Marcelle (pictured in the middle) was generous enough to host a Foodies of Colour event for us in the summer, where Aisha (pictured left) of @salt.and.saffron and I originally met her. Her food was incredible and her restaurant is a true treasure in Toronto. We feel very lucky that we get to have her and her mother’s cooking here in the city.
Sadi: I want to start by asking you, how is business going these days?
S: So, you’ve been here a year and a half, I wanted to ask, why did you decide to open a restaurant?
M: The original plan was just to take over the place, the previous tenant’s place, and see if we can run it, because none of us ran a restaurant before so we wanted to just continue based on what’s going on, what was existing, because we didn’t have any restaurant experience.
But then we thought, “no, we are all good in what we do. We can bring our skills and experience into this place. We don’t have to do things by the book as long as we follow the rules and the law and regulations, we’re fine.”
Mom did food safety handling courses, my sister used to work in catering as well for some time, I’ve done so many management and like administration work before, and then it started that the three of us were only working here so we opened the place.
S: Interesting. So, back then, a year and a half ago, before you opened the restaurant, what did you wish you knew?
M: I wish I had the chance at least, because I’m running this place, I mean logistics and everything, Mom does all the cooking and everything, she’s great, she runs the kitchen, but to run a restaurant maybe it would have been easier for me if I had been through courses or training. I had people that are in this industry and really would love to help just for the sake of helping. I don’t know, maybe some people will find this really naïve but because I’ve helped so many people when I was in a different industry, with no expectations, that’s why I’m saying I was hoping I could find people that would help. But saying that, we had help that helped and they asked whenever we, I’ve faced a few obstacles, I’d find people helping me but to me to my own knowledge it would be easier if I knew about something instead of learning while it was happening.
S: You mentioned your background as a filmmaker, I’m wondering if there are any skills that transfer, or is there an intersection? Because the world of filmmaking and the world of restaurant business seem pretty far apart, so I’m wondering if there was anything that draws both of them to you, or anything that connects them.
M: I’ll tell you what I find maybe in common. It’s funny, because we all have artistic backgrounds—my mom was a music teacher, I’m in film, my sister, as a hobby, draws, so, in the family—I have another sister, she sings, my dad is a painter, my brother he was into music at some point in his life, he’s a banker anyway—so, all this, all the artistic touches in the restaurant. People say, “oh wow, it’s like a piece of art!” So, we kind of managed to transform this place into an art house, let’s say, an artistic house. And for me, because I am a published writer as well, I find so many stories when people are speaking, or things that happen here.
S: So, when you’re not at Zezafoun—I know the restaurant industry is like 24/7, it really takes over your life even when you’re not here—but when you’re not here, where are your favourite places to eat in Toronto?
M: I like to eat something totally different, so I look for something that we don’t make. We also go for sushi, funny enough. We like sushi and Indian food.
S: If it was your last day on earth, what would your last meal be?
M: There’s a dish that my mom doesn’t cook at Zezafoun that I love—
S: Why is that?
M: Why she doesn’t cook it? I don’t know. We always remember food that we love and then we go “Mom, why don’t you cook it?” and she goes like, “oh, ok, maybe, let’s try!” and most of the dishes, we’ve it done this way. And then we’ve tried, we’ve introduced it and if people didn’t like it, we remove it and we bring something else.
So, there’s this dish. It’s like vine leaves but it’s cooked with, there’s meat in there. But back home they use lamb meat and bones and they put some potatoes in the pan when they cook the vine leaves. And it’s not called vine leaves, you don’t eat it cold like the one we serve here, it has to be hot. And I love that one. It’s very rich and a bit lemony but the taste of meat, when they cook it, they cook it in a press pan.
S: So that would be your last meal?
M: I love it.
S: What’s it called?
S: If someone was to open up a restaurant today, what piece of advice would you give them?
M: I would say to them, be brave, don’t be scared but be ready to sacrifice your lifestyle, or even your life, to this business for quite a long time. It takes a lot of courage—there are moments you will doubt yourself like, “is this really what I wanted to do? There’s a lot of work, I’m really tired.” At some point you will have all these doubts and these feelings. I would say to them, “don’t be scared, just go for it.” And even if it doesn’t work, it’s ok. It’s not the end of the world. You can move on to something else. But just be brave and be ready to not have a life for quite some time. Which should be fine, because you need to believe in what you’re doing. If this is what you really want to do, then be ready to give your life for it.
S: What’s a piece of advice that someone gave you, either when you were opening up the restaurant or at any point in life, that really helped you?
M: In the restaurant? A friend told me, “Ask. Don’t be scared of asking. Don’t think that people will think you don’t know, because you actually don’t know.” To me, I had all the knowledge in my previous work and I hardly asked because I had reached a point in my experience, I was so senior and I knew, people used to come and ask me, for me to start all over again, to know nothing, it was a bit difficult, with my personality. But then this friend said, “don’t be scared of asking, just ask. Don’t guess, ask.” And you know what? We make mistakes. Even when I do papers for the government, I always say to them, “I didn’t know. It’s an honest mistake, I didn’t know.” I’ve been very blessed that they’ve been really nice to me because I’ve made a few mistakes. Like when I didn’t know about things and they were very flexible.
S: How did you come up with the name of the restaurant?
M: Oh god, that was funny. We brought all the names in the world. We were thinking—we had only five days to come up with the name, and we were like, “what’s the name, what’s the name, what’s the name?” Like, a lot of brainstorming. Until, one day we were talking and the idea of Zezafoun came because Zezafoun is the Linden tree.
