Cuisine - - CONTENTS - Pho­tog­ra­phy Tony Ny­berg

Tracy Whit­mey talks to a young chef bring­ing fine-din­ing tech­niques to tra­di­tional Le­banese food

THE MENU NOTE sums up en­tirely what Gem­mayze Street is all about:

A large part of Le­banese her­itage and cul­ture is con­veyed through our food and the way we share a meal with our loved ones. Gem­mayze Street sym­bol­ises the pil­lars of any Le­banese gath­er­ing: food, hos­pi­tal­ity, love and fam­ily.

“I wanted to cre­ate a vibe like you’re com­ing to my Nana’s house,” says chef and owner Samir Allen, “Like, ‘Come in, we’ll look af­ter you, you are the most im­por­tant per­son in the world right now.’”

That vibe is spun from many strands. Pho­tos of Samir’s fam­ily hang on the res­tau­rant walls, show­ing wed­dings, fam­ily groups, smil­ing rel­a­tives sit­ting around the ta­ble eat­ing. It might be Mum, Liane, who’s run­ning front of house one night, or a cousin pol­ish­ing cut­lery and fill­ing wa­ter glasses. The ‘jeeb’ op­tion on the menu is Samir’s ver­sion of ‘feed me’ or ‘chef’s choice’. “It’s the way our food should be eaten,” he says. “Shar­ing is so much nicer, break­ing bread, pass­ing plates, ev­ery­one gets in­volved straight away.”

Samir grew up in a tight-knit Le­banese-pakeha-new Zealand fam­ily in Dunedin, with a very strong con­nec­tion to his mother’s Le­banese cul­ture. “The Le­banese gather around food, we were al­ways to­gether, sit­ting around food, old and young sit­ting to­gether.” Af­ter-school hours were spent at Pas­sion, his Mum’s res­tau­rant, sit­ting in the kitchen, watch­ing prep.

Sur­rounded by fam­ily and food the young Samir al­ways knew he would be a chef. Aged around seven he re­mem­bers watch­ing Great-aunty Pamela cook­ing chicken and rice, and with it came the re­al­i­sa­tion that the favourite dishes he liked to eat didn’t just ap­pear on the ta­ble, they started here in the kitchen and that he could make it hap­pen. “I don’t re­mem­ber mak­ing a de­ci­sion to be­come a chef, I just knew it, and I re­alised the other day that I’ve set my whole life up to

be a chef. I don’t have an­other plan. I wouldn’t choose any­thing else.”

From the fam­ily kitchen Samir moved to an AUT Diploma in Culi­nary Arts, then spent five years work­ing at Auck­land restau­rants The Grove and Baduzzi. “I had a re­ally deep knowl­edge of my fam­ily’s cook­ing and of Le­banese kitchens, but I didn’t know how a fine-din­ing kitchen worked.” He gives an em­bar­rassed laugh now as he re­mem­bers how, when he fi­nally plucked up the courage to con­tact Ben Bayly, he phoned right in the mid­dle of the lunch ser­vice. Work­ing along­side chefs such as Ben Bayly, Les­lie Hot­ti­aux and Mike Shatura ce­mented his skills. “They’re amaz­ing chefs. I spent half the time just try­ing to get through the day, but they al­ways had time to tell me some­thing. They’re so gen­er­ous with their knowl­edge, I was learn­ing with­out re­al­is­ing what was go­ing on. At The Grove, I never thought of it as a job; it was my life.”

All through child­hood Samir and his brother, Nat, grew up lis­ten­ing to tales about Le­banon, how great it was and about fam­ily liv­ing there. So, in 2014, they jumped at the chance to travel to Le­banon, stay­ing in Beirut, vis­it­ing fam­ily, trav­el­ling through the coun­try

“I wanted to cook what Nana, Mum and my aun­ties cooked at home, but in­cor­po­rat­ing the tech­niques I’d learned.”

and eat­ing, al­ways eat­ing. Stay­ing on af­ter Nat re­turned, Samir be­gan work­ing in his aunty’s restau­rants. For six months he cooked, learn­ing ev­ery­thing he could about food that was both fa­mil­iar yet un­fa­mil­iar. “When I got to Le­banon I re­alised how dif­fer­ent the food was from the food I’d grown up with. The food styles are very dif­fer­ent across the coun­try – my fam­ily was from the moun­tains, a vil­lage called Becharre, and moun­tain food is dif­fer­ent from food at the coast.”

