"Everything is eaten with hands here,” proclaims my host, setting our knives and forks aside. He reaches over and dunks a lamb kibbeh into its mint flecked-yoghurt sauce and practically shoves it into my mouth. Tony Kitous is on a one-man mission to bring Lebanese food to the masses, and he’s not going to let something as trivial as basic table manners get in his way.
In 2008, Algerian-born Kitous launched Comptoir Libanais, a scalable restaurant format designed from the ground up to win Lebanese food a presence on the high street. “I’m a proud man. It kills me that practically every other cuisine has gone mainstream yet Lebanese food and Middle Eastern food in general is still ghettoised,” he says. “Yes, there are some great ethnic restaurants in ethnic areas but they’re not aimed at British people. Our food has yet to go mass market in that sense.”
Kitous’ strategy is centered on making Lebanese cuisine more accessible and less ‘ethnic’. Our current location serves as a good illustration. The group’s Chelsea-branch – there are now 10 Comptoirs in and around London – has a clean, contemporary look with retail products lining the walls. Think Bill’s via Beirut. Cleverly, it manages to work in modern Middle Eastern elements – bold geometric patterns, vintage movie posters – while avoiding clichéd elements. There’s not a hookah pipe or sequined cushion in sight.
Our tiny table is becoming hopelessly gridlocked. Kitous isn’t eating much today but orders a seemingly endless succession of dishes nonetheless. It’s partly because Levantine culinary traditions demand I leave utterly replete but – it transpires – he also wants to assess the quality of his chef’s output.
Through the meal he points out tiny shortcomings in dishes and on one occasion even sends a plate back to the kitchen because the garnish isn’t correct. “I’m not going to kick ass,” he assures me. “But I’m going to have a word with the chefs and say that some things were great and others need some work.”
Front of house is coming in for some scrutiny, too. Almost involuntarily, Kitous’ eyes dart about the room to see if his guests have everything they need. This isn’t for show. In fact, he struggles to keep his attention focused on the interview and off the restaurant floor.
“I dislike the fact we’re a chain. My biggest worry is losing control as we grow. That’s why our expansion has been fairly slow,” he says as he worriedly surveys the room. “I’m concerned about the execution. As we grow, the cracks get bigger and it becomes harder and harder for me to keep on top of things.”
Kitous is eating selectively because he needs to lose 12kg for his fifth Marathon de Sables in Morocco next month. “It’s the toughest foot race on earth. People die,” he says, rather bluntly, before devouring a large portion of foul moudamas, a protein-packed stew of crushed beans with tomatoes and olive oil that – along with chicken shawarma – forms the basis of his training diet. “It’s like a drug for me. It started with half marathons then full marathons, but I’m always chasing that first buzz so I’ve gone on to more extreme running challenges. This will be my ninth ultra-marathon,” he adds.
The Marathon de Sables is a 156-mile race (the equivalent of six marathons back-to-back) in the searing heat of southern Morocco. Kitous must carry all of his food in a backpack and spend his nights on the floor of a Bedouin tent.
It’s fair to say he’s of the ‘go big or go home’ school, then. On arriving in London in his late teens with no English, no cash and nowhere to sleep, Kitous worked a string of low-level hospitality jobs including spells as a porter, barman and pizzaiolo. Just a few years later, in 1993, he had got together enough money to open his first restaurant – Baboon on Marylebone’s Wigmore Street – and was soon established as a high-profile London restaurateur working with the era’s big name chefs including Gary Hollihead and Pat McDonald.
Middle Eastern cuisine
In 2000, Kitous launched his first Middle Eastern restaurant, Levant in Marylebone. “It was like coming home. I realised I’d been operating outside of my comfort zone. This was the food that I knew and loved.”
More Middle Eastern restaurants followed – Kenza in Liverpool Street and Levantine in Paddington (now a Comptoir) – and Kitous purchased and turned around Richard Caring’s Moroccan restaurant Pasha in Kensington. Levant and Kenza are pricier and more special occasion-driven than Comptoir and trade as one-offs within Kitous’ 13-strong Levant Restaurants Group.
Kitous describes himself as an accomplished home cook rather than a chef. He doesn’t have an executive chef or development chef, and personally pens the menus at all of his restaurants as well as keeping tabs on food quality. When he’s not training for punishing runs he is a prolific eater, travelling to the Middle East dozens of times a year.
