“Justice prevails in the end whether here or in the afterlife,” says Philippe Massoud, recalling the assassination of his father George in 1986, during the Lebanese civil war. Over coffee with his older brother Alex at Ilili, their upscale and trendy Lebanese contemporary restaurant in the Flatiron neighborhood in Manhattan, Philippe goes over his turbulent life path from an upbringing at the Coral Beach Hotel during the war to becoming a top-line New York restaurateur.
“They were trying to segregate Beirut between Christians and Muslims; we were a Christian family living on the Muslim side,” says Philippe, as he explains why he spent most of his childhood in the kitchen of the Coral Beach Hotel, built in 1964 by his father and family. By the age of eight, Philippe was already making culinary comments to the chefs on what ingredients were missing in a meal. His father never wanted him nor Alex to venture into the hospitality business, as his own experience running the hotel in war-ravaged Lebanon was not a profitable one.
Ilili serves traditionally Lebanese dishes with a contemporary twist
Alex listened to his father’s advice — at least initially. He pursued his studies in engineering in Colorado and kicked off his career in Silicon Valley. Coral Beach was no longer a Massoud asset then, so “my father was clairvoyant for me,” says Alex as he did not have the option of returning to the family business when he graduated. Two years after their father’s assassination, the Coral Beach hotel was sold at gunpoint at a distressed price of $5.5 million, “a pretty serious mistake considering that in 1983, we had an offer for $33 million” says Philippe. But the Massoud family, worried about the security of their deceased relative’s wife, decided it was best to sell the hotel. “Our mother was getting threats, and they wanted her to leave West Beirut,” adds Alex.
Philippe, the more rebellious brother, was not as obedient as Alex to his father’s advice, pursuing his studies in hospitality at Cornell University and graduating from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York. From a young age, Philippe was determined to launch his own restaurant, even trying to acquire Mediterranean restaurant Aladdin at the age of 17.
The exotic starters have proved a hit in Manhattan
On the menu
“[Because of] the fact that we had an abrupt end to Coral I had a fixation that we needed to do something in hospitality,” says Alex, and in 1994, the two brothers reunited. After several failed attempts — where they tried to acquire the Time Out Space from the Tabet family in Beirut and launch a “hip lounge à la Hotel Costes in Paris” — and in New York — where they attempted to open a fast food concept — they decided to drop their entrepreneurial dreams for the time being and split again.
Alex joined the finance industry working as a portfolio manager. Philippe joined the hospitality industry managing multi-concept restaurants in New York, until Lebanese restaurateur Bechara Nammour contacted him in 1999 to launch a Lebanese restaurant in Washington, DC. And that’s how Neyla, with a “high see-and-be-seen factor” according to the Washington Post, came into the fine dining restaurant scene in Georgetown. “It was matter of life and death for me for Neyla to succeed,” he says.
After Philippe fell out with Nammour in 2004, he took a one-year sabbatical during which his dream of launching his own restaurant was reignited. “Our friend George Bitar put fire under my feet,” says Philippe. “He said, ‘We are tired of eating bad Lebanese food in NY, why don’t you open here and we will help you raise the funds?’” And so Philippe and Alex reunited again. In November 2007 their efforts finally came to fruition with the opening of Ilili (meaning “tell me” in Arabic).
The restaurant has 120 employees and plans to expand
With 31 Lebanese-American investors on board, Philippe and Alex, majority owners of Ilili, managed to secure the funds for their ambitious project. Refusing to disclose the exact cost, they only state that if it weren’t for the “inherent savings from aggressive bidding and value engineering”, Ilili would have cost them $6 million to $6.75 million.
The timing of the opening was not ideal, with the US financial meltdown, constraining purchasing power on everything from cars to clothing to restaurants — hommos, tabbouleh and shawarma included. But “people were still coming because it was a new restaurant and a new concept,” says Alex and the restaurant generated $4 million in revenues in its first year of operation, at the height of the financial crisis. For this year, the brothers are expecting up to $9.5 million in revenues.
And a new concept it is. From lunches and dinners offering labneh with salmon roe, to veal in katayef, to duck shawarma in a pita wrap, to brunches offering chankleesh egg man’ouche or zaatar eggs benedict, Ilili’s concept mixes Lebanese traditional cuisine with a creative touch, all set in a lavish décor with up to 250 red seats in a large rectangular cedar wooden space. “We want to be the Nobu [a renowned upscale Japanese fusion restaurant] of the eastern Mediterranean cuisine encompassing all the countries of the Ottoman Empire with a strong focus on Lebanon and what it has to offer,” says Philippe. A Middle East twist also features on the cocktail menu. With a lounge area seating up to 40, cocktails with funky names such as “From Beirut with Passion” and “From Manhattan to Beirut” are on offer for clients to relish.
The Massoud brothers, Philippe and Alexander, have no plans to return to Lebanon
With 120 employees, the Massoud brothers want to take the establishment as far as it can go, with Philippe expecting to generate $30 million to $40 million in the next couple of years. Plans include launching another Ilili in downtown New York, reigniting their initial ambition of launching a fast food concept, going down the private equity route and opening up in London, pursuing Ilili catering, starting Ilili on airplanes; all options are on the table, and the brothers are scratching their heads to decide which is the best route to continue growing.
How about a return of the Massoud brothers to Lebanon? “Given what we have been through, Lebanon is in the freezer for now and the longer it sits in there, the harder it will be to take it out,” says Philippe, but if the opportunity came for him and his brother to run the Coral Beach Hotel, he says he would entertain the idea “under the right condition,” in order to continue their father’s legacy.