We had the opportunity to chat with Ziyad Harmez, owner of Manousheh: a Lebanese flatbread shop in New York City. After moving to the United States for undergraduate and graduate school, Ziyad found himself craving his favorite Lebanese comfort food – piping hot bread fresh from the oven, topped with olive oil and zaatar. After testing hundreds of recipes in his home kitchen, Ziyad decided to travel back to Lebanon to perfect his craft by interning with some of the most highly respected Manousheh bakers. Now, he’s spreading the Manousheh love throughout New York.
Tell me a little bit about your restaurant, Manousheh.
So the restaurant is named after the food itself. We basically didn’t want people calling it something that it’s not – which most likely would have been Lebanese pizza or Lebanese wraps. Things like that. Even though it’s fine to make those comparisons, we just really wanted it to have its own identity. Manousheh is traditionally eaten for breakfast. Some actually say that it predates pizza. It has various toppings, but the original is the Zaatar Manousheh. A Zaatar Manousheh is basically like the Margherita of pizzas – it’s a blend of thyme, sumac, and sesame seeds.
Was your plan always to be a baker?
I went to school for a Master of Science in Information Systems. When I moved to the states, Manousheh was something that I was looking for and couldn’t find. I had always been a picky eater, so growing up, this was one of the few things I enjoyed eating. When I couldn’t find it anywhere, I just kept saying “somebody is going to do it.” So I initially started trying to mess around at home and realized pretty quickly that this was a science. Every detail mattered to the end product – it was just fascinating, and I got really into it.
I just kept on baking and baking and trying different recipes. I’d have people come over and they’d all be taste testers. It was a very fun experience. In the beginning, we didn’t bake it properly. A friend of mine was over, and he was like, “Why don’t we try and make one?” I was like, “ I don’t know how to bake.” He said, “I’ve baked before, let’s try.” We just bought some flour, sat in my kitchen, and made some dough.
It was a mess. It took a couple dozen tries before it even felt comfortable, but I just watched YouTube videos and I would go on forums and read books and all these different methods of basically trying to learn. I guess it very quickly developed into a passion.
Was there ever a point in time when you were like I suck at this – why am I doing this?
Yeah look, it happens all the time. It happens even to this day. I’ve got the restaurant; it’s open and everything, and there are days when that [thought] happens.
So, you started in your kitchen – how many test runs did you do?
Hundreds, easily. At first, it was just trying to get the dough to become a solid shape. I didn’t know how to bake at all.
So when did you get to the point where you decided “I need to go to Lebanon and intern with people,” and really geek out on this?
I took some classes there first. They were pizza classes. It was at that point when I realized that every time I took one of those classes, I felt like I knew everything they were teaching. I just thought that I needed to go and see what it was about, and learn whatever I could. Actually one of the most important things that I learned was from watching the baker. Being there in that environment, watching this guy interact with his customers who are basically like his family at that point.
I was just sitting there and watching – the guy had a broken leg at the time and somebody would walk in and be like, “How’s your leg?” and he’d be like, “Who cares about my leg? It’s my wife. She is driving me crazy!”
So that whole experience just made me realize that this is the corner store. It had to do with the smells, it had to do with the atmosphere, and it really had to do with the baker.
Is it as charming as you thought it would be?
It’s as crazy as everyone told me it was going to be. Or maybe crazier.
Do you feel like you found your calling now?
I’m human, right? We always want new challenges. I am grateful. This is an experience that I wouldn’t change for anything, and I am still going forward with it. But you never know, anything could happen.
I just want to tell people to not be afraid of failing because even to this day, I still have that.
When you are opening a restaurant specifically, it’s day to day. Every single day matters. The most important thing is: don’t be afraid to fail. Because the fail, in my opinion, is a blessing in disguise.
To hear more of Ziyad’s story, check out Season Two, Episode Six of the Open Belly Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or wherever you get your podcasts.
193 Bleeker Street New York, NY 10012
Images by Alyssa Broadus