The rooftop terrace, shielded by plants and strung up with makeshift lights, feels like it doesn't belong here wedged amid the vertical crush of glass and steel. Like most spaces in Hong Kong, the restaurant is narrow, growing tall and skinny like a sapling through the gap between two towering skyscrapers. Seated on picnic benches, a multinational crowd is tearing into pita breads that let out a puff of yeast-scented steam when punctured. There are butter-stuffed lamb kibbeh, so tender that they barely require teeth, with pomegranate-studded labneh. There is whole cauliflower, marinated for 24 hours with harissa-laced yogurt before being blasted with heat and carved like a slab of beef. There are cast iron skillets of honeyed halloumi with dates so sticky and sweet that tables are quite literally fighting for the last piece.
I have never been to Beirut and neither has chef James Harrison, but I'd like to imagine that a certain slice of it resembles this casually cosmopolitan scene. Judging from the quality of the food, you'd be forgiven for assuming there was a small army of Lebanese grandmothers in the kitchen at Maison Libanaise instead of an Australian with a tapestry of tattoos. But while he may not have a genetic link to this kind of cooking, he clearly has an intuitive understanding of it, as well as a passion for its techniques and spices that borders on obsessive. After working his way up through Melbourne's culinary scene, in part under the tutelage of the legendary Lebanese-Australian chef Greg Malouf, he set about bringing his soulful spin on the cuisine to Central. Not all of the dishes here are quite by-the-book, but then again, neither is Harrison.
I sat down over lunch with Harrison for a conversation about becoming a chef by accident, the maddening science of spices, and why cooking makes military boot camp look like a cakewalk.
MUNCHIES: What made you decide to become a chef?
James Harrison: I'd been in kitchens since I was 14, just washing dishes and doing side jobs. I had been going for a basketball scholarship, but when I was 17, I was in a massive car crash. My mom was like, "You've gotta find a real job. It's either cooking or the army." So I decided to cook because that's what my grandma did, plus it sounded better than the army.
What did your grandma cook?
Grandma cooked everything. Everyone would go to her house, all my relatives, so it was quite tight-knit. She used to make paella in those giant iron pans you see in Spain. She'd have freshly baked bread. She'd have freshly made pastas. You name it, she cooked it.
Your grandma sounds awesome.
She was a beast in the kitchen. My family is split, so we would spend most weekends at her house just helping her. She'd slap you if you weren't doing it right. That's kind of how I started cooking.
So you were an injured teenager washing dishes and then…
… and then the one chef didn't show up for his shift and they said, "Hey, Dishy, come over here. You've seen it enough."
Yeah, that's seriously how it happened. I think I'd been doing the really crappy prep jobs at this particular restaurant for about six or seven months. Then someone just didn't show up for his shift. He might've gotten wasted the night before. The chef came to the dish area, grabbed me by the scruff of the neck, spun me around, and said, "I need you to help me." [Laughs] I was like, "Um, OK. I'll do my best."
How'd that go?
That night, I burned his hand and he slapped me.
But he let you keep cooking?
[Laughs] He slapped me, he cussed me out, but he let me keep cooking. After that, I stopped washing dishes. They threw me on the line and taught me how to slice and use a knife properly. From there, I did an internship with MoMo in Melbourne and that's where I met Greg Malouf. He became my mentor. He was considered—it sounds so cheesy saying this—the godfather of Middle Eastern cuisine in Melbourne, maybe even Australia.
How did you land a job there?
To be honest, I thought there was no chance of getting one. So what I did was take a free apprenticeship course to try and build my skills. The day before my final exam, I got a phone call from Greg and he went, "Hey, I liked what I saw. I don't normally do this, but do you want an apprenticeship?" I said, "When do I start?" and he said, "You start tomorrow." I said, "But I've got my final exam." And he goes, "You don't need that. You either want the job or you don't." So I showed up the next day at 7 AM and busted my ass.
After it closed, you ended up in a number of pretty fancy kitchens. What was Circa like?
At the time, Circa was fighting to be the best restaurant in Melbourne. That's where you go from being a boy to a man. Joining the army probably would've been a cakewalk by comparison.
How was it worse than boot camp?
You have to understand, Greg from MoMo would choose particular chefs and they would become kind of like his golden child. Fortunately or unfortunately, I was one of those. So my nickname at Circa was "Golden Boy." There was two head chefs and I remember my first or second shift one of them standing behind me for a whole service and berating me. Throwing my dishes in the bin. Saying I would never amount to anything, that I should go do something constructive and kill myself.
You know, basically psychological torture.
