“Our food is about built-in inherit equality,” said Fouad Kassab as he tries to describe what makes Lebanese food unique.
He went on to say that unlike “newly formed cuisines” such as the way Americans and Australians eat “where there’s a massive amount of abundance, but not too high of a quality”, Lebanese food is about “maximisation, equality, and extracting the most amount of flavour from really humble and cheap ingredients”.
Kassab draws on Lebanon’s national dish kibbeh as an example, which uses the leanest cut of meat, as well as one of the world’s cheapest grain, burghal.
“We’re proud of it; it’s not caviar but it’s made of really good meat and really cheap grain, and we still celebrate it. We haven’t tried making it haute cuisine. We respect the ingredients for their inherit qualities rather than for their demand and supply system,” he said.
Growing up in a household of six back in Lebanon, Kassab added there was no room for having a “communist attitude” towards food, which meant eating was communal.
“There is something very egalitarian about the way our food is served,” he said.
While Kassab is a man that wears many hats, at the time of writing he’s the owner and chef of an OzHarvest pop-up restaurant Baraka in Pyrmont. He has drawn on his Lebanese heritage to create a menu that pays homage to his mum’s recipes.
“I don’t really try to replicate mum’s cooking because it’s her unique experiences. We forget our parents are their own individuals with their own lives and they have stories to tell too, so when mum has a dish it’s completely hers,” he said.
“Whenever I try to cook a dish it’d be my story rather than her version, and that’s the foundation of the food I cook.”
But Kassab has always drawn from his heritage for inspiration, mainly because that’s all he had when he first arrived in Australia 14 years ago as a 21-year-old student.
After living in Penrith for the first few years where Kassab relied heavily on food such as chiko rolls that were dished out by the local Chinese-ran milk bar, he grew tired of seeing his waistline grow, and decided to do something about it.
He began having brainstorming conversations with his mum over the phone about what dishes he could create with the ingredients he had. For Kassab, it was when his interest in cooking heightened.
“That was really interesting because when she started describing the process of making that dish, I would be transported back to her presence where she has cooked these dishes thousands of time, and everything would come back to me and then I knew what to do,” he said.
Kassab then came up with the idea in 2006 to share his Middle Eastern heritage and his learnings from his mum with an online audience, which eventually grew to 20,000 unique visitors per month, on The Food Blog.
The Food Blog became a channel that opened opportunities up for Kassab, including becoming good friends with former Good Food Guide editor Joanne Savill.
Speaking fondly of Savill, Kassab said even though she no longer reviews for The Sydney Morning Herald title, he always invites her along to his pop-ups because “it adds a kick up the arse to really focus”.
He recalled how nervous he was during his first secret dinner, which he pulled off with the help of other food bloggers.
“The idiot in me decided to invite Joanne. I was completely stressed. She’s been to every place that I’ve opened, and it still stresses me out, even though she’s not the editor. It’s because I really respect her,” he said.
“Without her there would’ve been a lot that I wouldn’t have achieved. She was the one who invited me to review for the Good Food Guide; it was such an unexpected and amazing few years. It opened up my eyes because it made me start to think about food critically. Before it was all about what it meant to me, but then I started to think about what the food started to mean to the chef.”
When Kassab is not cooking or opening pop-ups, his other interest is in IT, more specifically software engineering – something in which he majored in when he was at university. He revealed his other job is running a team of 45 people as a senior IT architect.
“There is no rest for the wicked,” he said.
With Baraka due to close at the end of the month, Kassab said he won’t say no to opening up another pop-up soon, but won’t say yes either because he doesn’t want to close himself down to opportunities.
“It’s too early to answer that question. I’d say no because I think I don’t hope to do anything permanently. I’m not permanent. I use to think I’m a software engineer that’s all I’m doing, then I’m a chef that’s all I’m doing. Everything you do now is a vehicle for the next thing. I’ll continue to love it while I continue to do it,” he said.