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Foam and fortune

Can modernist gastronomy make its mark on Beirut?

by Ellen Hardy

If you fancy an evening of Lebanese food, implores Karim Haïdar, do not book a table at his newly opened restaurant, Zabad. 

“Please,” he says, “go to Karam [Al Bahr, a close neighbor at the Zaitunay Bay restaurant complex], because if you come here you’ll be disappointed.” Given Zabad’s tagline “Lebanese Cuisine by Karim Haïdar”, this might seem counterintuitive. But it is a serious attempt to prepare his audience for what many will see as an unorthodox dining experience. 

A traditional Lebanese table invariably calls for blizzards of mezze, steaming mountains of main dishes, pagodas of fresh fruit and platters of sweetmeats — even if half of it gets thrown away. But at Zabad, you will consume a finely-orchestrated procession of seven small savoury dishes and two sweet, from a set tasting menu that changes every few days and name-checks a raft of well-known Lebanese ingredients — tahini, moghrabiyyé, kafta — while presenting them in unheard of forms and flavors.

 

Food as art

A dollop of chickpea “espuma”, a scoop of moghrabiyyé with cheese foam, a single square-cut chip with a slick of basil coulis — this is Haïdar’s interpretation of Lebanese cuisine in the modernist tradition. Sometimes known (and maligned) as “molecular gastronomy”, this precise, experimental and technical style of cookery has been obsessing the greatest chefs around the world for the past decade, and has influenced a whole generation of restaurateurs. 

Names like Ferran Adrià, Thomas Keller, Heston Blumenthal and Grant Achatz have dominated the scene, with Adrià’s three Michelin starred restaurant elBulli, situated on the northern coast of Spain, and its mythical 35-course dinners making it to the number one spot of Restaurant Magazine’s annual “Best Restaurant” rankings a record five times. But despite the two million requests it received for tables every year, elBulli closed in summer 2011 due to massive financial loss, and is due to reopen in 2014 as a culinary research and education center.

Modernist kitchens have often been compared to laboratories — they rely on sophisticated cooking methods, intricate equipment and a lot of highly-trained manpower to achieve dishes that bear little relation to anyone’s idea of a square meal. Adrià and his ilk’s repertoire of foamed, frozen, deconstructed and reconstituted ingredients have become bywords for a scientific complexity that has nevertheless become popularized to the extent that Adrià created Texturas, his line of products for home kitchens. 

Alginate for spherification (“the controlled gelification of a liquid which, submerged in a bath, forms spheres”), lyophilized (freeze dried) fruits and anti-humidity tablets are all on the menu — at a cost. A “mini-spherification kit” will set you back around £85 ($130) from Harvey Nichols in London, and if you want to purchase a cookbook, ‘Modernist Cuisine’, created by former Microsoft chief technology officer Nathan Myhrvold with a team of 20 staff over five years, it comes in at six volumes, 2,400 pages, 1,500 recipes and a $625 list price. This is fine dining taking itself extremely seriously.

 

Shy tongues for modernism

Beirut is still in the early stages of acquaintance with modernist wizardry, but there are a number of the famous sous-vide machines (long, slow cooking in a plastic vacuum) in operation in kitchens around the capital, and some restaurateurs are taking the idea further. Badeeh Abla is the founder of beirutrestaurants.com, creative director of Nobrand agency and a self-confessed “gourmet and gourmand” who has created a private kitchen in his Gemmayzeh mansion dedicated to hosting top international chefs and “putting Beirut on the culinary map.” 

In September last year, he hosted a team of chefs from elBulli for three nights, investing $85,000 in equipping his kitchen with everything from obscure herbs to a $4,000 Pacojet machine, which purees frozen ingredients. The event, at $350 a head, was booked out, but Abla barely broke even. He says wryly “I really understand why elBulli [did] not make money… It’s a lab, it’s a show.” 

One of Nobrand’s former clients, chef Dory Masri, has ample reason to agree with Abla’s assessment. After rising through the ranks in London to work with celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Angela Hartnett, he returned to Lebanon in 2011 to invest $400,000 with two friends in opening La Manche on Pasteur Street, offering exclusively modernist dishes. 

