Twice a year, at Easter and Christmas, Elie Assaf cooks for two days with his mum before the family gathers around the table to share a meal of typically Lebanese proportions.
The food is simple, elegant and plentiful piles of handmade pastries, herbaceous tabbouleh and chilled arak and the process of eating is a leisurely one, punctuated by conversation, laughter and dancing. It’s this experience he wants to share in a cookbook and dinner series, inspired and named after his mother, Yola.
The Assaf family moved to Wellington from Beirut when Elie was 10. Despite growing up around food and working at the family restaurant, Phoenician Cuisine which they still own and operate today Elie was a fussy eater, preferring cheese toasties to Lebanese food.
A visit to Beirut at age 16 opened his mind to its food and flavours and he returned with a renewed interest in cooking with his mum.
He went on to open two restaurants in Wellington Five Boroughs and Five and Dime but wasn’t cooking Lebanese food.
“I knew how to do it all but I wasn’t paying attention to the fact that I’ve got this skill underneath me that I should be using and that defines me as a person.”
In 2017, he visited Beirut during olive harvest and worked at his uncle’s orchard. Every day he cooked lunch for the workers with his aunty; old school dishes that were “familiar but new” and began documenting his family recipes.
“I felt like I had been missing a huge part of my life. I thought, I need to get this stuff down on paper not just for myself but for my cousins in New Zealand, for our traditions to continue.”
He moved to Auckland last year and became head chef at Williams Eatery, where his identity now peppers the menu. It's subtle in places a flurry of fresh herb salad or a dollop of smoky eggplant flesh more obvious in others the soujouk sausage is made using a family spice mix and served on charred, chewy pita; and the silkiest hummus in town, one of Yola's recipes, is served on toast with charred onions and butter beans.
The recipes in the Yola cookbook and dinner series will be traditional, with no adaptation of Elie's style or ideas.
“There is something special about the way Mum does it and I just want to preserve her skills and her legacy. She has worked so hard for us to be where we are, to have these skills, to even be in New Zealand. So honouring her and her hard work is initially what this is about.”
At the dinner series, which will coincide with the book's release later in the year, Elie says people can expect Lebanese dishes they haven't seen before, including raw dishes, and lamb tongue served cold with herb salad.
The book, with sections on hot and cold mezze, barbecue and a chapter on hummus, will also detail how to eat the Lebanese way. “In Lebanon when you go out, you don’t go out to night clubs, you go out to have dinner, but the dinner turns into the party. It’s a four-hour experience of eating, dancing, sheesha.
It’s about not being in a hurry to move to the next event. This is the event. We’re here to eat and we are here for each other’s company.”