Top Lebanese chef Joe Barza visits South Africa to collaborate with David Higgs at his
stellar Joburg-based eatery, Marble.
He’s an award-winning chef, a television personality and a culinary consultant, but growing up in Lebanon, Joe Barza never thought he’d pursue a career in food. “My family has a long history with food. My grandparents all fished for a living and my parents were both very good cooks, but it never crossed my mind that I would be a chef,” he admits.
Living in war-torn Lebanon, Joe had no option but to join the military, and the burly youngster who was admittedly “a hopeless case at school” eventually found his feet as a bodyguard. The country’s dire political situation, however, meant his stint in security was short-lived.
In the late 1980s, Joe – like so many other Lebanese nationals – was forced to move abroad. When a friend in South Africa offered him accommodation, as well as a job in his Johannesburg-based restaurant and a work permit, Joe didn’t think twice. “For me, it was a need to build a future, to help my parents and to start a new life that got me into the kitchen,” he shares.
“For me, it was a need to build a future, to help my parents and to start a new life that got me into the kitchen,” – chef Joe Barza
Joe is so grateful for the six years he spent in South Africa kindling his love for food (first at his friend’s pizzeria in Hillbrow and then at then Jan Smuts International airport’s inflight catering services), that he has the country’s flag tattooed on his right ankle. And 25 years later, the now world-renowned celebrity MasterChef (he appeared as a guest chef on MasterChef Greece and co-hosted the Middle Eastern version of Top Chef in 2011), was delighted to recently find himself back in Johannesburg, this time for a series of dinners with celebrated local chef David Higgs at his restaurant, Marble, in Rosebank.
The two have met several times over the past few years, bumping into each other at international food festivals, competitions and award ceremonies – from the moment they crossed paths, they knew they wanted to work together. For David, Marble has always been a place where cultures can converge and, so, this collaboration with Joe – who is an ardent ambassador for his country and its cuisine – was a natural fit.
The two chefs created a trio of sold-out dinner services that took diners on a culinary journey through Lebanon via treasures like red lentil tabbouleh, contemporary variations of hummus, freekeh with smoked, roasted leg of lamb and dried fruit, and, for a sweet ending, mouhalabieh with caramelised apples and apricot coulis.
Joe is quick to explain that, twenty years ago, a celebration of Lebanese cuisine like this would not have been possible. Historically, cheffing in Lebanon was an underpaid, poorly regarded profession that was taken up by “hopeless cases” like ex-cons. “When my father-in-law found out I was a chef, he suggested I tell people I was a businessman,” he laughs. As such, when Joe returned to Beirut from South Africa in 1994, he was armed with “a big mission” to promote not only the profession but also Lebanese cuisine.
In the years since, Joe has worked tirelessly to take his country’s “fresh, simple and uncomplicated” food to all corners of the globe and, through opening Lebanese restaurants, promoting the fare on television and pursuing collaborations like this one with David Higgs, Joe has played a large role in elevating Lebanon’s cuisine. “The beauty of Lebanese food is that it is all about sharing,” he explains. “In this, it unites people and encourages peace and love – I went from fighting wars to spreading positivity to others. It brings me great joy to be able to take this beautiful message around the world.”
“The beauty of Lebanese food is that it is all about sharing,” he explains. “In this, it unites people and encourages peace and love – I went from fighting wars to spreading positivity to others. It brings me great joy to be able to take this beautiful message around the world,” – chef Joe Barza
We got a taste of Lebanon with three glorious dishes from Joe’s kitchen. Click on the links below for the recipes.
By Roberta Coci
Photographs by Justin Dingwall