• Tony Kitous in Comptoir Libanais

Food

Q&A: Tony Kitous

The owner of Levant and Comptoir Libanais on his childhood in Algeria, how he bluffed his way into business, and why Lebanese food should be as popular as Italian

Interview: Mark Riddaway
Image: Dan Lepard

How did you come to be a restaurateur?
I never used to think about it until recently, but everything I have done started in my childhood.
I lived in a little village about an hour away from Algiers, the oldest of seven kids. Ours was a very modest life. Some of my uncles had done very well, self-made, but I was stuck as this underprivileged cousin. Everyone else could afford things, but the notion of pocket money didn’t exist with my dad, so I thought: I need to do my own thing to get some money. We lived across the road from a football ground—the team was like the Man United of Algeria—and whenever they played it would sell out. I’d make some sardine sandwiches and lemonade to sell at the game. I’d sell the food and drink, and make my money. I was eight, nine, 10. I loved it. It all began there.

So how did you end up in London?
When I was 18, after I got my baccalaureate, I wanted to go on holiday, so a friend and I decided to come to London. We had £70 each in our pockets, and that was it. That was the adventure. We told my father we had some friends to stay with, and he believed us, but it wasn’t true. That first night we slept in Victoria station, then we managed to get the number of an Algerian who was living in a squat in Manor House, and we went and stayed there for three months.

When our time was up, I wanted to stay. But my family said I had to go home, so I went home. In the end I talked at my father until he agreed to let me go back. When I arrived back in London, I felt so much pressure—I knew I had to succeed. I gave myself a goal to have my own business within five years. I had two jobs, working 16 hours a day. I never took a day off. I did 10 years’ work in four years and saved every penny I could.

So did you hit your five year goal?
Yes. I was 22, working as a waiter, here where Levant is now. One day I came to work, and there was a notice on the door saying the place was closed, just like that. This was my chance. I called the landlords and said, “Listen, I’m interested in taking the lease.”

I bought a suit and tie and went to meet them. I didn’t even know how to tie a tie at the time—I had to go into a shop, tell them I’d hurt my wrist and ask them to do it for me. I had a briefcase with nothing in it. And I somehow convinced them to let me take the space. I can’t believe it now—my naivety took me a long way. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I didn’t even have a head chef until the day before we opened.

What was the restaurant like back then?
It was an English restaurant called Baboon. I don’t know why—I just chose it; I thought it sounded good. Everyone said, “What an odd thing, calling a restaurant after a monkey.” I used to read in the papers about Marco Pierre White, about Terence Conran, and I wanted them to write about us too, so after a few years I brought in a Michelin-starred chef, a big name, Gary Holyhead, and I spent a lot of money on refurbishing. But then I made a very good decision: to do what I know best—Middle Eastern food. That’s when I turned it into Levant, and everything fell into place.

This place is famous for its atmosphere as well as its food. Was that deliberate?
What I really love is to make customers feel special. I love meeting people, chatting to people, that’s part of my personality. I wanted Levant to be authentic, the whole Middle Eastern experience, but I wanted it to be cosmopolitan and accessible too. I wanted the food to appeal to women, and I wanted the setting to appeal to them too. It was all about small details: the artisan crockery, the incense, the rose petals, the music. My theme was seduction: low lighting, lounging, rich colours.

It clearly worked. What happened next?
As this place took off, I opened another restaurant in Paddington called Levantine, then I bought Pasha from Richard Caring. On the first day, I brought in new cushions, candles everywhere, music. Within a week we changed the whole menu. Within six months we had five times as many customers. We completely refurbished the restaurant without ever closing. We had the builders in during the day until 4pm, then me and my team would clean it all up, then open up for dinner. Unbelievable. How did I have the energy to do that? How did I have the naivety to think it was possible?

Your Comptoir Libanais chain has really taken off, with branches opening around the UK. What’s the thinking there?
When you walk along a British high street, you see French brasseries, sushi places, burger joints, Italian food, Thai food. Almost everywhere is represented—but Lebanese food is not. Why not? I know this about our food: it’s healthy, it’s accessible, it’s not one of those foods you either love or hate, it’s good if you’re vegetarian, and you can eat it every day. I love Indian food, I love Chinese food, but I can’t eat Indian every day, I can’t eat Chinese every day. I could probably eat Italian food every day, and it’s the same with Lebanese—it’s that Mediterranean thing. My dream is to do for Lebanese food what the Italians have done for theirs. And it can happen. Look at hummus. A decade ago, no one had heard of it. Now every single family eats hummus.