Despite not being a chef, Kitous has become a successful envoy for Lebanese food in the UK, with numerous appearances on TV food shows and two successful Comptoir-branded cookbooks. He points out that his lack of professional kitchen experience makes it easier for him to translate dishes for home cooks and create a restaurant brand that focuses on simpler, easy-to-understand dishes.
“What I cook is not complicated. Far from it, in fact. We don’t use many hard-to-find ingredients because I want people to cook this food at home on a regular basis. That is why I created Comptoir. Obviously the customer comes first, but from an operational standpoint it’s good that the dishes are not complicated because it’s easier to train staff and roll out. We leave the more sexy dinner party stuff to Yotam [Ottolenghi, the celebrated Israeli-born chef]. I think he is amazing and has done wonders for Middle Eastern food in this country, but we’re offering something more everyman and everyday.”
Kitous takes his ambassadorial role seriously and can sometimes be exhaustingly evangelical: he is clearly a canny businessman and skilled restaurateur but he keeps our conversation focused on the bigger picture, specifically his dream of a high street with as many Lebanese restaurants as Italian ones.
“I always compare Lebanese food to Italian food. After all it’s a Mediterranean cuisine,” he says. “A lot of people don’t realise this. It’s fresh, healthy food. There’s no reason we can’t do as well as the Italians in this game.”
Kitous is so preoccupied with Italy’s well-documented success in the branded arena that he has engineered some of his dishes to go head-to-head with Italian staples. There’s mana’esh – a circular flat bread that’s sliced and eaten like a pizza – and a rather good ensemble of tomatoes, grilled halloumi and fresh mint leaves conceived by Kitous as an alternative to a Caprese salad.
The rest of Comptoir’s menu reads like a greatest hits of Middle Eastern cuisine containing the likes of hummus, baba ghanoush, tabbouleh and falafel, all preparations that originated in and around the Levant. Mains include tagines (borrowed from Morocco), wraps, salads and the aforementioned mana’esh. Prices are accessible with mezze dishes from £2.50 and most mains under £8.
“These dishes aren’t trendy,” Kitous says firmly as we go through the menu. “This year won’t be the year of Lebanese food. We’ve been making this stuff for thousands of years. I don’t want to be the hottest new thing and don’t even get me started on street food. That term has been horribly abused by the industry. Most of our dishes are home-style food but there is some crossover with those dishes that started life on the street.”
Healthy fast food
The item that Kitous is most enthusiastic about is the shawarma, the usually meat-filled sandwich that’s a key part of Comptoir’s menu and the core focus of Shawa, the fast-casual concept he opened in Westfield London in 2009.
Made to order with a range of salads and sauces in front of a customer, the product is similar to the burrito in terms of both operations and price point.
“The US has done very well with burritos but they are heavy and full of carbs. Shawarma is healthy fast food,” says Kitous.
His logic is sound. Shawarma is currently taking large swathes of the US and Canada by storm and the average UK punter is more familiar with the (comparable) kebab than their transatlantic counterparts. The tricky bit, Kitous explains, is severing the association with booze-fuelled late-night eating. “Unfortunately, kebabs are something people eat when they’re out on the piss. But if we can get it right, Shawa could be much bigger than Comptoir. But we’re a small team. I’d rather not do it than do it badly.”
Kitous has been talking about expanding Shawa for a few years and two more are slated to open this year. Comptoir, meanwhile, might have expanded slowly since it launched at Westfield London, but it retains its status as a brand to watch. The business has been approached numerous times by investors, but for now at least Kitous and managing director Chaker Hanna are content to expand slowly with the help of NatWest and a healthy cashflow. Next month, a 11th Comptoir will open at the new Broadgate Circus development near Liverpool Street station alongside Yauatcha, ETM Group and Aubaine.
The past few years have seen the brand probe the market outside central London with openings in Heathrow and Gatwick airports and – more significantly – a branch in Kingston-upon-Thames. Kitous says the latter is taking longer to bed in than its Zone 1 siblings but he’s happy with its performance. Comptoir is in legals for a site in Manchester, and Kitous expects three further Comptoirs to open this year.
While PizzaExpress et al won’t be losing any sleep just yet, Kitous’ boundless enthusiasm for Lebanese food looks set to see Comptoir become a truly national player. As he says, everybody has a tub of hummus in the fridge, so why not?
Comptoir Libanais is a member of Restaurant’s R200 Club. For information on joining the club simply contact firstname.lastname@example.org.