George Choueiri had his first experience in the family business at eight, when he would wander around his parents’ bakery in High Street, Coburg. His father and mother, Chafic and Noha Choueiri, immigrated to Melbourne in the 1960s and started the iconic A1 Bakery. From a young age, Lebanese cooking was a part of his everyday life.
“It was a baptism of fire for me and my brothers,” says George Choueiri, who, since his parents retired a few years ago, has started his own Lebanese bakery in Sydney Road with his brothers Wadi and Ameen. “You’re in the business nice and early – dad would have me up on a chair with a 25 kilogram bag of chickpeas as a kid, and I had to shell them and put them into 25 one-kilogram lots so we could sell them over the counter. That was my initiation into the business, and my brothers would have gone through the same process after me.”
By the time school came around, George would help his mother in the kitchen in the evenings, preparing desserts for the next day. “I still remember helping mum make date mammouls (shortbread filled with minced date). Me and my sister would sit with a bowl of dates and pit them, ready to be minced.”
It was on these occasions that George learned the subtleties of Lebanese cooking, especially when it came to tweaking flavours in desserts. “You will notice that Middle Eastern sweets don’t include much chocolate, and our sweetness, in general, is from using honey, dates and cinnamon,” he says. “In sweets, pistachio is used as a garnish and a decoration, and it serves to cut the sweetness from some desserts.”
Because Choueiri’s parents stayed in Australia for such a long time without a visit back to Lebanon, their knowledge of Lebanese food remained constant, and their cooking stayed very traditional compared to food in their homeland, where it was evolving.
The result, according to George, is a brand of Lebanese food you’re unlikely to get anywhere else in the world, which makes use of quality Australian produce, while remaining true to traditional ingredients such as tabouli, zaatar, beef and lamb in main courses, and cinnamon, pistachio, honey, dates, and rose water for desserts.
According to George, the food culture in Lebanon is focused on bringing families together. It is a principle George and his brothers have executed at Zaatar, which is filled this afternoon with grandmothers and their grandchildren, local schoolboys and girls and young mothers.
“Eating at home is always an adventure in a Lebanese family. The table is always full and there’s never an empty spot because mum is always cooking something up,” says George. “There’s always too much food, enough to eat for lunch in the days after.”
At dessert around the table, Lebanese families make use of classic ingredients that were readily available on the Spice Route in Persia, with staple desserts such as baklava, rice pudding, and maamoul.
“When we were young, mum would make rice pudding and put it in the fridge for us to eat in the heat after school,” says George, taking a rice pudding out of the fridge at Zaatar for preparation. “You never get sick of it, even today when you go back to your mum’s house.”
According to George, there’s a constant push and pull for second-generation Lebanese-Australians between tradition and invention, and it’s a mix he and his brothers are always trying to perfect. “We have to find the right blend between using the resources and produce we have in Australia, and keeping the old methods and principles that our parents had. That’s our challenge, and my brothers and I still argue about that. That’s one thing that will never change.”
This piece was produced in partnership with the new CONNOISSEUR Empire Collection, which includes the 'King Cyrus Of Persia’ ice cream with pistachio, cinnamon, honey and date.