Jai is an Asian kitchen in Beirut. An entire continent on one menu? Founder Chef Wael Lazkani doesn’t see it that way. “I always find it weird. Why do we have to define restaurants nationally? Considering my background – half Lebanese, half Egyptian, lived all over the world – the rules have been broken, so I just picked my favorite dishes and put them on the menu,” he says.
Another thing, Jai is literally a kitchen. “The official name is Jai but we add the word ‘kitchen’ because we need people to understand we are not a restaurant,” he laughs, recounting anecdotes of people showing up in front of the hole-in-the-wall, scratching their heads. “We get a lot of confused reactions from surprised people. Some of them leave, and I understand – they want an outing,” he says, unfazed.
When he opened Jai in 2013, it was an instant success. “We set out to make the best food we could – I didn’t know how the Lebanese would react but they reacted really well. There’s no extra cost for décor and service and I think they were hungry for real experiences. The purpose here is just food,” he says.
And that’s how it’s going to stay. Lazkani refuses to expand or open another branch because he doesn’t want to manage – he just wants to cook. “I would lose control of my cooking. I’d rather stay small and focus on the quality. It’s enough,” he says. But there are other delicious projects up his rolled-up sleeves: Lazkani just launched the high-end Jai Catering. Perhaps even more exciting – he plans to open another eatery with Chinese and Korean cuisine within the next year.
What’s with the love affair with Asian food? After studying and working for years as a chef in London, Geneva, France and Montreal, he almost quit the field. But then he discovered Asian cuisine and accidentally landed a gig as a chef on a yacht. For the next eight years he was forced to get “painfully creative”, coming up with 27 different dishes daily for his clients. During his six-month long winter breaks Lazkani spent his time in Southeast Asia. “I fell in love with Asian food in London. It’s the food that took me to Southeast Asia – it’s food that takes me everywhere. All food, all the time!” he quips, explaining that the philosophy of Asian cuisine is different from the European tradition. “It’s much more layered; they push flavors to the extreme. They’re not trying to reduce a carrot to its essence, for the best carrot flavor to come out. Instead, they’re trying to add as many spices as possible and make it as interesting as possible,” he says.
Lazkani insists he wakes up eager to get back into the kitchen every day. Food has been his passion since the age of 10, and it’s taken on many forms. Lazkani along with Anthony Rahhayel (of “No Garlic No Onions” blog fame) and founder of Souk El Tayeb Kamal Mouzawak launched a weekly street food market in summer 2015, aiming to make food more accessible. Exhibitors range from established restaurants to experimenting chefs. “I feel that a big part of the industry is very investment oriented. The people opening restaurants are hiring chefs and chefs are not opening restaurants,” he laments. Souk El Akel is a testing ground and platform for new ideas. “We need restaurants that look like their individual owners – not photocopies of something. We need people’s quirks and Jai is proof of this,” he says, adding, “Jai looks like me. The kitchen is just like my brain, messy but efficient.” Though he has since dropped out as an organizer for Souk El Akel because things got too managerial, Lazkani continues to exhibit weekly. “We need more public things in Lebanon. We need the public to engage with each other – and [doing so] around food is a great idea.”
Like that’s not enough on his plate, the chef announces he’s launching a preserves company in summer 2016, using local produce to make new preserves. More than a set of products, it’s a solution to a problem. Lebanon has an agricultural surplus where farmers grow the same crops simultaneously, so prices drop. “The idea is to find ways to sell by creating new products. For example, since apples are not selling well, I’m working with an apple farmer to make cider and apple chutney. We are re-valuing apples,” he explains.
Another problem in Lebanon is communication. “I think a big part of why food is suffering is because chefs are not connected to farmers. We have suppliers in between so farmers don’t know what ends up on the table and chefs don’t know what the farmers are planting,” he says. Lazkani works with Souk el Tayeb’s capacity-building program in conjunction with the International Rescue Committee and United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, helping connect farmers to the industry. The program helps train refugees, women and others in cooking and preserves.
While Lazkani says the logistics of working in Lebanon are “insane”, from water and electricity problems, to difficulties in keeping a reliable supply chain, he remains an optimist: “It makes us better, tougher, nothing shocks us and we just know how to deal with problems now.” He says of Lebanon that “it is amazing, it’s very difficult to operate but once it gets going there’s a lot of room for playing, for creating new things. There’s a lot of opportunity.”