Hany Harb is one of the most inspiring people I’ve met in Malta. He is not only one of the most successful local chefs, an owner of outstanding restaurant, Ali Baba, but also a great businessman, a big dreamer, a loving husband and a caring father.
There are three ingredients that define a really good restaurant, namely, the quality of the products, service and wine. Ali Baba, without doubts, has all of them. Besides, after talking to Hany I realized the incredible amount of work, energy and passion that lies behind the success of his restaurant. It was my pleasure to listen to his story and find out about his plans. So there it is, the first exclusive post that falls under ‘people’ section of my blog!
A: What would you consider as the key ingredient to Ali Baba’s success?
H: After 28 years Ali Baba’s key to success is consistency, the quality of the product and hospitality. That’s why the clients keep coming back.
A: What are your day-to-day responsibilities as a restaurant owner?
H: My day is very long. I wake up in the morning and, first of all, I visit my suppliers and purchase the ingredients I need. Then I come to the restaurant, start the preparation of the main dishes. Then during lunch time, I come out to greet people because they got used to it… instead of saying “we’re coming to Ali Baba”, they say “we’re going to Hany”. (smiles) So I greet them, let them sit down and start serving. Again, all the way till the evening. Plus, when I go home, I relax, do my research, read a lot of cookery books, and come up with ideas for new dishes.
A: So where do you get your inspiration from?
H: I get my inspiration mostly from my parents. First of all, from my mother. Plus, my father – I got the charm of hospitality from my father. And yes, I have a couple of chefs which I admire, like Paul Bocuse.
A: What have influenced you to rejoin the family business after being on your own for quite some time?
H: It took me so long to decide. Back in time, I used to study for B commerce, but then I felt it wasn’t my line. My father had a restaurant, I used to come and help him, even though I had no experience in catering at all. So, I started from the bottom, and then slowly I was getting promotions. I learned everything from my father. However, then I realized that I still lack experience, so decided to go to ITS, where studied there for three years as part time, while working full time with my father and in other restaurants. I also travelled and I did a long tour at Michelin star restaurants, paying money to get in there without being payed at all and working very long hours to learn. And then one fine day I came back and rejoined the family business, created the menu and the wine list in two years.
A: As a successful restaurant owner, how important it to have the actual experience in every aspect of the restaurant?
H: It is very important. If you don’t start from the bottom, you don’t know what’s going on. If you want to be successful, you have to work in every field of your business. If you want to be successful in a restaurant industry, you have to be working in many places and learn how to deal with people. You have to work in hotels, as well, they will teach you systematics. Plus, to succeed you have to love food, wine and people. You don’t love these three, you won’t succeed.
A: How do you select what makes the menu?
H: That’s a very big challenge. We select the menu every six months. I go back to old recipes. Then we select the ingredients, we find the suppliers. Depends on the season. I support the local supply 100% when I can but it’s very limited. So, some of the ingredients we get from abroad, some from Lebanon, from Arabic countries, or any European country that has this supply. We start complying the menu, then we have meetings with the chefs, I like when they also come up with ideas, I allow them to be creative. Then we start complying the menu. We use mainly seasonal ingredients, at least we try to.
A: But there probably are some dishes in the menu that are always there and you keep them all year round?
H: Yes, those are the classics and the family recipes, such as lamb arayes, lamb cutlets, lamb tongues and veal brains. Although we do seafood, we do fish, langoustines and caviar, it depends. The cutlets, the lamb, the chicken liver, the tongues – these dishes are repertoire.
A: It’s easy to notice that you pay special attention to your wine list as well. How do you choose your wine? Which wine matches with Lebanese dishes?
H: I give attention to my wine list because I love wine. A wine list is another important list to a restaurant. It’s not just a cart, it’s not just a menu, it is a wine list because people who come to a good restaurant are people, they expect you to have a good wine list. I also like to taste new wines, I like to add new wines, strange wines, and I like to match them with the food. As you’ve seen from our selection, I don’t like to choose cheap wines, I like good wines, and we do have a list of very expensive wines. Plus, making the staff taste the wine is important because if I am not around, they have to know what you want. They have to read your mind. We do sometimes have people who ask us for food and wine, so that we pair it. And we do events sometimes like ‘wine and dine’, we do it in winter. Next winter we will have one, which will be based on 8-9 course meal, plus wines, we will start with sparkling wine, then we’ll go to sweet wine.
A: About the events. You also do outside catering? What kind of events do you usually take care of?
H: We have been doing every type of outside catering, started back in 1988. We used to supply the mosque; we used to supply the prison, during Ramadan period. Then I updated it, now we supply super yachts in summer, 2 big companies, with anything they want: starting from normal ingredients to complex ones, whether its canapé whether it’s a sit-down meal – whatever they like but everything of a high quality. Anything that is not quality we don’t do. We offer private home cooking; we do weddings as well.
A: I got to know that if you would be about to open another Ali Baba, it would be in London. Could you tell me more about it?
H: I’m going to answer your question but I’m not going to go into much detail. (smiles) We are going to open another restaurant in London, which will hopefully be not later than end of 2017. My dream was to have a chain of restaurants, a chain of 6-7 good quality restaurants. This one is going to be a Lebanese restaurant similar to Ali Baba but slightly bigger, maybe 80 to 100 covers, a bigger kitchen, it will be more up-market than Ali Baba, so we will be targeting for high-end.
A: Tell me about your dream.
H: When I was young I always had a dream, I always wanted to be famous. Famous in the sense of not being an actor, in the sense of being someone I really want to be. I am a person who likes challenges all the time. I want everything new. I like to come up with new concepts. So, my idea was to start with Malta and go up to best cities in the world. My next step is London, after I’ll be targeting other cities.
A: So what would be your professional advice for a successful restaurant in Malta?
H: It’s easy but you have to keep up with it. As I mentioned before, when you open a restaurant and you target the market, it’s important to know which market you want – low market or up market. Going up is hard, staying at the top is even harder. So, my advice is if you start off good, remain good. Don’t change the quality of the food, don’t change the quality of the service. Consistency and hospitality are important. Unfortunately, we still lack hospitality in Malta.
A: How do you choose your people?
H: It’s one of the biggest challenges. My wife does the HR, while I do the training. People that want to work in this little but special place have to learn the rules. The client is a king. The fundamental rule is to make sure that the client goes home with a thought of a memorable evening.
A: Last question will be about your cook book. Would you tell us about it, please?
H: I’ve been working on this book for 3-4 years, I’m going to make it in 3 volumes. It’s going to be mezze, main course and desert. There’s going to be 70 to 90 recipes in each book. And, hopefully, when I finish it, it will be published. I don’t know when exactly, I don’t have a date for it but I already have 45 recipes in it.
Photography by Maria Shebets
Interview by Aygul Yunusova