This story sums up what i love about eat and greet (can i say that?) - Amazing people, amazing stories, family, culture, AUTHENTICITY and the role food plays in relation to all of those. Family and food are everything. I grew up with parents that insisted on dinners around the table every night and i honestly believe that is why i can have this little project with my sister and class my family amongst my closest friends. The Aasaf family have not had it easy; packing a bag and leaving your homeland takes guts. Tony and his wife Yolanda opened Phoenician Falafel to give a better life for their kids but in doing so wellington also gained its only authenic shawarma joint ( "authentic kebab" is an oxymoron!). Elie and i talked candidly after the interview about growing up with VERY DIFFERENT lunchboxes to THOSE OF our playground compadres. Elie would end up selling his lunches to his friends to buy a pie, whereas i would just lump the weird looks and teasing. STICKS AND STONES RIGHT?! But that is probably why Elie is the one running his own business today!
I chatted with Tony and his son Elie in the Cuba Street shop one afternoon. I had a killer cold and was plied with Tony's homemade Za'atar and garlic paste. Reading back over the interview below I'm now not surprised that I was miraculously better the next day.
When did you come to NZ?
Tony: 17th January 1995.
Why did you decide to move to NZ?
Tony: Political reasons.*
Why did you decide to open Phoenician Falafel?
Tony: Before we moved, we heard there was no Lebanese food in NZ. So we brought all of the recipes over, not to open a business, but just for us. When we got here there were a lot of places saying they did shawarma, so my wife and I went many times to different places but found nothing like we had back home. My wife was looking for a job and she would have to work every day 11pm until 2pm and I said, “No way! This is no way to work - for only $6 an hour.” So we decided to open our own shop. I was working at the time with a guy who was one of the trustees of the Embassy Theatre building. I said to him, "When you have a small space, even just two square metres, I want it to open a falafel shop. Only falafel."
Elie: They were originally only going to do falafel. In Lebanon you go to a shop just for falafel, or a shawarma or sausage shop. We put all the Lebanese style shops into one.
Tony: It is 23 square meters. We added in the mezzanine for the preparation area. It was my idea to put that in there - you are supposed to have five square metres in the kitchen per person, but we couldn’t do it. We would have to sell from the window! And in 1997 we opened the shop.
What do you miss about Lebanon?
Tony: I miss nothing! Only family.
Do you miss the food?
Tony: No! Because the ingredients here are way, way, way better than there.
Elie: The quality of chicken, the quality of lamb and the product here supersedes anything from there.
Tony: And anything we can’t buy in NZ, I make at home. I grow my own Lebanese herbs. We make our own cheese, a bit like haloumi. We used to do a very popular thyme pizza and we always get the special thyme from Lebanon; my wife’s father would send it here. He is getting old now, so I grow it in my garden and supply it to this shop and my shop when we have it on the menu.
Who taught you to cook?
Tony: Honestly, I hate cooking! The first six months when I wanted to eat in my shop, I asked my wife to please make me a sandwich. After six months I had to make it myself!
Elie: When they opened the shop I was 12 years old. I wasn’t put to work, so I spent my days hanging out on Courtenay Place waiting for them to finish work. When we wanted to eat, we would just come in and make our own food. Back then they never opened on Sundays, so at 16 I said, “Why don’t I open Sundays for you guys?" At first it was really slow and I’d just hang out in the shop with my boys but slowly it picked up and became a regular day, so that is where it first started. Mum and Dad taught me everything from that point.
What prompted you to open the new place?
Elie: That was a long time after. I stopped Sundays when I went away to the Navy. Then I came back and opened up a clothing store called ‘Boombox’. I had that for three and half years but the space fell through. I was looking for another space and I found the Cuba shop, but Dad suggested opening another Phoenician because it was working so well and felt like it would fit into Cuba perfectly.
What do you think makes Phoenician Falafel special?
Tony: Everything is unique to us. No one does what we do. Some people lately have tried to do it but it is not similar. They still use carrot and lots of different sauces. Most of them, when they want to eat proper food, they come to my shop. We do authentic, 100%.
How do you feel about the NZ version of shawarma?
Tony: That isn’t authentic. 17 years ago you couldn’t buy tahini or Lebanese bread. So they used yoghurt and tortillas.
Elie: But if you use the non-authentic ingredients, the profit margins are higher. Originally the word kebab means “something on a stick.”
Tony: The word kebab, do you know kafta? That is a kebab. That is what a kebab is in Lebanon, not carrot and yoghurt!
What is your favourite dish on the menu?
Tony: It is new, the venison shish. Before, it was lamb shish.
Elie: It changes, sometimes I only eat chicken shish for ages, then I only eat lamb. But I like the sojok.
Tony: We can’t eat our favourite every day!