Through­out his time in Le­banon, and sub­se­quently trav­el­ling in Europe, Samir was tin­ker­ing with recipes, think­ing about how he could take back to New Zealand all the things he was learn­ing, email­ing ideas back and forth with Nat. “I knew I wanted to open a res­tau­rant, maybe in 10 years' time.” But fate, and Nat, were hav­ing none of that. While Samir was in Bali, an email mys­te­ri­ously ap­peared from a real­tor in Auck­land: there was space avail­able in St Kevin’s Ar­cade; Was he keen? Which space did he want? Hav­ing lived just down­stairs from the ar­cade, Samir knew it well, and had long had his eye on the space at the rear of the 1929 ar­cade, by the floor-to-ceil­ing win­dows that look out over My­ers Park and the Sky Tower. Af­ter much to­ing and fro­ing the deal was done and the mys­tery solved – the real­tor had orig­i­nally ap­proached Nat about tak­ing space in the ar­cade for his cloth­ing brand, More­pork. Nat said, “Not for me thanks, but my brother wants to run a Le­banese res­tau­rant – here’s his email ad­dress.”

Re­turn­ing to New Zealand in Jan­uary 2016, Samir opened Gem­mayze Street in July. “It’s named af­ter a street in Beirut, which is su­per-cool, like the K Road of Beirut, full of restau­rants and street per­form­ers.”

There was no ques­tion what type of food Gem­mayze Street would of­fer. “I wanted to cook what Nana, Mum and my aun­ties cooked at home,

but in­cor­po­rat­ing the tech­niques I’d learned from work­ing with Ben Bayly. I want to show peo­ple that there’s more to Le­banese food than hum­mus, falafel and kebabs.”

An ex­am­ple of this is the mihshee jazar, a stuffed-car­rot dish fea­tured on the menu. Tra­di­tion­ally the dish is a hol­lowed car­rot, stuffed with mince and rice flavoured with car­away. Samir adds his flair with de­hy­drated quinoa puffed up for crispy­ness, “It’s not tra­di­tional but it adds, it doesn’t take away. A lot of Le­banese peo­ple come to the res­tau­rant and they say, ‘It doesn’t look like our food, but it tastes like our our food.’”

When Samir was tri­alling recipes for the res­tau­rant, he would cook and the fam­ily would cri­tique. “They’d sit around say­ing, ‘This is not right, that’s not right,’ be­cause I was not cook­ing it ex­actly how we’d do it at home, but try­ing to do it my way. Then one day Nana saw an ar­ti­cle about Gem­mayze Street in a magazine. She said, ‘Fi­nally I un­der­stand what you’re try­ing to do. You’re do­ing it re­ally well and I’m not go­ing to tell you how to cook any more.’”

Samir wants to chal­lenge the way peo­ple think about Le­banese food. “The food we serve here is not com­pletely Le­banese, not com­pletely Pakeha. My dif­fer­ent his­to­ries come to­gether at Gem­mayze Street, just as dif­fer­ent cul­tures are what makes New Zealand what it is. Ev­ery­one has brought some­thing here and we’ve all come to­gether and cre­ated some­thing spe­cial.”

Samir thinks of the res­tau­rant as a fam­ily place where ev­ery­one can hang out – and his fam­ily does just that. Cousins are al­ways pop­ping by, he’s hosted lots of birth­days and fam­ily events. “In our fam­ily we call it the new Nana’s house.”

“I’m so priv­i­leged to have this place, not be­cause of me, it’s the Bens, the Les­lies, Mum and Dad, my brother, aun­ties – it’s for all of them.”

Gem­mayze Street chef-owner, Samir Allen

Samir in the kitchen

THIS PAGE TOP Nana Pauline BOT­TOM Young Samir with his NanaOP­PO­SITE CLOCK­WISE FROMTOP LEFT Gem­mayze Street is sit­u­ated in the his­toric St Kevins Ar­cade; Dad Richard, Un­cle Matthew and Samir; Aunty Tracey; cousins Amal and Khadija; Mum Liane

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