A farewell to arms – and hello, kitchen!

Sophie Voelzing catches up with Lebanese culinary superstar Joe Barza to find out about his extraordinary journey from being a military man to a celebrity chef taking Lebanese cuisine to the world.

Notably raising the bar for gourmet Lebanese cuisine internationally, chef Joe Barza is not only a global ambassador and innovator, but a seasoned traveller and television personality too, whose culinary journey did not begin in the most conventional of ways.

Formerly working as a bodyguard for the president of Lebanon during the Lebanese civil war, after a dramatic event when the president was assassinated, which left him rudderless for a while, Joe found his safe haven in the kitchen, where he discovered his true calling as a chef. Having trained with internationally renowned chefs, including Marc Veyrat, Jean-Pierre Jacob, Pierre Marin and Ciccio Sultano since then, Joe has accumulated more than 22 years of professional cooking and kitchen management experience. He also starred as the head judge and co-host on the Emmy Award winning television show, Top Chef Middle East, for two consecutive years. Now working as a culinary consultant with restaurants and brands across the region, Joe has developed a well-established reputation for taking traditional, home-style cooking and transforming it into dazzling, modern Lebanese dishes.

As Joe reflects on his experiences, he opines it’s time for the culinary world to get back to its roots – back to the methods of its ancestors and the land’s finest. Ever charismatic, genuinely friendly and humble, Joe opens our conversation with a smile: “Let me tell you my story, and why now, it’s time for us all to get back to basics in the kitchen.”

At what age did you realise being a chef was your calling?

My family were fishermen who spent their days talking about food, which ignited a passion in me, growing up. I didn’t think about becoming a chef, however, until I started to cook properly at 24. I think my talent really kicked in when I turned 39, that’s when I found my flow.

Do you think growing up in Lebanon shaped your cooking habits?

Absolutely. Having now worked in this industry for 20 years, I can look back and really appreciate how much Lebanon’s heritage shaped my direction in the kitchen. I’m very proud of my country.

You’ve revolutionised Lebanese cuisine in a way. What were people’s initial reactions to your contemporary ways?

Honestly, people accepted it. My food really isn’t too far from traditional Lebanese. I like to view my work as polishing a diamond, I believe that people view my food as simply an upgraded version of what’s already out there. They like the twist and are very accepting of it.

What made you want to modernise Lebanese cuisine?

I was inspired in France, by a lady making foie gras in a unique way. This made me question my culinary direction and ask myself – why does hummous always have to be mixed with tahini? Why do we always play it safe in Lebanese kitchens? I aspired to become an innovator.

And so you did. But how did you make such a success of it?

I stick to the basics. I respect the produce and I respect Lebanese recipes. Most Lebanese dishes were not created by professional chefs, they were invented by housewives. So, I simply refine their home-style methods, and take existing products to the next level of sophistication. Fantastic home cooking, with an elegant twist – that’s how I describe my culinary style.

You moved to South Africa after culinary school – what was that experience like?

South Africa taught me how to think, to stretch my creative wings and develop as a chef. Learning in a kitchen with 14 different nationalities, one day I asked my teacher, “Is it acceptable to put chicken and beef together?” He told me to look up at the sky, and said, “Joe, the sky is your limit.” Since that lesson, I’ve really grown as a chef.

Unlike most chefs, you chose to open a consulting company rather than a restaurant to your name. Why?

I had come to a crossroads in my life, where I knew it was time for me to start a business. There was no particular reason, I just noticed a gap in the market for a consulting company as opposed to opening a restaurant. And so, I began catering to that demand. I also want to help educate people on the importance of knowing where they source their food from.

For most people, a culinary consultant is a person who devises a menu. Tell us, what else does your job entail?

It’s not easy, you really have to sit down and listen to your client. It’s not as straightforward and flexible as some may think. I only take on long-term projects for a minimum of one year. It would be very easy for me to consult, provide some recipes and then leave. But, this is not a long-term solution, and I must make sure my consulting is effective and withstands the test of time.

You’re not only a consultant but also a notable TV personality. What was your experience with Top Chef like?

The experience opened my eyes to how much the Middle East’s culinary industry has matured. Not long ago in this region, the role of a chef was not a respected position in our restaurants and households. But now, it’s changed. It blew my mind to see how many people tuned in to watch the show. Any part I can play in helping people understand that chefs are skilled people, is a worthy one for me.

What’s next in the pipeline for you?

More work at Bioland – a farm I’m a partner and executive chef at in Lebanon. We produce organic food, and have a restaurant that allows me to really get back to basics. I want to start placing more emphasis on promoting the healthy food our grandparents used to eat, before the generations of today ruined it with processed, chemical-infused food. My future is about going back to the roots and cooking from the earth, it’s so important that we all start trying to do the same. Not only for better tasting food, but more crucially, for our own health.

So, say it’s 2035. What do you think
you’ll be doing?

Cooking at the farm. Teaching mothers how to cook for their children, because this is where good, quality cooking begins, at home with the children. I predict by then, many societies throughout the world would have resorted back to the older methods of cooking, and will be living properly off the land once more. I feel sometimes the industry has lost its way, over-complicating things, and has forgotten how special food is when we stick to the basics. It’s the art of simplicity that works, and keeps us healthy.