"It is through food that we bring people together and it is through food that you get a window into our culture."
"My goal with Comptoir Libanais changes all the time. The main idea is to create a place where it doesn't matter who you are – a nurse, a student, an architect, a designer, an office worker, a plumber – in this restaurant everyone feels, 'I'm in the right place.'"
The ability to make people feel welcome is a gift that may appear effortless, but it's something that Tony lives and breathes. "It's accessible, you can afford it. It's not too formal or intimidating. It suits your needs. We tried to give it the experience of a Middle Eastern courtyard, or a souk. Then, bit by bit, the goal became to show people our culture. In the Middle East we have, not one of the most, but the most generous culture of hospitality in the world."
Food plays a crucial role – as Tony explains. "When you greet someone at home, the first thing you do is you give them food. It doesn't matter where they're from or who they are – they always greet you with food. They fill the table and they make sure you eat and eat. My mother always used to encourage me to eat by saying, "In Europe if you don't finish your food, that means you don't like it. In our culture, if you finish the food that means I haven't given you enough."
Especially within families, food often becomes a byword for love. "Whenever I go back home to Algeria, I don't tell my friends that I'm coming. That way I can get in and out, because if they know I'm coming they'll be cooking from eight o'clock in the morning. When it's time to leave, I always have a cake or a pastry in my hand on the way to my other aunt's house. This is how we live, this is how we show our love."
It's a mark of how powerful that love is that having experienced it, all Tony wants to do is share it with the world. "My ultimate dream is that people eat Lebanese food as much as they eat Italian food. You can eat Lebanese food on a daily basis, the variety is huge. You have the salads, the stews, grills, mezze… it's a tiny country, but it has one of the biggest repertoires of food you'll ever see. I do sound a little biased, but I like to think the day will come when Lebanese food is everywhere. It gives me pride."