Edy Massih, chef and owner of Edy's Grocer
On spreading the joy of Lebanese cooking, how he thinks about authenticity, and his ‘Keep it Zesty’ mantra.
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Edy Massih is a Brooklyn-based chef, caterer, and owner of Edy’s Grocer, and in 2024, he will be publishing his first cookbook. Born in Lebanon, Edy’s shop is a joyful explosion of color and warmth that sells Lebanese pantry staples and prepared foods. The store also hosts occasional events and serves as the home base of his thriving catering business. I sat down with Edy to talk about spreading the joy of Lebanese cooking, how he thinks about authenticity, and his ‘Keep it Zesty’ mantra.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me about your background?
Edy Massih: I was born and raised in Lebanon, and I moved to America in 2004 when I was 10 years old. I went to the Culinary Institute of America, I moved to New York City, and I worked at different restaurants and in catering before starting my own catering company. Once I started my own catering company, that's when things really started to pop off. Right before COVID, I started doing this dinner series in my backyard, which was really fun and a really cool way to meet the community. But as COVID happened, I had to stop everything.
I live around the corner from the store’s location, and I used to come in all the time for sandwiches and things like that. This was Maria's Deli for 43 years, and I called her in early May 2020 and was like, "Would you want to let me take over your shop?" And she was like, "No." And then she called me at the end of the month around Memorial Day and was like, "You know what? I talked to my family and I'm ready to do this." So that's when this happened.
When I was getting the business plan together for this, I was like, what am I going to do? I decided to go with the grocer aspect because it was COVID and there was truly no Middle Eastern food or grocer around here. I couldn't get to Shadi’s and I was like, "We need something like this in the neighborhood." So that is why this all started.
Ever since we've opened, we've had to really switch up what we do. We started with to-go food at first and then we switched to sit down. It was a lot of home cooking at first which was not selling and it was a lot of work, so it didn't make sense. So then we then started doing soups and sandwiches and then catering came back, so it's been a non-stop change. I think every year we've changed a little bit because of the way the world is.
Then we just added a bar, which I am very excited about. There used to be a deli fridge in here, so we put a bar in its place and we just got our beer and wine license. So we're going to start doing dinner service in January.
Brianna Plaza: After culinary school, what made you decide to go in the catering route instead of pursuing restaurants?
Edy Massih: I did work in restaurants for a little bit, there was just no money in it. It's such an unhealthy lifestyle. A lot of drugs, lot of alcohol, a lot of heterosexual energy in the kitchen, which is just not a safe space, I think, for gay people in general. It was just too much.
There's no money in it, and I am a money slut. I always run after money to stay alive in the city, so it just made sense to maneuver into catering. I first started as a catering chef for different companies, and then I realized how much money there was in it. And then I realized there's no Lebanese caterers, so it was a great niche for me.
Brianna Plaza: What are the hallmarks of Lebanese food? And what do you think Americans miss when they think about Lebanese food?
Edy Massih: I think mezze in general is our big thing. We have all sorts of different mezze like hummus and baba ganoush and muhammara. We like to start with tabouleh and fattoush, those are the main things. But we also have a lot of home cooking, like stuffed squash. Kibbeh, which is our meatloaf. We have really good Lebanese dirty rice. Hashweh, we call it. Grape leaves. Those are our staples.
I think it's funny because people think all dips are hummus. And it's like, hummus does not mean dips. It means a specific dip. I also don't think that Americans really think about home-cooked meals with Lebanese food. It's a lot of hearty, really good food. But it’s also lot of really fresh ingredients. There's not a lot of preservatives and things like that in our food, which I think is a thing that people don’t think about.
Brianna Plaza: What role do you think Edy’s Grocer plays in continuing to educate Americans about Lebanese food?
Edy Massih: For me, my mantra has been to spread the joy of Lebanese cooking. Unfortunately with the Middle East and how things are, people don't think of our culture as this happy culture, and that's something that I'm always trying to change.
Outside of the food, it's to brighten the picture of Middle Eastern people and Arabs, especially these days. That's a really big part of it outside of the food, but also to just show people that there's bright, delicious food. I've been really enjoying teaching people what sumac is and what za'atar is and what our spices are.
