The People’s Chef

“Would you excuse me for a moment?” asks Chef Youssef Akiki abruptly. We’re sitting in his restaurant Burgundy, in Beirut’s swanky downtown Saifi Village neighbourhood one warm afternoon in July, discussing his upcoming trip to Japan over a young Chablis. “A VIP has just come in and I need to say hello,” he explains before scurrying off.

For the most, an afternoon among Burgundy’s ebony wood panels and climate-controlled wine cellars is a rare treat; for Nabil Aoun, the VIP whose entrance has caused such a commotion among the waiting staff, it’s a more quotidian affair. The elderly Aoun, one of Lebanon’s best-known stockbrokers, drops in every day for the same light lunch of langoustines wrapped in a shiso leaves with pickled daikon radish and acidulated ginger. And every day, Chef Akiki stops by his table to exchange pleasantries, soliciting the gentleman’s opinion on the latest amuse bouche the kitchen has proffered (today it’s buttery smoked eel between paper-thin crispy toasts, garnished with tiny pansies, slivers of pickled radish, and micro herbs on a balsamic reduction).

Aided no doubt by the VIPs and their attendant buzz in the society pages, Burgundy has so far succeeded in the unenviable task of maintaining its status amoung Beirut’s posh (and notoriously fickle) restaurant-goers since its 2008 opening. Akiki would like us to believe it was a piece of cake. When asked how the team has kept the reservation books full year after year, he shrugs. “It’s very easy in Lebanon to get guests to trust you. When a restaurant opens in Lebanon everyone wants to go; if they like it, they’ll come back.”

Of course, it’s significantly more complicated than simply getting people into a habit. There are few restaurants in Beirut that are over five years old; those favourites that stand the test of time are still offering much the same menu as they did at opening. Further, global food trends have historically been slow to catch on here. The last food trend to hit Beirut was sushi, which became all the rage in Lebanon about 35 years after its wave crashed over America and Europe. Reflecting its colonial history and enduring Francophilia (at least in some quarters of the city), this is solidly a steak frites and duck confit town.

Coming up with dishes that are at once familiar enough to Beirut’s elite diners to keep them comfortable, and foreign enough to keep them interested season in and season out is a proposition that hangs in a delicate balance. In addressing this challenge, Akiki tells me that they key has been to establish trust, first with his business partners, and more importantly, with his clientele.

When Akiki and owner Ziad Mouawad began working together, the latter regarded some of Akiki’s ideas with a measure of suspicion, Akiki recalls jovially. “‘How can you combine such strong flavours?’” he remembers Mouawad asking, incredulously, when hearing of a new dish that paired salmon with Dijon mustard, wasabi, and horseradish. On first bite though, says Akiki, the owner was a convert–and public trust followed close behind.

Given that Akiki’s first big break came as a result of a personal relationship he developed with a customer, it’s no surprise that he still sees the quality of this interaction as paramount to his success. As a teenager from Lebanon’s suburban Metn district working in the kitchen of the InterContinental hotel at Lebanon’s upscale Faraya ski resort, his work caught the attention of an Egyptian businessman who frequented the hotel.

“When he asked me to come to Egypt and work as a personal chef, I took a quick decision without thinking much about it,” Akiki reflects. The 19-year-old’s impulsive gamble paid off; as he gained more clients in Cairo, he developed an all around “self confidence” that has served him well ever since. Assurance in the nuance and sophistication in his palate allowed him to convincingly engage with European culinary luminaries like Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon in workshops. This in turn led to confidence in his capacity for leadership, useful in a subsequent position heading a kitchen of 32 chefs serving 300 guests per day at Beirut’s La Posta restaurant.

When asked what qualities make a great chef, apart from experience and a well-honed sense of taste, Akiki is quick to answer: “knowing the client,” he states emphatically. “The restaurant here is my philosophy and my vision, but I love to do customised cuisine for my guests,” most of whom are regulars whose specific tastes Akiki has made a special effort to learn. His culinary philosophy is not one that rejects outright all requests and substitutions: “I’m open to sharing what my guest likes to eat, to sharing the experience of enjoying food.”

“For me, after all these years, the most important thing is to be friendly with my clients, to give each person what they need.”

Still, even Akiki has limits: “I will prepare any dish but not pain perdu!” he laughs. “I take requests but it still has to be my food.”

Indeed, the menu seems engineered to fulfil the particular tastes of the Beirut fine dining enthusiast. French classics like frog’s legs with flavours of cauliflower, parsley, and garlic appeal to the traditionalist, but veer far enough away from the standard bistro version to be fresh; more adventurous dishes like smoked eel with vegetable tagliatelle and citrus-infused green apple purée, in sounding more extraordinary than they taste, gratify the modest thrill seekers.

Akiki stresses the importance he places on innovation, but is quick to add a dish to the permanent menu if his audience goes crazy for it, as was the case with a seasonal lobster dish. Further, based on his observation that the Lebanese palate skews “a bit to the acidic,” he uses acidulated ingredients–or those to which an acidic element like lemon juice or vinegar has been added–liberally throughout the menu.

Perhaps most importantly, the Beiruti fine diner is well travelled, and conscious of global luxury food trends, if not comfortable on the cutting edge. Incorporating these trends, the chef admits, is important to keeping his clients happy. A Kobe beef dish, a two-plate affair featuring barely grilled meat artfully arranged in slices on a large pebble and a salad of shiso leaves, frisée, micro greens, and fried garlic in Japanese-style dressing, was introduced at the beginning of this year; it’s already become a Burgundy signature, Akiki says. Another dish dubbed ‘half-smoked salmon’–sashimi-grade salmon served raw with the aforementioned bouquet of mustard, horseradish, and wasabi–arrives under a dome of smoke, released tableside by an expectant server.

Fortuitously, though, this Beirut audience is a bit more forgiving when it comes to the cycles of fashion than its counterpart in the rest of the developed world. Trends that have become cliché in the West, like miso-marinated black cod (with buckwheat soba noodles in a sweet sauce) and micro greens (which adorn nearly every dish the kitchen sends out, including dessert), are still going strong here.

In spite of these concessions, Akiki sees Burgundy’s role in the Lebanese culinary landscape as one that gently challenges comfort levels. Having earned the trust of his core clientele, he feels he has more freedom to play with their boundaries. He likens his future with Burgundy to a recent experience of being lost in the Dutch countryside: “there was no road, but I wanted to keep going, to learn what was coming next.”

Still, Akiki remains cognisant of those members of his customer base who depend on stable routine. As he’s walking out, Nabil Aoun stops by my table to say hello, no doubt curious about the newcomer in his midst. “Try the langoustines!” he booms, vigorously shaking my hand.

Find out more about Chef Akiki