City Bites

City Bites Insider: After time away, Walid El-Tawel returns, opening resto “close to his heart”

He graduated from Algonquin College’s Culinary Arts program in 2006 and quickly made a name for himself at E18hteen, moving up the ranks to the top job of executive chef in 2012 at the young age of 24. But after three years in the prestigious role, Walid El-Tawel left for the bright lights of Toronto, honing his craft with varied stints at the likes of Montecito Restaurant, the Agha Khan Museum, and Mamakas, as well as some staging at the storied Canoe and The Chase restaurants.

Now Ottawa has him back, lured by the chance to launch his own restaurant in his hometown.

In the days ahead of the grand opening, Executive Chef Walid El-Tawel (at left) and his team are busy finalizing recipes and last-minute details
In the days ahead of the grand opening, executive chef Walid El-Tawel (left) and his team are busy finalizing recipes and last-minute details. Photo: Sarah Brown

Fairouz offers El-Tawel the opportunity to celebrate the Middle Eastern cooking so close to his heart, while paying homage the first Fairouz (the Lebanese fine dining restaurant housed in the very same building at 343 Somerset St. W. in the 1990s through the mid-2000s).

“I feel like I’m bringing an institution back to life! It’s this incredible 2016 facelift that is allowing me to bring forward this cuisine and show it in a whole new light,” says El-Tawel.

He’ll highlight the classical flavours of the region, while instilling his own modern interpretations. The key, he says, is to always respect the origins of the recipes. City Bites Insider caught up with the busy executive chef just days ahead of the grand opening (tentatively slated for April 13).

The Fairouz team hard at work in the kitchen tweaking recipes ahead of the grand opening. Photo: Sarah Brown
A large window in the back dining room gives diners a view into the kitchen, which shows the Fairouz team hard at work tweaking recipes ahead of the grand opening. Photo: Sarah Brown

How did the plan for Fairouz happen?

It was a complete surprise. The Christmas season is super busy, so I when I came home in January to visit my family, I was thinking of it as a chance to catch up on my sleep. Instead, I got this phone call about the possibility of opening a restaurant in Ottawa and ended up sitting down to a three-hour meeting where the partners and I laid the principles and groundwork for Fairouz. I wasn’t looking to move and I was happy at Mamakas, so I had to really, really think hard about the opportunity.

And then you obviously took the plunge.

My heart is with Middle Eastern cuisine!

Shawarma is Ottawa’s street food of choice. How do you get diners to buy into the idea of a more upscale interpretation of Middle Eastern food?

My job is to kill those preconceived notions — to redefine expectations. When I was growing up, I didn’t eat shawarma with garlic sauce every day. Shawarma was our version of a Big Mac. I’m going to let people taste the classical flavours that I grew up with, but reinterpreted in a modern way.

Tell us more.

My Mom is a great cook, so many of the recipes I’m working with are ones that I grew up with. But I’m reinterpreting these Middle Eastern dishes in new ways. I’m modernizing them and using different techniques, but at the same time I am being very careful to respect the origins of the recipes.

Any hints on the menu?

We’re still testing things out in the kitchen! I can tell you that it will appeal to foodies, but it won’t be intimidating. It’s going to be a sharing menu. All of the menu items — the appetizers and the mains — are built to share. You don’t have to share, but everything is designed so it’s easy to share. Everything will be made in-house and from scratch, including all our pita.

You’ve run your own kitchens before, but this is the first restaurant that’s truly yours. How does it feel?

I feel like I have spent the past 10 years developing my maturity and repertoire and growing as a chef. When you’re ready, opportunities present themselves. And when you’re having this much fun, it doesn’t feel like work!

A view of a luxe corner booth in the back dining room. Photo: Sarah Brown

The dining room is gorgeous! Tell us how you picture it being filled.

There are 110 seats over two floors, but Fairouz doesn’t feel like a big restaurant because it’s divided into sections. On the main floor, the front section, which is more intimate and a bit more formal, has tables set for two or four diners. The next section is a bit more casual — the back of this room has a big window that looks right into the kitchen. I think people are going to love that — it’s a kitchen built for service, but also with a sexy aesthetic. Then there’s the bar section, more casual —still with stools. I picture people stopping in for drinks and to share some appetizers.

And the upstairs?

It’s beautiful. It seats 40 so can be used as a dining room on busy nights or booked for private meetings. There used to be a third floor, but we knocked it out to give this space great high ceilings.

Who do you imagine sitting around these tables?

Everybody! I see 16-year-olds on their first dates, families, seniors. Everybody will feel welcome.

What are you most excited about?

I’m most excited — and stressed — about my Mom coming to the opening!