The menu note sums up entirely what Gemmayze Street is all about:

A large part of Lebanese heritage and culture is conveyed through our food and the way we share a meal with our loved ones. Gemmayze Strsymbolizesises the pillars of any Lebanese gathering: food, hospitality, love and family.

“I wanted to create a vibe like you’re coming to my Nana’s house,” says chef and owner Samir Allen, “Like, ‘Come in, we’ll look after you, you are the most important person in the world right now.’”

That vibe is spun from many strands. Photos of Samir’s family hang on the restaurant walls, showing weddings, family groups, smiling relatives sitting around the table eating. It might be Mum, Liane, who’s running front of house one night, or a cousin polishing cutlery and filling water glasses. The ‘jeeb’ option on the menu is Samir’s version of ‘feed me’ or ‘chef’s choice’. “It’s the way our food should be eaten,” he says. “Sharing is so much nicer, breaking bread, passing plates, everyone gets involved straight away.”

Samir grew up in a tight-knit Lebanese-pakeha-new Zealand family in Dunedin, with a very strong connection to his mother’s Lebanese culture. “The Lebanese gather around food, we were always together, sitting around food, old and young sitting together.” After-school hours were spent at Passion, his Mum’s restaurant, sitting in the kitchen, watching prep.

Surrounded by family and food the young Samir always knew he would be a chef. Aged around seven he remembers watching Great-aunty Pamela cooking chicken and rice, and with it came the realization that the favourite dishes he liked to eat didn’t just appear on the table, they started here in the kitchen and that he could make it happen. “I don’t remember making a decision to become a chef, I just knew it, and I realized the other day that I’ve set my whole life up to be a chef. I don’t have another plan. I wouldn’t choose anything else.”

From the family kitchen Samir moved to an AUT Diploma in Culinary Arts, then spent five years working at Auckland restaurants The Grove and Baduzzi. “I had a really deep knowledge of my family’s cooking and of Lebanese kitchens, but I didn’t know how a fine-dining kitchen worked.” He gives an embarrassed laugh now as he remembers how, when he finally plucked up the courage to contact Ben Bayly, he phoned right in the middle of the lunch service. Working alongside chefs such as Ben Bayly, Leslie Hottiaux and Mike Shatura cemented his skills. “They’re amazing chefs. I spent half the time just trying to get through the day, but they always had time to tell me something. They’re so generous with their knowledge, I was learning without realizing what was going on. At The Grove, I never thought of it as a job; it was my life.”

All through childhood Samir and his brother, Nat, grew up listening to tales about Lebanon, how great it was and about family living there. So, in 2014, they jumped at the chance to travel to Lebanon, staying in Beirut, visiting family, travelling through the country

“I wanted to cook what Nana, Mum and my aunties cooked at home, but incorporating the techniques I’d learned.”

and eating, always eating. Staying on after Nat returned, Samir began working in his aunty’s restaurants. For six months he cooked, learning everything he could about food that was both familiar yet unfamiliar. “When I got to Lebanon I realised how different the food was from the food I’d grown up with. The food styles are very different across the country – my family was from the mountains, a village called Becharre, and mountain food is different from food at the coast.”

Throughout his time in Lebanon, and subsequently travelling in Europe, Samir was tinkering with recipes, thinking about how he could take back to New Zealand all the things he was learning, emailing ideas back and forth with Nat. “I knew I wanted to open a restaurant, maybe in 10 years’ time.” But fate, and Nat, were having none of that. While Samir was in Bali, an email mysteriously appeared from a realtor in Auckland: there was space available in St Kevin’s Arcade; Was he keen? Which space did he want? Having lived just downstairs from the arcade, Samir knew it well, and had long had his eye on the space at the rear of the 1929 arcade, by the floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over Myers Park and the Sky Tower. After much toing and froing the deal was done and the mystery solved – the realtor had originally approached Nat about taking space in the arcade for his clothing brand, Morepork. Nat said, “Not for me thanks, but my brother wants to run a Lebanese restaurant – here’s his email address.”

Returning to New Zealand in January 2016, Samir opened Gemmayze Street in July. “It’s named after a street in Beirut, which is super-cool, like the K Road of Beirut, full of restaurants and street performers.”

There was no question what type of food Gemmayze Street would offer. “I wanted to cook what Nana, Mum and my aunties cooked at home,

but incorporating the techniques I’d learned from working with Ben Bayly. I want to show people that there’s more to Lebanese food than hummus, falafel and kebabs.”

An example of this is the mihshee jazar, a stuffed-carrot dish featured on the menu. Traditionally the dish is a hollowed carrot, stuffed with mince and rice flavoured with caraway. Samir adds his flair with dehydrated quinoa puffed up for crispyness, “It’s not traditional but it adds, it doesn’t take away. A lot of Lebanese people come to the restaurant and they say, ‘It doesn’t look like our food, but it tastes like our our food.’”

When Samir was trialling recipes for the restaurant, he would cook and the family would critique. “They’d sit around saying, ‘This is not right, that’s not right,’ because I was not cooking it exactly how we’d do it at home, but trying to do it my way. Then one day Nana saw an article about Gemmayze Street in a magazine. She said, ‘Finally I understand what you’re trying to do. You’re doing it really well and I’m not going to tell you how to cook any more.’”

Samir wants to challenge the way people think about Lebanese food. “The food we serve here is not completely Lebanese, not completely Pakeha. My different histories come together at Gemmayze Street, just as different cultures are what makes New Zealand what it is. Everyone has brought something here and we’ve all come together and created something special.”

Samir thinks of the restaurant as a family place where everyone can hang out – and his family does just that. Cousins are always popping by, he’s hosted lots of birthdays and family events. “In our family we call it the new Nana’s house.”

“I’m so privileged to have this place, not because of me, it’s the Bens, the Leslies, Mum and Dad, my brother, aunties – it’s for all of them.”

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