What’s it like combining work with family?
Well, no-one has ripped each others heads off (yet!). It’s pretty amazing that I can work with my family. My brother Emad and sister-in-law Marwa bought the business in the late 1990s. Our parents got involved in the very early days, collecting produce from the markets. Today my nieces and nephews - Natalie, George and Michael - are very much involved in the business, supporting our vision and adding their own stamp to it. I’ve done pretty much every role in the business.
Tell us about your heritage.
I have two brothers and three sisters who were all born in either Lebanon or Syria. My uncle immigrated to Australia in 1966 and my Dad followed. When Dad arrived, he worked all kinds of jobs. He started in a metal foundry in Huntingdale, and saved his wage to send back to Mum to enable her and my siblings to come here (who arrived four years later). He bought and sold small businesses - a milk bar, a deli - he had amazing business acumen not to mention the balls to do what he did.
My parents could sense a change happening in their home land. Syria was the most beautiful, serene, fertile, peaceful place. The whole country has now been decimated. It’s incredibly sad. We’ve got family members that have been upended by the turmoil and ones who have passed. But Lebanon is still one of the best countries in the world. There is so much tension and fear, but people still live with joy and fearlessness. They look forward to each day, and retain an unwavering hope amongst the despair and uncertainty.
Do you have any family food traditions?
Our family’s patron saint is Saint Elias (my parents named me after him, too). Any time there was a sick child or accident, my family would offer a sacrifice to Saint Elias to help guide us through the tough times, and this sacrifice would be made on 20th July, Saint Elias’ day. So our sacrifice is a rooster. We kill it, clean it, and cook to share it as part of our dinner on that day, every year. We use one of mum’s roosters. My dad used to do the sacrifice, but he passed in 2013 so I do it now. It helps me to connect with who he was. There’s not many of those opportunities, and I like that.
How has Oasis changed over the years?
We didn't choose the name ‘Oasis’, but somehow it has just grown to be an oasis. I did the buying for many years and my decision making was simply a case of “Is this something that I would eat?”, “Is this something that I would serve?”. It was always a case of wanting to have a bigger range and stock ingredients that other retailers or venues didn’t have, to make it really different. So it has became an oasis, just because of the range, as well as the location (in the middle of nowhere, really) - it has grown into this.
From day one it was very much about servicing the middle eastern community. getting them the staples such as pita bread and cheese pies. Then we grew and that’s a testament to the changing food culture of Australia. People are wanting to try food from other cultures. Up until 2009 we were operating in the old store and it was never set up to be what it needed to be. We had to knock down walls, add tables, all over time. At that pointed we physically expanded, creating a bigger store for our cafe and retail areas, with dedicated baking and production facilities. We’ve also been planning a site down in Mornington for the last couple of years and will have a pop-up store there in January 2018 (and a much bigger permanent space to come).
What do you create in your own kitchen?
I’ve been reading ‘Modernist Cuisine’ by Nathan Mhyvorld, an ex Microsoft guy who decided to focus on his interest in cooking. He spent millions putting together this cookbook which goes into the science of how things turn out the way they do, and explores if there is a better way, using science. He has some amazing videos of food cooking. I make his mac and cheese, which uses sodium citrate to emulsify the cheese, rather than adding milk and flour to create the bechamel sauce. You can make it just using straight cheese and water and you get a much creamier, smoother finish. I really like the science thing; flipping something on its head but getting the same result. That’s pretty cool. I also like the pure basics. A dozen fresh oysters. Fresh bread and butter.
And what’s cooking at Oasis?
We are constantly drawing from our heritage - fresh salads, dips, hot dishes - our repertoire is much larger now, but we always have a connection to middle eastern cooking. My favourite dishes in the cafe are our breakfast ones. Archie's Avo is a staple. We revisit this dish every three months; we’re up to about version ten now. The current version has barberries, pistachio kernels, buckwheat, poppy seeds and poached eggs (Real Eggs, of course) - we tie items from the retail store into the cafe - if you liked it in your dish, you can buy it as well. There’s also a dish called Ely’s Eggs. I’d always say to our chef Simon “hey can you make us something to eat?” and one day he made this dish and I said, ”Yes! Keep making me that!!”.
My sister-in-law Marwa runs our cooking school with a natural focus on middle eastern cooking, often drawing from her two cookbooks. She has just launched her second, “Yalla, Yalla!” (an Arabic phase meaning ‘hurry up!), a collection of middle-eastern dishes that are delicious and quick and easy to prepare.
Win a copy of “Yalla, Yalla!” and a ticket to an Oasis cooking demonstration with Marwa (valued at $95). All the entry details are here.
What is it about Real Eggs?
If you’re gonna eat eggs it is important that it comes from a sound source; that the chickens are well cared for and that they are allowed to live as chickens. It’s the next best thing to growing them yourself. I say that Real Eggs are as good as mum’s eggs. Mum has forty chickens, but they don’t make quite enough eggs for us to offer them on the menu!
On The Menu
Ely’s Eggs (pictured). Two poached Real Eggs, cherry tomatoes, mushrooms, ful medammas, spinach, grilled halloumi, herb salad, Oasis sourdough toast.
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