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Cheat Day: Teya Mikhael, head chef of Maison Libanaise

Where do the notable chefs and bartenders of Hong Kong’s F&B scene like to eat when they’re not cooking? What is their best home-cooked meal? Cheat Day goes behind the scenes with the city’s culinarians and tastemakers to find out exactly what their personal favourites are during their days off.

For any newly arrived chef to Hong Kong’s abundant world of food and drink, things can feel a slight bit overwhelming — from the ease and accessibility of a multitude of cuisines to the availability to a plethora of fresh global produce. As Maison Libanaise’s newest head chef Teya Mikhael puts it, “There are so many great [Hong Kong ingredients], I’m still learning all the amazing ways I can integrate them into my work.”

Chef Teya Mikhael of Maison Libanaise

Fortunately for Mikhael, she’s already an expert in cuisine that has little to do with local Hong Kong flavours. As she dips into the pool of fresh produce in a new foreign land, she’s already comfortably replicating the delicious serves of earthy, spice-filled Middle Eastern meals that she’s fond and familiar with at Black Sheep’s Lebanese canteen, and in her kitchen, where she’s added tweaks to everyday condiments, like butter, for a taste of home. Which for Mikhael, is the northern part of Beirut in Lebanon’s Qobayat, a luscious forest-bordering village with undisturbed stretches of green.

It has always been the convivial sense of community that defines a memorable dining experience, a collective instance shared across cultures and family traditions, much like how Mikhael is used to back in Lebanon. Inspired by her own memories of evening dinners with friends and family passing around generous portions of comforting home-cooking, it’s an ethos she hopes to instil at her Maison Libanaise.

“I am excited to bring a new menu that’s focused on recipes from my childhood, from my home,” Mikhael shares. “My grandmother and mother are my inspiration, but what truly inspired me is the food culture I grew up with. I am sharing with guests even more of my culture through food and experience.”

Mikhael’s love for food began young, as it so often does. She grew up around comforting family recipes prepared by her mother and grandmother before getting her start in restaurants as a waitress. Then came a degree in Hospitality and Events Management, followed by stints at five-star hotels, such as Athanasios Kargatzidis’s BARON, and eventually landing a position at famed The Lebanese Bakery, opened in 2016 by brothers Samer and Bassam Chamoun and gained immense following with its rustic Lebanese baked bites and flatbread, where Mikhael eventually took the lead as head chef.

At The Lebanese Bakery, which owns outposts in London, Bahrain, Riyadh and Cairo beyond its original location in Beirut, Mikhael honed her skill and knowledge in traditional Lebanese bakes (TLB is a recreation of traditional furns, or neighbourhood bakeries in Lebanon), especially with two cuisine staples: mouajjanet (pastries) and manoushe (flatbread). The latter, a rolled-out flatbread typically served with a smattering of toppings, also happen to be one of Mikhael’s own beloved snacks, which she has since created and designed a full menu of at Maison Libanaise.

Souvenir de La Maison (HK$688/person)

“Lebanese cuisine is incredibly distinctive,” says Mikhael. “While I have studied many different cuisines, I always find myself coming back to the kind of food that is shared at an unhurried pace over a drink or two — something that the food culture of Lebanon is all about.”

Also at Maison Libanaise, a spectacular 13-dish showcase of Mikhael’s authentic Lebanese flavours in a generous mezze menu, Souvenir de La Maison. Among the highlights, Baba Ganoush made with pomegranate salsa, charred eggplant, yoghurt, tahini and a drizzle of olive oil; the traditional salad of Tabboulé; Hummus Awarma, minced lamb with chickpea pureé; Arnabit Meshwe, roasted cauliflower; and a hefty helping of homemade pita bread.

The next time you do pay a visit to Mikhael’s new Maison Libanaise, bring friends and a big appetite.

What was the last meal you had?

For breakfast this morning, I had toasted sourdough with spiced butter. I like my butter mixed with sumac, Aleppo chilli and sea salt.

What does being a chef mean to you?

Being a chef is a form of self-expression. It is where I can really show who I am — my personality, my heritage and history, the things I love — and this is all expressed through the dishes I create.

Tell me some of your signature dishes/ creations?

I try to cook every dish as though it is the best version and hope that every dish I make has a part of it that makes it a signature for me. I am still working on my recipes and tweaking them to perfection; it is a never-ending process! Recently we did a really amazing rooftop barbecue at Maison Libanaise where I was able to try a variety of different and new spice mixes, and the Manoushe pop-up was a way for me to put my own twist on my favourite Lebanese street food.

cheat day teya mikhael
Mozzarella and Chilli Manoushe (HK$128), Lahm Bi Ajeen Manoushe (HK$188)

What was the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever received?

I love to read and find a lot of inspiration in books. One of my favourite authors is Yotam Ottolenghi; I’ve read so many of the things he’s written.

Honestly, what is it like working with you in the kitchen?

People come from so many different places and experiences, they have such different histories that I try to be patient and understanding. I do my best to make sure that my team is working in a comfortable environment and guide them as much as I can. The rest is up to them, but hopefully, they fall in love with cooking in the same way I have!

Do you cook at home? If so, what is your go-to home-cooked dish?

Yes, actually! I do like to cook at home, but often just with how busy I am, it ends up being something easy and light, usually a salad with fresh, seasonal vegetables.

You have 30 minutes. What will you make?

I default to pasta when I’m under a time constraint! Just something light and refreshing, usually with a little olive oil and lemon zest.

Name the top three favourite ingredients/condiments you currently own in your pantry.

Olive oil, Aleppo pepper, lemon.

cheat day teya mikhael
Salatat Shamandar, beetroot lentil salad (HK$148)
cheat day teya mikhael
Bizre (crispy whitebait with tahini, tarator, herbs and coriander seeds)

What are your guilty pleasures?

It has to be a tie between pizza and chocolate!

The best meal you ever had?

I have so much more to eat and experience I honestly believe that it is still to come!

What was your most memorable food moment?

There was this small family-run restaurant in Como, Italy called Trattoria Baita Belvedere. I was there with my whole family for a shared meal, the weather was perfect and there was just an enormous amount of good food and good wine. It was lots of fun.

What is one dish/snack/food you can’t live without?

Salt and Vinegar Pringles!

cheat day teya mikhael
Kabse Tiger Prawns on the La Fête des Mères menu

Savoury or sweet?

I enjoy savoury a bit more — but of course, if it’s chocolate…..

Where do you like to go on your day off?

Regardless of the weather or time of year, I love to look for a restaurant the restaurants that have the best view. Usually, I spend my time off hunting for the best spots or revisiting my favourites — no matter what city I’m in!

The five best dishes/drinks you’ve had in Hong Kong?

Sadly, I haven’t been here long and I’ve been at Maison Libanaise essentially every day since I got out of quarantine, but I can name two things that I’ve absolutely loved so far: Maru De Sankaku Ramen and the Boulevardier that my friends over at Buenos Aires Polo Club whipped up for me one night.

Something you want to try while in Hong Kong?

I just hope that I have the opportunity to really learn more about Cantonese cuisine and Hong Kong culture. I hope that the friends I make here can introduce me to different ways to celebrate the local cuisine and enjoy it.

Cheat Day: Teya Mikhael, head chef of Maison Libanaise

After two years writing in luxury retail, Lorria now covers food and drink happenings in Hong Kong. When not taste-testing for the best fries in the city (shoestring, always!), find her at home obsessing over tableware and attempting a fruit garden on her tiny bay window. She is happiest by the ocean with a giant fishbowl-glass of Aperol Spritz.

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