So, let’s start at the beginning. You appear to have grown up in a family that really appreciated food and drink. There was your grandfather’s olive farm in Jordan, and you talk vividly of food served by your mother in your ancestral home in Bethlehem. Could you tell us a little about your formative years as they relate to food, how did you end up in the UK?
In Palestinian culture (as in much of the Middle East), food is a way of showing hospitality, of honouring your family, friends and guests. The culture when I was growing up was one of abundance – lots of dishes and mezze for everyone to share, with a feeling that there was always more to come. I love that way of eating and entertaining.
And the flavours of home – from zingy lemon dressings, to sharp, tangy sumac spices and fragrant rice – these were the things I wanted to bring with me to the UK. I came here to start a business more than 35 years ago, after university in the States. I love London – it has a vibrancy and mix of cultures that’s unique.
Now onto the restaurant itself – what’s it all about and where did the idea for that come from? As far as I know, your background is in entrepreneurship – you’ve done very well as a film producer – you also had another business that was in health or cosmetics? And you chose to set up Tabun in Soho because you’d spent so much time in the area on media-related business. How has your first year been?
I’ve been lucky to be able to start businesses in so many areas. I created a brand for hair and bath and body called Te Tao that gained distribution in Boots, Superdrug, Tesco etc before going into film production. That was inspired by my wife Shamim’s work as a novelist and screen writer. She had optioned a script in Hollywood but preferred to try an independent route – so I took on the role of producer and it’s been an amazing journey and an incredible learning curve.
We’ve made 3 features together, and while I was waiting for her to finish her fourth book, I was quietly working on a plan for a restaurant. It seemed to me there was a clear gap in the restaurant world – Palestinian food is traditionally eaten at home, not in restaurants, and I thought that opening Tabun Kitchen would be a fantastic way to bring those flavours and traditions to the UK, in a more modern, fresher, lighter way.
What is Palestinian food all about? I am certainly not an expert on foods of that area of the world, so I guess the closest thing it reminded me of was Lebanese food (and it was delicious!). Could you tell us a little more? Is it eaten in the meze style, as we experienced at the restaurant? Is there a signature dish?
Palestinian food does indeed have some similarities with Lebanese – for instance hummus and falafel are found in both cultures. But the way of making dishes differs slightly (our falafel is stuffed with a delicate onion and sumac centre, for instance) and Palestine has its own signature dishes that you won’t find anywhere else.
An example is Musakhan Chicken – roasted with sumac and caramelised onions, served over ‘tabun’ bread and scattered with pine nuts. Also Kanfeh, which is a delicious dessert made with Akkawi cheese (from Acre in Palestine) and shredded pastry.
What are your personal most and least favourite foods?
I don’t eat steak or any red meat really and I can never get on with mushrooms! Favourite foods are too numerous to mention but I really love Fatet Jaj chicken – a lemony chicken dish served over rice with a tangy hummus sauce, toasted pine nuts, chopped chilli and toasted garlic. It’s our most popular dish at Tabun Kitchen!
What’s a ‘day in your life’ like? Could you give us an insight into the Palestinian food business? Are you still producing films?
No two days are alike. Most weekdays see me up early – usually early enough to squeeze in some exercise on the treadmill while I catch up with emails or listen to an audiobook. Then I’ll go to Tabun Kitchen. In the first year, it’s been a tremendous challenge to build the right team and create the processes and systems that will allow us to grow to more sites next year.
Sometimes there will be tasting and tweaking of menus and dishes, and often, business meetings over lunch or dinner. I try to spend as many evenings as possible home with Shamim and the boys.
What’s your greatest/most memorable professional moment been, so far?
I’m lucky that I have to think about this, because I have several to choose from. The premieres of our films have been amazing experiences, as has seeing my original hair products on a supermarket shelf. Recently though, I am thrilled at how much people seem to love the atmosphere and food at Tabun Kitchen.
There is nothing better than being in the restaurant when it is full, and buzzing with people having a fabulous time over delicious food. Ultimately, it’s been a creative life; I love creating brands and products from nothing.
Where do you get your ideas?
I listen to a lot of audio books. I love meeting people who are passionate in their fields. All these things feed into the way I think about the world and see things. I often find myself able to spot gaps and am lucky to have the ability to build a business from those. But they are always related to something I am passionate about and I think people feel that.
What’s your philosophy, summed up in a sentence?
Life is a gift. Enjoy every day and use it well.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had, how did you overcome it, and what did you learn from it?
I think starting any business from scratch is an enormous challenge. There’s inevitably a point where you wonder what you were thinking, and how you can possibly make it work. Going from there is the challenge and I think it takes passion, tenacity and support – Shamim and I work closely on everything and it’s great to have someone in the trenches with you.
I’ve learned to take a breath (most of the time) and try to carve out time to focus on the big picture, rather than getting caught up in the million small things that are always clamouring for attention.
Who’s the person who’s most inspired you in your work – food industry or otherwise? Is there anyone that you draw inspiration or strength from? Do you have any specific culinary influences?
The recipes at Tabun Kitchen are from my family traditions and archives – my mother’s family is from Jerusalem and my father’s is from Bethlehem so just the land, the produce, the tastes are inspiring.
What do you enjoy most and least about what you do?
I love learning about the restaurant industry and meeting people who’ve had success and learning from them. I also love meeting guests at Tabun Kitchen. What I like least is the admin side of things ☺
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs (and particularly food entrepreneurs) who’d want the kind of results that you’ve had?
Be passionate about what you are doing – that passion communicates itself in everything from the food to the design. Learn as much as you can about the field you want to be in. Build a good team around you from early on, and always allow for more capitalisation than you think you will need.
If you weren’t doing what you do now, what would you be doing instead?
Coming up with another business idea! Or perhaps continuing to produce films.
If you could get anyone to try Tabun Kitchen’s food (fictional or real, living or dead) who would you pick and which of the dishes would you like them to try? Assume that they go on to be your brand ambassador…
Perhaps the UK’s major national food reviewers ☺ And it would have to be the traditional Palestinian dishes, from Lamb Makloubeh (slow-cooked lamb over savoury rice), Musakhan Chicken and Fatet Jaj. I think we also have London’s best hummus!
What’s your ultimate aim and goal for your businesses and your careers? If you could achieve anything with it, what would you pick? Money and reality are no obstacle, so shoot for the moon…
I would love for Tabun Kitchen to become a worldwide brand that also acts as an ambassador for Palestine and its food and culture. My ideal would be to grow and sell our own produce from Palestine and to establish a culinary institute there.
Where next for you and Tabun Kitchen?
And we always ask three customary ridiculous questions…
If you were forced to live on one food for the rest of your life (assume that your metabolism becomes specifically adapted to use this as your sole source of calories, so you had to eat this to survive) – which would you pick, and why?
A mixed salad. Cheating because there are a few things in there, but I love a salad with every meal!
If you had to employ any character from Game of Thrones to come and work with you guys at Tabun Kitchen, who would you pick, and why?
I don’t watch it, but Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister) was in our last film, Despite the Falling Snow, so I’d pick him. I would have him keep an eye on the kitchen and front of house, and terrify anyone who didn’t produce 5 star food or service!
If you were forced to fend off an alien invasion and singlehandedly save mankind using only the tools available at the restaurant, how would you do it?
I guess we could overcook falafel and use them to throw at the invaders – but as I come from a land of war and occupation, I’d prefer to try diplomacy and see if we couldn’t make peace while enjoying some homemade moutabal aubergine dip and fresh tabun bread, not to mention some Palestinian-inspired cocktails. Guaranteed to disarm even an alien….