With a menu listing sea bass with pink grapefruit foam, carbonated mashed potato, deconstructed peanut butter sandwiches and liquid nitrogen frozen kiwi lollipops, Masri’s influences and ambitions were clear. The project lasted eight months. 

“The only interest I had was from chefs, to be honest, and restaurant owners,” says Masri, who regrets his assessment of the market and location (being located in Downtown, he suspects, would have helped). Importing pigeon breasts and bringing in alginate and other substances by DHL courier pushed the price of a single dish up to as much as $65, earning La Manche a reputation as unfeasibly expensive. He was also frustrated by the reception of his ideas by his audience, characterized by suspicion of the unknown. 

“Lebanon is a very hard market to deal with. You go for a soft poached egg and people tell you: ‘It’s nayyeh [uncooked], you can’t serve that…’” says Masri. 

His passion for the modernist approach suffered an early casualty in regards to marketing with the PR company Grey, who “didn’t have a clue about it. Their presentation was like another McDonald’s.” 

As an unknown chef in Beirut and with no knowledge of the market, he now says ruefully that his advice to other chefs contemplating a similar move would be to “be very careful. Market it big time.” Given the chance again, he would “start with what the market needs, establish my name and then do it [with] a menu of 60-70 percent molecular and 30 percent other stuff.”

Is there a genuine market for modernist cuisine in Beirut? “Yeah, like 12 people,” says Abla. At his elBulli event, “I’m sure 40 percent of those people didn’t know what they were eating.” And he is cautious about the potential for growth, pointing to the high cost and small portions associated with this approach. “[Beirut] will never be ready for such a cuisine,” he says. “It [modernist cooking] came late to Beirut.”

 If a chef is really passionate about his art, perhaps he should look to Burgundy restaurant, whose more traditional à la carte menu and focus on a quality wine list give their Canadian chef freedom to experiment with acidulated cucumbers and foie gras with curry. Restaurants that do not succeed will lose in the region of $50,000 a month in running costs, Abla estimates. Even popular restaurants rely on franchising to grow their business. For modernist restaurants in Beirut, he says “it is a risk and I don’t know how they can pull it [off].”

 

Culinary for love

Haïdar will be hoping he can prove the naysayers wrong. A Lebanese restaurateur based in Paris since 1985, with successful operations Point Bulles, L’Enclume des Bulles and La Branche d’Olivier to his name, he opened Zabad at Zaitunay Bay in late December, his first venture in his home town. “I don’t want to change Lebanese cuisine,” he insists, citing the variety found within French cookery. “I want to add to it… it’s for people who are interested in this new dining experience.” Moghrabiyyé, for example, “in Lebanon is made only one way… with cinnamon and caraway, with chickpeas and with red onions. We are serving it with saffron as a spice, totally changed, and a foam of cheese.” Instead of Arak in a glass, you’ll find it in a palate-cleansing granita between the savoury and sweet courses.

Haïdar has invested, he estimates, 50 percent more in his kitchen than he would otherwise have done to acquire the requisite Pacojet, siphons for injecting liquid fillings, a sous-vide machine and a thermoplongeur for achieving exact temperatures. But although he’s “very scared” about the prospect of failure, he says he makes significant savings on wastage and labor. And he is prepared to listen to his customers. He has already had “good” and “horrible” feedback, but “of course I’m not coming to make the restaurant that they love to eat in, because Lebanon is full of that,” says Haïdar. “I’m not coming just to make money and fill my restaurant and make whatever people want. So I’m making what I want them to eat, but I want to listen to them, to understand what they really feel about it.”

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Ellen Hardy

Ellen Hardy worked in digital media in Beirut, London, and Paris before returning to Oxfordshire in 2016 to study for an MA in Creative Writing at Birkbeck, graduating with Distinction in 2018. She joined UEA in 2019 as a CHASE-funded postgraduate researcher in Creative-Critical Writing. Her writing has appeared in various publications, and her research project is a historical novel based on a 17th-century cabinet of curiosity.
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