Elie: Yeah, your favourite becomes not your favourite because you eat it all the time!
Tony: That's how the platter came about: my daughter and her husband would come in to eat at our shop and got bored of the same thing every day. One day my wife offered to do some rice, salad and meat. A customer came in and said, “I want that.” It wasn’t on the menu, but it happened so many times, we ended up putting it on the menu and calling it the Phoenician Platter. At first we went through five cups of rice a week, now we do ten cups a day!
Do you change anything for NZ eaters?
Elie: We decided to educate people instead of changing our food.
What challenges do you have finding ingredients?
Elie: The lamb. We use over 100kgs a week. To have a constant supply at a decent price is hard. It all goes overseas.
Tony: When we first tried to make the falafel in 1997, I tried to find the names of the spices in English and it was so hard. I found a place in Lyall Bay with lots of spices and my wife went through the whole place just smelling the spices and identifying them by smell.
Elie: They had no translator, so they had to work it all out by smell.
Tony: Like cardamom powder and fenugreek.
Elie: Now you just go to Moore Wilson’s and all the spices are in one place.
What ingredient can you not live without?
Tony: I can eat 2kgs of food but if I do not have Lebanese bread with my meal I do not feel full.
Elie: Red meat and herbs. Herbs add so much to a dish.
Where do you like to eat in Wellington?
Tony: I didn’t enjoy any food when I first came here. But the first time I enjoyed food in NZ was in Hastings at a Thai restaurant. I can't remember the name.
Elie: He is so picky when it comes to eating out in NZ!
Tony: I really like Thai food, but my favourite is in Hastings.
Elie: I eat heaps at Havana, I like Martin Bosley's and Rams, oh those chilli dumplings, salt and pepper squid and black bean beef. Rams is easily my go-to place. I go there twice a week. Pizza Pomodoro and Tommy Millions, he is awesome - such a dude.
Tony: The best pizza I know, my wife makes. The best burger too. Something she does makes it tastes better.
Elie: It is the love!
On a day off what do you like to eat?
Elie: Sunday is a big eating day.
Tony: Every Sunday.
Elie: We get the whole family together and make something good. Mostly BBQs - it is our favourite thing. Amazing Lebanese BBQ, 40 dishes all on the table. We have a pretty big family now, so everyone gets together and all my boys know to come over on Sundays!
Who do you admire?
Tony: Chef Ramzi, different to Chef Ramsey- he is from Lebanon. He has lots of books. But he never gives his secrets away.
Do you have a vivid childhood remember around food?
Tony: We have garlic paste that we have with the chicken shish. In Lebanon, when you buy a cooked chicken, it always comes with this garlic paste. Growing up everyone would fight for the small amount of garlic paste, but no one knew how to make it. At first we always made the garlic paste with mayonnaise. One day, in 2008, I was watching a food show in Lebanon and the host asked the chef about it and he told her how to make it. From then on, we stopped using mayonnaise and only used this recipe. It was exactly the taste I remember from my childhood.
Elie: I used to hate all Lebanese food! I used to eat everything in sandwich form. Dad would try and force-feed Lebanese food to me. I was bad, eh?
Tony: He was bad.
Elie: As a kid I couldn’t stand it. But at around 14 I started to eat it again. Prior to that I would eat lots of sandwich meat. I was fussy, but now I’ll try anything.
What would you have for your last supper?
Tony: Za’atar. When war is happening, there is always so much disease. After the war in Lebanon, there was not much disease. I think Za’atar saved everyone. They analysed it and found za’atar has medicinal properties.
Elie: A really nice eye fillet, mashed potato and green beans. Or a big dirty burger.
What is the future for Phoenician Falafel?
Tony: A few more years and I will leave it to Elie.
Elie: We have been looking at a few different locations and also looking at selling the product itself. We are going to sell the garlic paste in Moore Wilson’s and the hot sauce I’m making.
Tony: If tomorrow, I could have enough money to live for me and my wife, I would stop working. 22 years I worked in Lebanon, I had an endangered life, it is not a life for children. I started this business at 46, now I am 62. I think it is enough.
Elie: It is about time he retires as Mum and Dad haven’t seen the world. I want them to go and see places that mean so much to them, like the Vatican. Hopefully send them on a couple of world trips.
Tony and Yolanda's Shop
Phoencian Falafel, 10 Kent Terrace, Wellington
04 385 9997
Phoencial Cuisine, 245 Cuba St, Wellington
04 385 9998
* This is pretty bad-ass and I never thought I would have to say this but the rest of this story was ‘off the record’. I encourage you to get to know Tony, maybe one day he will elaborate and tell you the full story, that or you might pry it out of me. It is pretty unbelievable. Oooh the mystery!