How did your upbringing influence your choice of career? "I was born in Melbourne, Australia, where two generations of my family have lived. Lebanese food is all about sharing - many small dishes are put in the centre of the table. At an early age I developed a big appetite. Both of my grandmothers and my mother influenced my behaviour. For some of the big celebrations, like Easter or birthdays, we would have a huge banquet. As a kid, I saw an army of women in the backyard rolling pastry, mincing meats, preparing special dishes for the occasions. At 12, I decided to be a chef. Occasionally, my father would take us to eat Chinese food if he could afford it. There is some French influence in our food, like veal stew cooked with cream. My mother wasn't the experimental cook in the house, my father was. Rabbits, lamb and raw livers were part of our diet. We had lamb tongues, lots of yogurt and Arabic bread."
How did you get involved with Petersham Nurseries Café, in London, where you earned your first Michelin star in October? "In 2011, the chef suddenly left. The owner got in touch and asked if I could support them that summer. I decided to attack London because I wanted a bigger audience for my cookbooks and spices range. I got there in January 2012 with an assistant and started changing the kitchen. The café grows flowers and plants but there was no herb garden. I asked for one and, within days, herbs were rolling in. Lots of the ingredients I use for the café I try to source locally, like seafood shipped daily from Scotland. The food is simple Italian cooking but I am also slowly introducing my Middle Eastern cuisine."
What is your role at Olive, in Hong Kong? "I have been a menu consultant since it opened, eight years ago. For this trip, I came to write a promotional menu and, from that, I see which dishes are well-received and decide what to put on the à la carte menu. The new clay pot is a Turkish dish which requires eight hours of cooking in a traditional coal oven; then it is taken to the table, the sealed topping is cut off and it's poured into a bowl to eat. The version at Olive has been adapted for Asian palates; it is not typically Middle Eastern."
What are your plans for 2013? "I want to explore a bigger market. I feel I have done all I can in Melbourne. I am in a position to negotiate a restaurant in Dubai, maybe for September. The Emirates is the next booming area. Dubai is all about high-end or brands; I am not into brands but it's a good opportunity to show the world that Middle Eastern food is more than dips and kebabs. This also ties into the seventh cookbook I will be doing on the Gulf region. It is a great opportunity to live there to find out references and resources. I will be co-authoring it with my ex-wife, Lucy."
What is the hardest part about putting together a cookbook? "When I travel or eat out, I look for ideas. It is not difficult for me. I can sit here at the table and come up with a recipe in 10 minutes, without testing it first. It usually takes 1 1/2 years to prepare a cookbook. Lucy and I lock ourselves away in the kitchen for four weeks to test the recipes - maybe 400 of them. We want to test 10 to 15 dishes per day, which is really exhausting. We have a special person as our taste tester - we call him Mr Average, because he has an average palate. Actually, he is Lucy's husband. Lucy has a very good palate."