Brianna Plaza: How does the store, events, and catering all connect to each other?
Edy Massih: It all goes hand in hand, I want to say. We're prepping everything out of the same kitchen, so it all goes together. But to me personally, I love catering and I love doing events. The store is a great way to showcase what we do, but it's not my heart and joy. I think events are my heart and joy.
It's like the store is an extension of it all. It's also a home base for it all. It's the face of the catering, the face of me, the face of the brand and the food. So it all ties in together into this brand where there's different trees that grow under it.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think about authenticity when it comes to Lebanese food?
Edy Massih: I would love to keep things as authentic as possible, but it is very hard to do that because authentic, delicious Lebanese food takes so much work to make, so it's really, really hard for us to be able to keep things authentic. I tried to do that at the beginning and the business wasn't making money because there was so much labor that went into it.
So, we’re giving it all a modern twist. And by giving it a modern twist, it doesn't mean changing the whole thing up, it's just making substitutions and breaking the prep time in half. Like right now, we just did a deconstructed grape leaf soup as a new menu item and instead of rolling grape leaves and serving them, it's a light soup. It's a fun, modern twist on it, but it's the same exact flavor, with the same exact ingredients.
Brianna Plaza: How do you think about the customers you serve?
Edy Massih: People are always like, "Oh, do a lot of Lebanese people come in here?" No, they don't. Again, the whole thing for me is spreading the joy of Lebanese cooking. With this store it's more like I want Americans and New Yorkers from every culture to come in here to really taste our food and enjoy it and really know who we are.
It's less about feeding Lebanese people in the diaspora. Obviously we love them and we want them to come in, but they're the ones that nag a lot about what we make. They're the ones that are like, "That's not how my grandmother made it." I'm like, "I'm not your grandmother." Every grandmother makes everything very differently, so it's very hard.
I just finished writing my cookbook and in my author letter at the beginning of the book, I write, "I'm not your Lebanese grandmother." I'm not. Just get it through your head. That's a big thing for me with this space.
Brianna Plaza: The cookbook is coming next year, was that always the plan or did it just land in your lap?
Edy Massih: It kind of landed in my lap. A publisher reached out to me to write a book, and I've always dreamed about writing a book, so it wasn't far off for me.
I always imagined myself writing a cookbook about Lebanese food. But this ended up being more of an Edy's Grocer Cookbook, not really an Edy Massih Cookbook. I think eventually I will write an Edy Massih Cookbook with maybe more “authentic” food. This has a lot of authentic food — there's a whole childhood memories chapter. But I it's a lot of the stuff that we serve here, so it's a little bit of both.
It's been a really fun project and to me, since I moved to this country, I've always loved cookbooks, going to Barnes and Noble and just flipping through cookbooks. So it was a dream of mine.
Brianna Plaza: Talk to me about this ethos of Keep it Zesty. What does that mean to you and the brand?
Edy Massih: I think Keep it Zesty was born because we use so many lemons here. We go through about 280 lemons a week that we freshly squeeze. That's a really big part of Lebanese food. When I moved to this country and I'd have fish without lemon, I'd be like, "What is wrong with this?" When I had my first chicken soup here, I was like, "What's the taste?" And then I added lemon and it was so much better. That was a really big part of it. Keep it Zesty is adding positivity and brightness to life and food.
I think when you come in here, to me at least, there's a lot of joy. It's like you're almost stepping into your modern grandmother's house and we're here to serve you some heartwarming food. That's where the Keep it Zesty comes into play.
It’s about being zesty and proud as well. I mean, obviously I'm gay, but being Lebanese, it's a hard thing to talk about and a hard thing to really express. And I've gone through a lot with my family, so instead of saying I'm gay all the time, I like to say zesty because I think it's the same, to me, at least. Men wouldn't call themselves zesty.
We’re in a predominantly Polish neighborhood and there’s literally not one gay bar here in Greenpoint, and I think there's something to say about that. So to me, being out and about the way that I am has something to do with that as well. I'm not saying I try to put myself out there all the time, but to me it's the seasoning to what the neighborhood needs.