Gay Lebanese chef Edouard Massih celebrates equality and diversity

As an openly gay Lebanese entrepreneur, chef Edouard advocates for the LBGTQ community, donating his experience and resources on his free time. He’s currently hosting private dinners where a portion of the proceeds will be donated to Helem, a Lebanese non-profit and the first LGBT advocacy group in the Arab world.

Born in Lebanon, Chef Edouard is a Brooklyn-based private chef and writer inspired by the flavours and colours of the Middle East. Chef Edouard’s unique take on Mediterranean cuisine stems from the recipes he grew up perfecting in his grandmother’s kitchen. Every dish has a dash of his grandfather’s olive oil from Lebanon that lends itself to a taste and love truly unmatched. 

Tell us some things about you to get to know you better.

Born in Lebanon, I’m a Brooklyn-based private chef and caterer inspired by the flavors and colors of the Middle East. My unique take on Mediterranean cuisine stems from the recipes I grew up perfecting in my grandmother’s kitchen. After my family immigrated to the U.S., I tirelessly researched to find the right ingredients that were not easily accessible stateside. I began experimenting with techniques and substituted elements in order to recreate the distinct essence of Lebanese and Greek food with a modern twist. Because cooking for others is not only a customized service but also a deeply personal experience, every dish has a dash of my grandfather’s olive oil from Lebanon that lends itself to a taste and love truly unmatched.

I believe that good, thoughtful food creates community. I believe that food is a universal language that brings people together, creating common ground.

Since when did you know you wanted to become a chef?

I knew that I loved food and cooking at the young age of four. As early as I can remember, I spent most of my childhood in the kitchen with either my grandmother or my housekeeper Kivi. When I moved to America and started cooking Lebanese food for my family and friends, that’s when I knew I wanted to become a chef and share my culinary passion with others.

What were your influences when you were a child and where does your  take on Mediterranean cuisine stem from?

My childhood influences are my grandmother Odette and my housekeeper Kivi. They are the two people I hung out with the most after school and all they did was cook. My grandmother was an amazing chef, she spent all day planning, prepping, and cooking the next meal. She hosted every holiday, birthday, engagement, or baby shower. Even on her days off, she would make baked goods that she could freeze for a lazy day. My housekeeper Kivi learned how to cook from both of my grandmothers so she developed her own unique style that was a little Syrian, a little French, and a little Lebanese. She knew how to make everything. Every day after school I would sit with her in the kitchen watching her prep dinner for the family. From making cakes to defrosting meat for the next day, she still did it all and still kept up with house duties! They were the people that influenced me to work in the kitchen.

Growing up in Lebanon in a small Greek Orthodox town called Anfeh, I was heavily influenced by the beach. We ate fresh seafood that was caught that morning, simply salted and grilled, served with fresh veggies, salad, pita bread, and some mezze dips. My life was always surrounded by food so all my influence originated from that environment. Most of my catering is done family style. I enjoy being surrounded by family and friends at a dining table filled with a plethora of large platters of home-cooked Lebanese dishes, baked savoury pastries, salads, grilled kebabs, and all the dips.

Have you faced any difficulties as an openly gay Lebanese entrepreneur?

The biggest difficulties I faced throughout my journey was coming out to my loved ones. My family is very religious and had difficulty comprehending my actions and the realization that this is normal. At first they wanted to send me to a doctor to “fix me”, however,  after a long journey of not talking, overcoming barriers, and finally long discussions, things have come full circle. My family is very proud of me and support every move I make.

How important is activism for you?

Activism is very important to me, especially knowing where I come from and the life that I live now. I have a voice that can be heard and a platform to make a difference in the community. Most of my activism is for the LGBTQ+ community in Beirut because it holds a very dear place in my heart. Being an outspoken man in NYC, I am always trying to bring awareness to allies and fellow Lebanese people who are not aware of all the strides the LGBTQ+ community is making in Beirut.

How are you supporting non-profit LGBTQ+ organisations through your work?