Yeah, he was super hard on me. It all happened because I put a salad out 30 seconds early. I got shit for it for five hours. That's the type of stuff that goes on in those sorts of kitchens. That's not even the bad stuff.
That's just Tuesday.
Actually, it probably was a Tuesday service. After that, he goes, "Let's grab a drink." So we grab a drink and suddenly he's my best friend. It was the weirdest thing I've ever experienced. I was like, "I thought you told me to go kill myself." And he went, "Well, you survived that, so you're probably gonna fit in."
That makes sense… I guess?
In a dark, twisted way.
Do you now run your kitchen like this?
For me to get to that point, it takes a lot. I've done it twice here. The first time, nobody saw it. The other time… yeah, they saw it. There may have been a smashing of a plate. I don't do that anymore. I've learned to tame the beast.
I mean, it's easy for people to get a little testy in kitchens.
[Laughs] Just a little. My sous-chef, when he came over, said to me, "You've gotten soft." I'm like, "No, I've just matured. Don't take it as a sign of weakness, dude."
Changing topic, why Lebanese? You've never actually made it to Lebanon, correct?
I've only ever been to the airport. I had a trip scheduled and I just had to cancel it. Every time I have the opportunity to go, something comes up. It's like I'm jinxed.
What draws you to this specific cuisine then?
In Melbourne, there's a big Lebanese community. There's a particular road you can go down called Sydney Road and it'll transfer from Indian to Lebanese to Israeli. I imagine that that's a watered down version of what Beirut could be. There's a restaurant I like to go to called A1. It's a bakery, but they also sell spices and all sorts of Lebanese products wholesale. You go in there and it smells like a different world. It's got 20 old ladies out in the back rolling pita bread to order. And you get this melting pot of culture happening there. It's kind of inspiring to be around it as well.
I'm guessing Greg played a larger role in it as well.
When I was at MoMo, we'd shut for two weeks at the end of the year and go for a field trip. Often, we'd go to Greg's family's house and cook with his mother. She'd just be like, "This is how you have to do it." And if you didn't do it right, she'd slap you around. Seeing your chef get slapped by his mom is a funny experience.
I'm sensing a tough love theme here.
[Laughs] It's threaded throughout the whole story. She was maybe 75 years old at the time and she was still mixing hummus and blending baba ganoush and cooking lamb skewers. She had this serious passion and that kind of rubbed off on us.
Is that why you keep returning to it?
It all comes back to the fact that when I cook it, it reminds me of being with family. And I enjoy being able to blend those spices. It's really hard to get that just right. It helps working with someone like Greg, whose palate for that type of stuff is crazy. You could give him something that, to you, is perfect, and you give him a taste of it and he'll go, "Just a teaspoon of this or maybe 10 milliliters of lemon juice." Once you add the lemon juice, you'll find that it emphasizes something else in the dish, or you add a little bit of cumin and you'll get that earthiness that you desire. You have that warmth in your mouth and it lingers, but it doesn't overstay its welcome.
Speaking of spices, how do you source yours?
The company we deal with is called Regency Spices. It's a family business that's been passed down from father to son. They source a majority of their spices that we use from Lebanon. I get an email maybe twice a week about what spices are coming in, who they're getting them from, how much they're paying for them. Dealing with them in creating our spice blends is a fun experience. I'm sure you've seen the little coffee grinders or whatever most restaurants use to grind spices.
Those cute little things.
Yeah, something cute or pretty that might break in a couple of weeks. These guys have 40-liter bell pots with massive grinders. You can ask for a specific coarseness and they can get it for you. For instance, we have a spice mix with fennel seeds, charred dried limes, and sumac. Through working with them, we've been able to get a grind that breaks the fennel seeds down, but not to the point of powder. Think of a large grain of sand. And that goes into our mix to give it a little bit of texture, a little bit of bite, because biting down on a piece of fennel releases all the oils and aromas and just adds to the flavor to everything.
Do you have a favorite dish?
Sundays and by special request we do this stuff that's kind of like Bedouin cooking. What we'll do is we'll take our lamb, we'll brine it the night before we cook it, then we smother it in yogurt whisked with a certain spice blend. Then once the service is over, we turn the oven onto about 90 degrees Celsius, close the door and let it go until we come in the next day around 11 o' clock in the morning. What you end up with is a helmet, this massive crust of dried yogurt, but all the fat in the lamb shoulder, all the collagen, has broken down back into the meat and it's super tender, super juicy. So when you order it you get some pita breads, some dips, some meze, but the showstopper is this big, bone-in lamb shoulder and… it's good. It's real good.
Thanks for speaking with me.