The term, “Mediterranean,” encompasses a geographic area filled with different countries and cultures, where food ties them all together. In Los Angeles, Gaby Maalouf boasts a menu laden with hearty Lebanese dishes. He has opened several restaurants centered around shawarma, kebabs, and recently, pizza. His deep love of his Lebanese culture is ingrained in how Maalouf runs his kitchen and prepares each meal.
With a commitment to fresh ingredients, Lebanese culture, and getting to know people from all walks of life, Gaby’s has become a Southern California staple. We sat down with Maalouf to learn about his restaurant beginnings, success, and sourcing practices.
What’s the story behind Gaby’s?
I came to the United States from Lebanon to be a film producer and director. I’m a poet. I love to write poetry. For a while, I lived my life as a poet. And that wasn’t so good. I lived in an imaginary world, a dream world, and reality is a little different. But I kept a bit of romance in my life, and the food is something romantic to me.
So I went to film school at Cal State Northridge and graduated in film. I worked in the film industry for over fifteen years. Then I wanted to make my own movies. But when I started to make my own movies, I lost every penny.
While I was going to school and back in Lebanon, I worked as a waiter and in the kitchen. So I know the food very well. When things got tough, I started going back to the restaurant business. I worked as a waiter, a dishwasher, everything. I found this place that wasn’t doing well, and he asked if they wanted to sell. And the rest is history.
How did you choose the name “Gaby’s”?
The restaurant was called, “Mediterranean” in the beginning. But all of my friends and new customers that came in, they’d say, “Let’s go to Gaby’s. Let’s go to Gaby’s.” One of my friends said, “This is not Mediterranean. This is Gaby’s.” So I changed the name.
How would you describe your food?
This is fully Lebanese food. It has an identity. It’s fully Lebanese, the way I was eating at home. My mom, God bless her soul, was making the Lebanese food when we opened. She was 85 years-old at the time. She taught everyone.
What makes the restaurant so successful?
I think the success was in reputation. So my friends came in, and they were the based of my clientele. They wanted to support me, and this is why I’m standing on my feet now, because there’s friendship and people that care about me. This is very important to me.
The integrity too. I cannot serve something that I won’t eat. Or charge for what people did not pay for. I cannot serve what people did not pay for, if they paid more than what I’m giving them. So this is the base of my philosophy. Yes, I know food very well, but also you need to know people very well. You need to care about people.
Tell us about your ingredients.
The thing about opening a restaurant in LA is that you want to find a common ground for all of your clientele. I find the common ground is freshness. If you have a fresh tomato, cut it, and add some salt, it will taste wonderful. But if the tomato is ten or twelve days old, whatever you put on it, it won’t taste good.
There are no leftovers at night. The garlic sauce is made on the same day. If you go inside right now, you will find it just made. Hummus is being made right now. Everything is being made right now. Everyone will be eating fresh food.
What’s your favorite restaurant in LA that you’re not affiliated with?
I love C&O, because of the owners. There’s a Lebanese restaurant called Carnival. I love that guy, the owner. He spends all of his time over there. He’s like a school to me, I learn from watching him. I love restaurants that are very generous. They don’t look at the portions. They don’t look at cutting corners on quality.
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