abstract, consisting of wood-framed walls and ceilings whose pattern and lighting suggest a honeycomb with rectangular cells, the location The 4,500 square foot DC evokes a Levantine courtyard, complete with trees, hanging plants and a central fountain.
The two menus overlap considerably, but Massoud highlighted two unique dishes at the DC location: charred octopus with ajo blanco, batata harra and roasted red pepper; and hummus with crab falafel, a tribute to crab cake.
An oasis of peace in a land of madness
Massoud and his family were in the mountains of Lebanon – hoping to get away from the heat of the city for the weekend – the day the civil war broke out in 1975. They would never return to their home in Beirut. Instead, they took refuge in the family-owned hotel, the Coral Beach, as Massoud’s father had contacts in nearby embassies and was able to secure the services of their bodyguards to protect the family. hotel and its inhabitants. Other displaced families have also found their way to the Coral Beach Hotel.
“We all ended up becoming one huge survival family during this horrible, horrible war that the country was immersed in,” Massoud said.
The hotel later became a Red Cross headquarters, further deterring various militias from attacking it. Daily life within the luxury hotel has taken on the aspect of what Massoud calls “an oasis of peace in a land of madness”. His formative experiences during these years will put him on the path to becoming a chef and restaurateur.
In particular, Massoud fondly recalls family meals attended by restaurant staff, which evoked the sense of oasis he strives to give his restaurants today.
“Those were my favorite foods to eat, with all the chefs. They would set up this huge, long table in the baking department and we would all sit together. They would all be in the whites, and I would be eating the family meal said Massoud.
In 1985, when he was 14, Massoud fled Lebanon as a refugee and moved in with his aunt’s family in Scarsdale, NY. He was safe from the horrors of war. He no longer needed to fear for his life. But the culinary perfectionist in him was irrepressible: where none of the Lebanese dishes he ate lived up to his memories of dining with family at Coral Beach, he realized he would have to make the food himself.
From the beginning of Massoud’s life in Lebanon, two dominant trends emerged that will remain with him until now: on the one hand, a desire to recover his memories of that lost world, his oasis of peace and refinement; and on the other, a robust self-reliance and courage instilled by the brutality of wartime Beirut. To these tendencies can be attributed, respectively, the concept of Ilili and its execution.
From crisis to crisis
Massoud opened Ilili in November 2007. He had just returned from Washington, DC, where he spent four years developing Mediterranean restaurant Neyla. Perceiving that in New York, Lebanese cuisine was mostly limited to his street food repertoire, he sought to introduce New Yorkers to the food he remembered eating at the Coral Beach Hotel.
“In 2007, people accused me of being a little crazy – to choose no other words – because no one thought that Lebanese cuisine could be represented or elevated in such a setting. And that’s because that people are used to eating from the supermarket shelves or from the street cart. And they don’t realize that it can be much more refined, much lighter, more vibrant, healthier,” he said. declared.
But months after Ilili opened, the economy collapsed. Consumer demand plummeted and restaurants struggled to retain staff. Massoud had every reason to be nervous: he had gone into deep debt to start his restaurant. But he’d been through worse, and he knew the last thing he needed to do was panic.
“I do well in crisis management because that’s all I knew as a kid,” Massoud said. “My approach has always been that it will end at some point, so let’s not get sucked into the negativity.”
Ilili survived and the economy rebounded. Over the next nine years, the concept flourished.
Then the pandemic hit, and in March 2020, Ilili closed its doors. Massoud says those early days of the pandemic were more of a hardship for his restaurant than the recession ever was, because so little was known about COVID at the time. With little information to work on, he couldn’t come up with a plan.
After just over a month, as the transmission mechanism of COVID became better understood, Massoud decided he couldn’t wait to reopen. On May 28, Ilili reopened with a small team for deliveries only.
“I think all of us, all of us New Yorkers, have collective PTSD from COVID. In a way, there is a collective trauma that happened, but we had to let go. And then I decided in late April that enough was enough and we were going to reopen the restaurant,” Massoud said.
According to Massoud, the reintroduction of outdoor dining later that summer saved Ilili. Since then, the march to recovery and now growth has been steady.
The new location in Washington, DC, likely won’t mark the end of Ilili’s growth. Massoud intends to roll out vegan and seafood concepts, and he’s looking to expand into other markets: Miami, Chicago and Los Angeles are all possibilities.
Wherever Ilili goes next, diners will have a little access to the childhood memories of a chef who found something joyful in the worst of circumstances.
“What’s amazing, if you think about it, is that Ilili is the food as I remember eating it when I was a kid in Lebanon,” Massoud said. “Every recipe I’ve made is based on my memory of what I’ve eaten. And to me, that’s unreal. It’s amazing that someone’s childhood can have such an impact on them that “He ends up recreating it through food. I’ve always admired how powerful our childhood is, because I never thought in my wildest dreams that I would do what I do now.”