Luck seems to have played a large part in the opening of Lebanese restaurant Gemmayze St. According to chef Samir Allen’s brother, Nat, it’s a common theme in his brother’s life. “Samir has this weird timing thing where everything just comes together for him, like a bouquet of flowers,” he says, to which Samir and their mother Liane Farry, who runs the front of house at the restaurant, erupt in laughter.
A year or two previously, Samir had been living downstairs from St Kevin’s Arcade while working at fine-dining restaurant The Grove and studying hospitality at AUT. “I used to sit at what was then Alleluya cafe on my day off and look at this space [where Gemmayze St is now] and I could just see it…” So when he received a random email from a realtor while travelling in Bali with his girlfriend saying, “I hear you want to open a Lebanese place. We have vacancies in St Kevin’s Arcade and here’s the floor plan, which space do you want?” – Samir says, “We just looked at each other and said ‘gotta go’.”
Turns out it was his brother who’d given that realtor Samir’s email address. As business manager of Moreporks clothing company he’d been approached to put a store in one of the spaces up front at the arcade and had spoken of his chef brother and his Lebanese restaurant dream.
It was a dream Samir had only really been toying with, thinking of it some way off in the future. “I’d been sending Nat menus while I was travelling. You know ‘what do you think of this dish?’, ‘what do you think of that?’. Just playing.”
And now suddenly here was this opportunity in his lap, designated to the exact spot he’d daydreamed about. He jumped on a plane home.
But the serendipity doesn’t end there. Samir comes from a long line of hospitality, starting with the family’s first restaurant in Gore in 1947. The Farrys of Dunedin are well-known in the community – Samir’s grandfather owned Wains Hotel in Dunedin and was president of the New Zealand Hotel Association for years. He built the first taverns in Dunedin. His mother, Liane, ran Passion restaurant there, an aunty too went into the restaurant business, with several in Auckland. But ask Samir what his first memories of hospitality are and he says, “I immediately think of my nana’s house. Everyone would congregate there; all the cousins, brothers and sisters, everyone. That’s my first idea of hospitality, the way my nana and my grandfather, both of them together, just loved to feed people and look after them. Even if it was just a stranger you’d met for the first time, you’d bring them to the house and they’d immediately feel at home. There’d always be so much food. You were never a hassle to my nana. Nobody was ever a hassle.”
And even though the first people from Samir’s family came to New Zealand from Lebanon 128 years ago, it was always Lebanese food that was served. Liane’s own grandmother started teaching her Lebanese cooking from age six or seven. It’s a cultural thread that appears not to have diminished throughout the generations. So much so that one day Samir bought two tickets to this place he’d heard so much about all his life – one for him, one for his brother. “You build up this idea of what it is because you hear it’s the best place in the world, everything’s better, the water tastes better… so Nat and I said we have to go together and see it for ourselves.”
It measured up. “I loved everything about it. It was amazing,” he says. Six months working in a cousin’s restaurants in Beirut, plus a bit of travelling, tasting regional specialties, and soon Samir’s own Lebanese menu was formulating and percolating in his mind. Then came more travel before that fateful email in Bali.
Samir knew he wanted to be quite traditional with his menu. “You’re not going to change tabbouleh, you’re just going to make perfect tabbouleh,” he says. “Or fattoush, you can’t really make fattoush anything other than what it is because it’s delicious. It’s a salad but it’s just fresh and perfect. There are things we ate growing up, that when I first started cooking fine dining I thought I’m going to change this and I’m going to make fattoush into something different. And then I thought, well why don’t I just try to share with people the yumminess I experienced eating it?”
Asked to describe Lebanese food, Samir says, “I’m thinking about it how to put it in a few words… it’s acidic, sour; for example, sumac, which is a spice, is lemony, pomegranate molasses is sweetly sour, there’s lots of lemon juice, lots of yoghurt. It’s very fresh, not a lot of deep-fried things, not a lot of oily things. The first-course mezze we have here at Gemmayze is mostly vegetarian and salads. There are a few things like falafels deep-fried but it’s with pickles, tahini sauce, lemon – there’s nothing too heavy. We have braised lamb shoulder but we serve it with pickled onions and crunchy caraway seeds and it sort of cuts through the richness.”
Mum Liane says of her son’s food, “It’s so authentic. Lebanese people are sending a member of the family in and they say ‘oh I wanted to come to try it and see what it’s like, now we’re going to bring the rest of the family’. That means a lot to us, of course it means a lot, because they know the food.”
But you don’t need to be familiar with Lebanese cuisine to understand that seriously good flavour is being served up here. Samir gives credit to his family for helping round out the picture. “I definitely didn’t do this on my own,” he says. “My whole family was involved.” And just like Nana’s place, Gemmayze St aims to make everyone feel at home.