Hany Harb is one of the leading chefs on the Maltese Islands, specialising in Lebanese cuisine. His restaurant, Ali Baba, boasts an extensive menu with flavourful delights, and its exotic ingredients are enough to make your mouth water. We caught up with the chef de cuisine for an insight into his craft.
What links food and people?
Food plays an important role in our daily lives. It is a source of pleasure, comfort, security and above all, survival. Serving food makes people hospitable. Food in itself symbolises the religious beliefs of a person as well as the social status of that person. Selecting food, preparing it and serving it, together with the way we eat, reveals the culture and also the nature of the people consuming this food.
Food encourages people to celebrate with each other around a table, especially when a variety of flavours and cultures are offered. Food is an experience even in its simplest form, such as when eating a piece of bread with olive oil. When the bread is made by hand, you can always taste the love in its preparation, and if the olive oil is from a land that is respected and treated well, you can smell and taste that too.
With all this being said, food is nourishment to the body and to the soul.
Who has been your greatest influence?
My mother, of course. When I was young, I remember that the first thing I played with was a piece of Lebanese bread dough. She always insisted that a kitchen serves its purpose only if all the food is home-made.
My second influence is my father. He has the love and passion for fine ingredients as my mother, but we consider him as a service guru, as for him, all our clients are kings and queens. My father always told me, “if something is not good for you, it is obviously not good for your clients.”
What is usually on the dinner for your family, and who does the cooking?
At home, we prepare dishes from around the world that are simple but full of flavour. I do not have much time to cook at home, but after 14 years of marriage, I trust my wife with these dishes, because her Mediterranean culture gives them a different twist from what I cook on a daily basis. They are all delicious!
You mainly focus on Lebanese cuisine. Is it challenging to source the right ingredients to the table in Malta?
It is the biggest challenge we have here at the restaurant, since we use different ingredients such as meats, spices and vegetables. However, with my father’s help, we lessen the problem as much as we can. He’s managed to make deals with local growers and source our earth ingredients from them, hence the superior quality. When it comes to meat, we have been using local lamb from the same supplier for the past 28 years.
What is your signature dish?
There is more than one. One of them is ‘Banadoura, Zeytoon, We Jibneh Baydah’, which is a simple salad full of simple ingredients, such as little sweet cherry tomatoes with fresh basil, barrel aged feta cheese, olive oil and lemon juice.
Another is the ‘Feteyell Ghanan Meshwieh’, which is lamb fillets marinated in grain mustard, sumac, all spice, salt and pepper, and grilled.
The list is endless; I think it’s time to start writing a recipe book.
Do you have a set of recipes or do you refer to your senses when preparing dishes?
I refer more to my senses. Then, if the final dishes are a success, I will transform them into recipes.
What is your take on Malta’s dining options?
Malta has changed when it comes to dining. There are many new restaurants being opened all the time by young and talented chefs who are coming up with good formulas. However, we still lack that final touch. For me, it is taste. It can vary from one chef to the other.
Where will your cuisine be taken in the near or not-so-near future?
I visit London a number of times per year to check out new trends in the food industry. It is an incentive and a great boost for my own creations. When I decide to open another Ali Baba, it will definitely be in London.