For many, 2020 was a year of shutting down. For chef Edouard Massih, it was a time of opening up. The 25-year-old expanded his catering business into a storefront in Brooklyn’s burgeoning Greenpoint area. “There's a really big gap of Lebanese food in New York,” he says. “Traveling to London or Paris or Toronto or anywhere really, there's so many Lebanese restaurants and grocery places and it's just more part of the food scene wherever you go. So I wanted to bring that to New York, especially to North Brooklyn, because we had nothing like it here when I opened up.”
Massih has been living in Greenpoint for almost 8 years. He moved to the US from Lebanon with his family when he was 10 years old. “My parents didn't have time to cook for us so I kind of got into the kitchen and that's when I kind of started falling in love with it,” he says. The more and more he played around with cooking traditional family dishes, the more and more he felt like being in the kitchen was where he was meant to be.
After high school, Massih studied at the Culinary Institute of America in Upstate New York, but found the real skills he needed to open up a food business in New York through the proverbial ‘school of life’ itself. Settling in Greenpoint, he worked as a server at Danny Meyer’s North End Grill in TriBeCa, learning from one of the best in the business, before he opened his own catering business in 2017. He’d often include Middle Eastern dishes on his catering menu, developing a signature style of food-spreads served on sheets of brown paper.
A friendship over food
Along the way, Massih developed a friendship with the owner of a Polish American deli down the street from where he lived. Maria’s became his favorite market in the neighborhood, run by Maria Puk. “I used to come in all the time, I’d buy a coffee or a sandwich for myself or for my staff because it was just a deli, and that's how our friendship kind of started,” says Massih. He would drop off cake for her, she’d give him a few items, and so it went, for about four years.
When Puk found out Massih was a chef, she told him that one day the store might be his. Unexpectedly, that day came during COVID. Puk closed Maria’s, at first temporarily, then, a few months later, Massih made his pitch to take over the business, as they’d often discussed. Massih had to end his catering business and the idea for what would become his own Lebanese-speciality deli started forming in his mind.
It was a risk, but Massih believed the downtime could turn out to be the right opportunity to go for his dream. “It all just happened at once,” he says. “I stopped catering and was like, ‘What am I going to do? I kind of freaked out for a little bit. But I've always wanted to open this little grocery spot of some sort. I wanted to open a catering storefront. I didn't think it was gonna become what it has become.” What it became is Edy’s Grocer, a popular spot where foodies can pick up garlic labneh, briny marinated Feta, and brick-red muhammara to go or linger at one of the café tables and benches to try prepared foods like labneh toast and puffy za’atar-crusted man’oushe. Edy’s also sells some Polish foods like potato pancakes and borscht and has Puk’s old sign on display, in tribute to the space's former owner.
“It has been really fun, but also challenging to really understand what customers want and don't want,” says Massih. “Because it's very different to catering. With catering, you know exactly what the client wants because they’re asking for the menu and specific things, but when you’re sharing food that people don’t know – they don’t know the ingredients, they’re trying it for the first time – you have to hope they’ll be adventurous and enjoy it too.”
From Maria’s to Edy’s
And, after years of operating online, in opening a brick-and-mortar, Massih found he opened a whole new set of challenges with Edy’s Grocer. “It's very, very difficult to run a business in New York, but thankfully I had the time to put that effort into opening, since I’d stopped catering. I think it helps in terms of getting the whole space together and making sure everything's running correctly. If I had continued catering and was opening up the spot, I think it would have taken much longer and would have been way more difficult to really nail it all down.”
With Edy’s Grocer, Massih offers Lebanese food adapted for American palates, and every dish has a dash of his grandfather’s olive oil from Lebanon that lends itself to a taste. “The mezze has been a fan favorite,” he says. “And it's one of my favorite things as well. It’s how we start our meals, and sharing different flavors through it has been really fun.” In just a short amount of time, Massih has created a unique community, and shares his pride at being the only LGBTQIA+ -owned market in North Brooklyn supplying Lebanese food. “It's a lot of creativity and it's a lot of fun to come up with a task and you know, do all that goes into it, which I think is like the funnest part of it all.”
Ultimately, Massih believes in the power of food to bring people together. “I think that you can really influence people to look differently at food. Enjoying a meal or snack opens up culture to people. Bringing these different flavors and tastes to the neighborhood that could become part of people’s kitchens and their cupboards in their pantries is exciting. I think that's what makes the difference.”
As he looks towards the coming year, one that will see Edy’s Grocer start to offer delivery and he himself writing more recipes and potentially creating a podcast, Massih knows that everything will come in its due course. “Time teaches you a lot and time is very valuable,” he says. “When you first get to New York, you want to do it all at once. You can get jealous of people who’re already successful and doing the things you want to be doing. That was me,” continues Massih. “I just wanted to rush it all. But it takes time, it takes maturity and learning. So now, I don’t try to rush things. I try to let it do what it needs to.” With time, Edy’s Grocer – and Massih too – hope to share the best of Lebanese food with even more Americans.
Banner image courtesy of Mark Sommerfeld via mailchimp.