In the past few months, Edouard Massih – owner of a small Lebanese deli in Greenpoint, Brooklyn – has received press that most small business owners would kill for: a long, glowing profile in New York Magazine; an interview in The New Yorker about the 26-year-old’s ‘tantalising’ food; plus coverage in Thrillist, Eater, Time Out and local news. And amid it all – and in the middle of a pandemic – a seven-day schedule packed with cooking, planning and plotting even bigger things.
Edouard, also known as Edy, is trying to build a food empire. ‘It’s very difficult,’ he says of the demands of the modern chef-entrepreneur. ‘You have to be the face, the voice, the cook. You have to be authentic and care about your culture, heritage, everything.’
Born in Lebanon, Edy moved to the US when he was 10. By his early 20s, he was at the helm of his own catering company, supplying food for a ballooning client base of brides, bar mitzvahs and fashion shoots through word of mouth. It was only last summer that he made the transition to shop owner – the result of a bit of luck, good timing and a woman named Maria.
Back in the late seventies, Maria Puk opened Maria’s Deli, a market in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, serving sandwiches and Polish specialties. When Edy moved to the area in 2015, the pair became fast friends, and they often talked about how Edy could one day own the place. When Maria’s closed temporarily during the pandemic, the opportunity finally presented itself. Edy used savings from his catering gigs to buy the 850 sq ft space from Maria and transformed it into a specialty Lebanese food shop and deli.
Today, Edy and his team sell a full menu – from breakfast (bacon, egg and cheese empanadas; labneh toast) and lunch (Lahm bi Ajin, a Lebanese meat pie), to coffee and baked goods (salted tahini brownies; lemon rosewater cakes), and a fridge full of mezze (from baba ganoush to honeycomb ricotta).
Since opening, he’s felt the heat – not only from the stresses of running a food-service job in a tough market, but from other Lebanese people. ‘They put this pressure on me, saying, “This isn’t authentic” or “This isn’t how my grandmother made it”. But it’s not about how your grandmother made it, you know? It doesn’t matter if she added pine nuts or an extra lemon or used lamb instead of beef. That isn’t what it’s about. It’s about introducing Lebanese food to more people in Brooklyn, whether they’re American, French or Russian. This is for you – but it’s also for them.’
His long-term goal is to grow the business enough so that he can step back from the shopkeeper role and work on a cookbook and then, perhaps, get into television. Until then, it’s full steam ahead. ‘Even on a day when things are running smoothly, there’s always something. There’s never a dull moment – ever, ever.’
‘I’ve been in my current apartment since December 2020. I lived in a beautiful townhouse before this, but the owners sold it during the pandemic, so I got kicked out. A lot of townhouses were sold, actually, and a lot of people moved. Moving in December was difficult, with the store and the holidays. I only had a month to find a place, and our deli fridge broke that week. It was just a lot.’
To-do lists are one of Edy’s big tricks for getting stuff done. ‘I have lists for everything,’ he says. ‘We have a shopping list in the kitchen, a front-of-house list on a whiteboard, a prep list on the fridge, a social media list, ordering and paper goods lists; I have a to-do list with my assistant. I think catering taught me that it was the only way to stay on top of things, especially in a kitchen and running a business.’
Into the crystal ball
Where does Edy want to be in one year’s time? ‘I’d like to see the store run on its own,’ he says.’The plan for me is to start getting out of the kitchen so I can focus on other things and make the business grow. But it’s not very realistic. I laugh and say I’m going to take two days out of the kitchen and even that doesn’t happen. So to take seven days out of the kitchen... Maybe in a year. Unless I’m out of the kitchen, I’m not going to give the cookbook the time it needs.’
What's for breakfast?
‘I love our bacon, egg and cheese empanada with everything seasoning and tomato jam. I’ve actually never liked something that I invented as much as this. I could eat it literally every single day and not be angry. I also try my soups in the morning, which is a great way to start your digestive system. It’s soothing for the body, especially on a cold day.’
Becoming pet-friendly (...maybe)
Recently Edy has been thinking about getting a pet – a dog, though, definitely not a cat. ‘I absolutely despise cats. I lived with one when I first moved to NY and that cat made me hate cats forever,’ he says.
‘I grew up in Lebanon and we’re not really pet people in the Middle East, but ever since owning the store I don’t know what’s going on with me. Everybody that comes in has a dog and everybody I work with is in love with dogs. It’s brushed off on me and I’ve been thinking about getting a pet. I’m going to be dog-sitting for the first time ever in a few weeks, so we’ll see how that goes. This is really outside of my comfort zone.’
This article was first published in Courier issue 40, April/May 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.