In Syria, the tree usually grows on the mountains between Syria and Lebanon. This tree is known for—we used to have songs in the past, kind of like wedding songs, or songs from that, cultural songs, that talk about people gathering under the Zezafoun tree. They sing, they dance, they eat, and it’s mentioned, and there are so many talks about the idea of being together under the tree. And then I didn’t have like, a clear idea about the Zezafoun tree and I wanted to research more and then I came to know that it’s not about the fruit, you’re not supposed to eat from the tree, you eat under the tree so it’s a place to gather people.
So we liked the concept, and this is why we have introduced the music nights here so people sing, dance, eat, get together, we have people who come and read our books, like in the library, they borrow books, they sit and read in the time that we’re not busy. So, it makes sense and the nice thing is that this tree, it has the scent of it, keeps the mosquitoes away. This is why people use it to eat. It’s nice, the concept is nice.
S: Do you have any regrets about the restaurant?
M: You know what? Sometimes I look—sometimes when I’m closing at night I like to sit here and look at the place. I get so emotional. I feel, this is really, the amount of people that came to our house in Syria…Because we’re very hospitable—we got this from Mom—I don’t feel that I regret opening this or I regret being here. Maybe it was all in a rush, that it was a bit overwhelming at the beginning, but it’s beautiful. We’ve met so many amazing people that became really good friends now and that by itself is our new life. This is who we are now. This is our new life. We have all this community. We feel we belong now because we have roots now in Toronto.
S: What is the most popular dish here?
M: One of our most popular dishes is the lamb shank. It’s so good. But I would say the one dish that brings people here and they always talk about it and they always try for the first time is the fatteh. Fatteh is, it’s a totally new dish, it’s like, refined, it’s a totally new dish that the community have never tried before. The taste shocks people. People were like, “oh that’s really interesting but really nice at the same time.” It’s a very good dish actually, I really like it.
S: And these are all your mom’s creations?
M: It’s our food from back home but everybody cooks it differently and this is why I would say its Mom’s food, because it’s her spices. But you could find the same dish somewhere else with a difference. But even at home back in your community, your mom and your mom’s sister cook differently. There’s no way anyone can cook like your mom so if you end up liking your mom’s food, and everybody likes it, then you’re lucky.
S: Maybe I’m a little bit selfish but I feel like I want to horde all of my mom’s recipes and I don’t want to share them with the world because I’m not sure if the world deserves to try all of these things that my mom makes with so much love. So, I’m curious, you guys were maybe raised a little differently or have different values where you guys want to share your mom’s food.
M: We always had people over, and Mom always cooked for people. We always had friends passing by and Mom would go, “come, come, come, I’m going to get—” she loves to cook for people. Our friends, neighbours, we were always sending food around. She loves that. We always had big gatherings at home. When Mama comes up from the kitchen to talk to customers—you know sometimes she likes to say hello—and with her funny English, everybody loves her character. She has a great character; really funny, really smart, very successful. So, when I see them, and everybody goes like, “oh can I take your mom?” this is the moment that I go, “don’t overdo it people! You’re already eating my mom’s food, don’t touch my mom!” I always go like—I never share my mom. You’re lucky enough you share my food, just don’t take my mom!
S: Yeah, I was curious about that.
M: She’s always invited so many people over. If she sees someone that is alone and not being able to eat properly, she would always call them and be like, “oh I made this food for you, come and try!” She doesn’t make it so straight and direct in their face that she’s helping but she would go like, “oh I want you to try this food.” And then she packs so many (for them), you know? And I’d see, I know what she’s doing. She’s a giver. There’s no way Mom can see anybody—this is why Mom doesn’t work on the floor. We would be broke if Mom was here. If Mom is working in here, the fattoush salad is double, you know, everything is double! And we’re like, “Mom, we have to survive!”
S: Is there a dish that isn’t on the menu that you’re unsure about, or that you’re curious or that you and Mom and the family are still like, “oh I’m not sure if this dish will do well”? Is there something that you’re not sure Toronto can handle?
M: There’s a dish—there are two dishes. One that is cooked yogurt with, kind of like a dough, that is stuffed with meat and it’s called, the literal translation for that is, “The Old Man Ears.” Because it looks like a small ear and because it’s dough, it looks a bit like an old man. So, that we discovered that the Eastern Europeans, they have something similar, just dough stuffed with meat, but I don’t think they make it with cooked yogurt. So that combination we’re still not sure, but it’s one of the very nice and very difficult dishes to make.
The other dish that even Arabs can handle, because it’s really—either you love it, or you will faint—it’s the…how can I explain it? It’s the lamb…guts?
S: Entrails? Intestines?
M: Yeah, they clean it really well and they stuff it with meat.
S: Similar to sausage.
M: Similar but it tastes different. It’s all about lamb. You either love it—and I like it, I used to love it when I was a kid—now I like it kind of, there’s something funny, but my mom loves that. You either love it or you would faint if you ate it.
S: Is it a strong taste?
M: Very strong taste. Because of the, the way it’s made. But that one, there’s one place where they cook it and it’s homemade. It’s in Mississauga. It’s called Reyan—very small restaurant, run by a husband and wife. And they make that dish I think, I don’t know when, but they make that dish. They did a good job, we bought from there before and it was nice.
S: Well Marcelle, that’s everything from me, thank you so much for your time!
Zezafoun Syrian Cuisine
4 Manor Rd E