Food is the best way to bring people together and raise money for a good cause, which is why I have hosted many pop-ups throughout the years to benefit various LGBTQ+ organizations. I throw events to bring awareness to organizations such as Helem, a non-profit organization that started the first ever LGBTQ+ shelter in the Middle East. I have also helped out with events for Lebmesh, an organization that has stood behind all the laws and bills to improve the rights for LGBTQ+ people in Lebanon. Recently, they passed a bill to serve all citizens, of any sexual orientation, at hospitals.

How has the LGBTQ+ community reacted and embraced your work?

The community has been supportive and embraces my efforts to give back. Whenever I host a pop-up or share a fundraising link, the community is quick to support and share with their network.

How does food bring people together?

Food is a universal language. When you hear silence at a table while everyone is eating, that’s the sound of food bringing people together. You don’t need to speak a language to smell, see, and taste good food. Food marries cultures together and allows you to share moments in life with friends, family, or colleagues. All major holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, are always celebrated around food which is truly what makes it a celebration. Family recipes ensure each occasion is memorable and stays with you forever.

Which other chefs do you look up to?

I look up to Martha Stewart. She started her catering business from nothing in her NYC basement in her early twenties. From humble beginnings as a caterer, she was able to build an empire, just like I hope to achieve. She made her name an American home staple and strived through every step. She did not let jail set her back but instead had a huge come back. I also admire Marcus Samuelsson’s work ethic and how he shaped the Harlem restaurant scene.

Is Middle East an important influence in your life and your work?

Absolutely. The Middle East is my heritage and my upbringing. It is where I learned how to eat and cook, therefore, the culture has a huge influence on every culinary choice I make and any dish I put out.

What are your future plans?

My plan is to keep growing my catering company and to spread awareness and flavors of Lebanese cuisine. I would love to write a cookbook so I can share all my secrets; what my grandmother taught me and how to entertain at ease. One of my biggest goals is to awaken people’s palates with a Lebanese dish they have never tried before.

The next plan would be to open a storefront and sell my dips, to-go meals, and snacks for locals. Simultaneously, having a space to host fundraisers that bring awareness to the LGBTQ+ community in both Beirut and Brooklyn.

How different is being out in New York than being out in Lebanon?

Wow, it truly is a huge difference. Of course, it all depends on your family, upbringing,  religious background, and the town you come from. In Lebanon, people care a lot about what other people think so choices are often broken down to what the community will think. In Beirut, being gay has become a norm but in small towns, it is very frowned upon. Most gay children never come out unless they make it out to the city. It is still illegal to be gay and you are not able to get married. Although throughout this past decade, more and more gay bars have popped up around Beirut with drag queens headlining major bars and concerts. Recently, an openly gay band made huge progress within the pop world in Lebanon and has opened up a lot more doors for the youth.

Being gay in New York is a whole other level. The city is practically run by gays. We are proud of who we are and there are communities and an active support system that is available to help you whenever you need a hand. There is amazing healthcare, clinics, and counseling available. Of course, there’s also a hub of gay nightlife, drag queens, and everything in between. You truly can taste and feel the rainbow here!

Is New York an LGBTQ+ – friendly city now?

Yes, it is a very LGBTQ+-friendly city.  Instagram and dating apps changed the way people meet each other in the NYC LGBTQ+ community.  We are celebrated and there are a variety of organizations, groups, and meetings available to welcome anyone looking to meet new people.

What message would you like to send to the LGBTQ+ community?

The message that I would like to send to the LGBTQ+ community is to never give up. Who you love and sleep with at night has nothing to do with how anyone should judge or treat you! Life is full of challenges but that’s what makes you stronger every day. Coming out is not the easiest process but loving yourself, inside and out, is very important for a stable happy life. Talk to someone whether it is a friend, family, or a counselor. It’s not easy to do this on your own! As RuPaul would say “if you don’t love yourself then how the hell you going to love somebody else – can I get an AMEN?”

More of Edouard Massih here:

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