The Next Generation: the Massouds of Ilili, NYC
By Kathleen Squires
September 6, 2013
Photo - From left: Philippe, Georges, Alexandre
Sitting in the stylish Flatiron restaurant ilili, it’s nearly impossible not to notice the restaurant’s emphasis on detail. It pervades the refined Mediterranean/Lebanese menu, with flourishes like sour cherry enhancing the tabbouleh; it’s in the dramatic lighting, which flatters every corner of the room. Attention to detail is most apparent, however, in the accommodating service. Hospitality like this can be learned. In the case of ilili’s Massoud brothers, Philippe, 42, and Alexandre, 48, it is also hereditary, spanning three generations.
The story of Massoud hospitality begins in the mountains of Lebanon, where Philippe and Alexandre’s grandfather, the son of a stonemason, deemed his father’s work too hard and unrewarding. He decided to change his path, walking three hours to the city of Beirut each day to work as a cook assistant and eventually, a chef, in wealthy homes. He subsequently opened a butcher shop, then a restaurant, before opening a hotel in the mountains, where Philippe and Alexandre’s father, Georges, worked as a teenager.
Georges was a natural for the hotel and restaurant business. He studied hospitality and cooking in St. Mortiz, Switzerland, before going on to open the revered Coral Beach Hotel, the first resort and hotel in Lebanon that was owned and operated by Lebanese. The resort was renowned for its seaside location, and its popular French and Polynesian restaurants.
Fast-forward to war-torn Beirut, 1986, when Georges was kidnapped and killed at the age of 50. Losing their father made Philippe and Alexandre determined to carry on the family legacy of hospitality. After a long, arduous path, the brothers realized their dream when ilili opened in 2007. Next week, they expand on the concept when ilili box, a kiosk on Fifth Avenue serving Middle Eastern street food, opens three blocks south of the restaurant.
Philippe, who is also the chef at ilili and ilili box, is at work on a book about the family’s fascinating history. He and Alexandre sat down with us to share a preview.
Philippe Massoud: When we were children we lived in Beirut right across from the Holiday Inn. When war broke out in the city it was called the ‘War of the Hotels,’ because all the hotels in the area were attacked and looted. So, we were evacuated - in a tank - from the apartment, and we lived at the beach in the Coral Beach Hotel for the remainder of the war in Lebanon, because our apartment was bombed out, robbed and burned out. Living there, our bedrooms were hotel rooms. My parents had their rooms, and the kids had their rooms. So, we don't live a typical kind of family life.
That’s when as kids we started going into the kitchen and playing in the patisserie. We would start stealing all the petit fours and watching how to make pastry creams. I was a little five-year-old, an annoyance, I'm sure. But little did I know that, by osmosis, I was absorbing all of this and setting my journey into this industry.
Alexandre Massoud: My father always wanted us to study outside the family the business. But then there was the tragic death of my father. For me, it was like an abrupt end to our legacy in the hospitality industry and I wanted to restart it.
Philippe: My father did not want to have any of us working in the industry, because he thought it was a non-forgiving industry. You're always on your toes. You always have a sense of urgency. You have to realize that my father--God rest his soul--was running a restaurant hotel as a Christian in a divided Beirut, and we were on the Muslim side with a staff that was equally divided between Christians and Muslims. He was fighting off militiamen trying to come and kidnap Christians, and militiamen trying to threaten our, and guests' safety. Bombs were falling here and there, and he was trying to keep power and water coming to the hotel. So, I would get kicked out of the kitchen as soon as my father would come in. I would leave, and then wait for him to leave and then sneak back in. But I think he eventually realized that it was a lost cause to convince me to be out of the business. He eventually did allow me to work at the beach restaurant. Unfortunately, that was right before he died.
Alexandre: Philippe and I lived together as kids. We were very close to each other. In 1994, when Philippe was studying, I told him, “Once you are done studying, we need to go back into the business and do something.” We went that summer back to Beirut. Everybody would tell us, “You have such a big name and such a legacy, you should come back to Lebanon and try to do something here.” Everybody was pushing us to do it, so we tried it. We found a location in Beirut but, unfortunately, it didn't work out. Both Philippe and I still loved the US and thought there was much bigger potential there. So we came back and decided to move to New York and try a fast food concept based on pita bread.
Philippe: We moved to New York in 1994, young, full of ambition and strong blood. We hit the pavement and we visited no less than 650 locations. We made offers on about six of them, and we lost every single offer because we had never previously operated in New York. We had landlords hanging up on us. Their first question would be, “Have you run a restaurant in New York before?” We would say, “No.” And they would hang up in our faces.
Alexandre: We quickly realized that New York was a totally different beast and you needed experience and a much bigger budget than the budget that we had. Every year we tried something different and eventually after 13 years, in 2007 it finally worked out. Everything lined up - the investor, the space, the location - even though we opened at the worst possible time.
Philippe: What we originally wanted to do was open a fast casual concept of Lebanese cuisine and do it right. But we failed miserably. New York really gave us a sucker punch, so I decided to start working in the front-of-the-house side of the business. I knew I could cook, but I needed to learn the business. So, I continued my path and career into the industry, while still trying to continue to open this restaurant, which eventually had morphed into a full-scale fine casual tablecloth Lebanese concept. Ilili opened in 2007 because we never gave up on our dream.
We never gave up because I think hospitality families have thicker skins. I think we have perseverance and dedication at a level that maybe is different from other families. And the joie de vivre that we have is unique. There's nothing better than working for hours on a meal and then sitting down and opening up that amazing bottle of wine and conversing about life and pining about the future.
Alexandre: The hospitality industry is about taking care of guests and making sure that your guests are enjoying it and having a memorable experience. I think we, as Lebanese or Mediterranean people, have that same ethic. I used to say to my friends from the US, “You guys go and watch sports on Sunday. We, on Sunday, sit at the table and eat lunch for three hours.” That is our national sport in Lebanon - to have lunch with anywhere between 15 to 25 people at the same table. That’s from our heritage, our family and our father.
The most important thing my father taught us is to keep standards as high as possible and to never cut on quality, and to always strive for perfection. My son, George, who is named after my father and is 10 years old, already has the food bug in him. I think that, unlike my father who was opposed, I will take the American approach and say, “Do whatever you want to do as long as you enjoy it and it's something that you want to do. Go for it.”
Philippe: 27 years after his passing, people are still talking about my father and the hospitality that he gave them. It shows me that the impact he had on people by being hospitable can be lifelong. That’s what we try to teach our staff. For me, if I'm able to generate half the respect that my father generated in regards to the legacy that he left behind, and the way many of his customers felt because of the way he led his team, then I think I would have succeeded. And if I can have that kind of mark on my customers, and then I can die and go to heaven with a big smile.