Globe-trotting chef, television personality and culinary consultant Joe Barza is credited with introducing Lebanese cuisine to diners around the world. We managed to sit him down for a few minutes and ask him to share his thoughts on the past and plans for the future
How do you maintain momentum with so many projects on the go globally?
I love my work and traveling the world is a key part of it; I notch up an average of around 120 plane journeys annually, making 60 trips, so you could say I’ve traveled the world this year, but it’s all in aid of promoting Lebanese cuisine so that’s a positive! If you’re surrounded by a good team, however, things inevitably become easier to manage.
Which projects and collaborations do you regard as highlights this year?
There’s been so many! I’ve participated in some unforgettable events this year, including the Brigade des Étoiles de Mougins, which meant I represented Mougins the world over. I also teamed up with David Higgs, one of South Africa’s best-known chefs, at Marble Restaurant in Johannesburg and participated in events at Panoma and Alkar in Turkey, attended by 13 Michelin star chefs. One truly memorable initiative was a month-and-a-half-long food festival called Antipkazi in Turkey, which brought together more than 20 Michelin star chefs. Teaming up with Chef José Avillez in Portugal was an enjoyable experience, as was promoting Lebanese food at Le Rosey Institute in Lausanne. We also did MasterChef in Greece on the invitation of Lebanon’s Ambassador to Greece as a way of integrating Lebanese cuisine. What do you regard as your greatest achievements since becoming the global ambassador for Lebanese food? In the year 2000, I asked myself why imitate when we have such a huge treasure trove to unearth here, and since then, I have always had a very clear vision about what I want to do. It’s not just about highlighting Lebanese products, but also raising the profile of Lebanese chefs. I believe in my products. Before entering the culinary world, I was in the army and in that role, I felt I wasn’t helping my country. However, I realized that through food, and the message behind it, I could better promote and serve Lebanon. This is something I’m truly proud of.
What changes have you witnessed in recent years?
A lot and much of it on a global scale. One of the challenges was that historically, when Lebanese families emigrated, many of them opened a restaurant since it was an easy way to make a living abroad. In doing so, they kept Lebanese cuisine as they remembered it. Today, we’ve taken the cuisine further and farther and now we are everywhere. When I go and cook with Michelin star chefs, for example, I don’t do foie gras, but instead I make hummus or muhalabieh. Everybody is amazed and talks about it. As a result, Lebanese cuisine is known in most destinations.
What’s your next goal?
Now that the world has become acquainted with Lebanese cuisine, I’m going deeper into the ingredients that make up the menu items. The producers are much better due to fiercer competition. Take haloum cheese, for example; since I represented Lebanon in a competition in 2003 in Lyon using haloum with bacon, its popularity has soared. The more I go into the tiniest detail, the more I realize how important each ingredient is.
What is the biggest challenge you have had to overcome?
When I returned to Lebanon in 1994, I discovered that there were only two Lebanese chefs in prominent positions, while the others were all expatriates. At that time, no one believed in the ability of Lebanese chefs and there was no mutual respect. The culinary industry eventually entered a new phase, thanks to the collaborative efforts of HORECA and the goodwill of the talented, younger guys.
What advice would you give someone thinking of entering your field?
Never copy and always exercise plenty of discipline. Identify and develop your own character and then enhance it with humility, remembering that it’s not about what you know, but rather about what you do not, especially when it comes to food. If you are happy and positive, your food will communicate those sentiments.