Walking through Greenpoint with a pink beanie scrunched over his head and a surgical mask over his nose and beard, the chef Edouard Massih points out the neighborhood’s many delis and markets. He praises a small unassuming produce store run by Korean immigrants, JSS Manhattan Fruit, where he used to buy supplies for his catering business. The owners live upstairs, he says: “That’s such immigrant dedication.” A block north, he pauses at Polka Dot, a Polish deli serving comfort food like pierogi and borscht. It is, he says, one of the markets that made him wonder why he couldn’t have something similar but with flavors from Lebanon, where he was born.
Massih’s favorite market in the neighborhood, where he has lived since 2015, was Maria’s, a Polish American deli run by Maria Puk, where Massih would order chicken cutlets on a hero with lettuce and tomato. “We’re pretty chatty, both of us, so we used to talk a lot,” says Puk. When Massih told her he was a chef, “I says to him, ‘Oh, maybe one day the store will be yours.’”
During COVID, Puk closed Maria’s, at first temporarily. Then, in May, Massih made his pitch: He’d take over the business, as they’d often discussed. At the urging of her adult children, Puk, who is now in her mid-60s, agreed, offering Massih two months of free rent and six months of reduced rent.
And so, with $ 65,000 of savings and no outside investment, Massih transformed Maria’s into Edy’s Grocer, reopening in August with Lebanese spices, oils, and baked goods. Lines to enter the 850-square-foot store snaked around the corner, as customers (who were allowed in three at a time, with masks required) stocked up on garlic labneh, briny marinated Feta, and brick-red muhammara. Some lingered out front at café tables and benches to try prepared foods like labneh toast and puffy za’atar-crusted man’oushe. In a nod to the history of both the neighborhood and the store, Massih also decided to sell some Polish foods like potato pancakes and borscht and kept Maria’s old sign on display.
Just one week before Edy’s opening, an explosion in Beirut killed 204 people and injured more than 7,000. Massih was shaken by the news but determined to help. In its first days of business, Edy’s raised more than $ 2,000 for humanitarian aid, rewarding donors with imported Lebanese snacks like Master potato chips and Dabké lemon cookies — the kinds of products that made Massih want to open Edy’s in the first place: “As a teen, when I missed home, I wanted to walk into a familiar grocery store,” says Massih, who is just 26 but appears older with square-rimmed glasses, a trim beard, and a shaved head. He longed for Bonjus, the pyramid-shaped cartons of orange juice that Massih now stocks in a dedicated mini-fridge. “I’ve seen lots of Lebanese people walk into the store, and they almost start crying when they see it,” Massih says.
There was no Bonjus in Canton, Massachusetts, the white suburban town where Massih’s family relocated from Lebanon when he was 10. Back in Anfeh, a small Christian fishing village located between Beirut and Tripoli, Massih’s life had revolved around food. For lunch, the day’s main meal, he would return from school and his parents would leave work to gather at his grandparents’ home around a large spread of traditional food: kibbeh, Lebanon’s national dish of ground meat and bulgur; local grilled fish; and mezes prepared by his grandmother, Odette, and his parents’ live-in housekeeper, Kivi. Massih calls them the queens of his childhood: He admired his grandmother’s elegance, her blown-out hair and shoulder-padded blazers, and marveled at her mastery of the kitchen despite one disabled hand. He loved the way Kivi, an immigrant from Sri Lanka whom Odette taught to cook Lebanese food, indulged him in the kitchen — then whisked him out when his parents returned home. This was no place for boys, Massih was taught.
Massih’s parents were well to do in Lebanon, but they feared the country’s unstable politics and crumbling infrastructure. After the move to America, Massih’s lunch transformed from a colorful spread of dishes on a familial table to plastic trays of carbs in various shades of beige at the school cafeteria. It was a scene familiar to Massih through his favorite American TV exports like Lizzie McGuire, but in real life “it was very jail-like,” Massih says. Still, he embraced American foods: Loaded potato skins from TGI Fridays, big boxes of Cheez-Its, and Oreos by the sleeve.
Massih continued to gravitate toward the kitchen, eventually petitioning Canton High School to add a cooking class. A fan of TV hosts like Oprah and Rachael Ray, Massih emulated them with his own cooking show on Canton Community Access Television. Wearing his first chef’s whites in his home kitchen, he enthusiastically prepared burgers and chicken Alfredo for his family. In 2012, Massih enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, where he bristled at the outdated curriculum: “They’re still teaching you how to make a stupid espagnole sauce.” A unit on Middle Eastern cuisine especially rankled him. Too much was bastardized, Massih complained to a dean. “‘Don’t forget where you are,’” he remembers being told. “We’re at the Culinary Institute of America.” At first, the comment annoyed Massih, but eventually he understood. “In America, Chinese food is not Chinese; Italian food is not Italian” — it’s all an adaptation, he realized. “If you want to make it here, you’ve got to Americanize this.”
Massih’s most instructive culinary experience in college came far from the CIA, when he staged at a restaurant in Orvieto, Italy. “They’re so Italian in Italy,” he says, “They love their culture. If something’s made in Sicily, you go get it in Sicily — they don’t have it in Orvieto or Florence.” Lebanese people can be that way too, he realized, and it reinvigorated a long-lost pride in his upbringing: “They’ll be like, ‘This is a Lebanese fig. This is a Lebanese pistachio. Nothing’s better than a Lebanese pine nut.’” While in Italy, Massih had a second revelation: Far from home, with help from lots of Italian wine, Massih came out. “It was the first time that I really dug into myself, and there I was, finding my identity: I’m truly Lebanese, and I’m truly gay.”
Returning to Hyde Park was like withdrawal, and Massih landed in academic trouble. During a semester-long suspension, he moved to New York City, working days as an intern at Wine & Spirits magazine and evenings as a line cook at Corkbuzz in Chelsea Market. After a few months, he moved to Greenpoint and took a job as a server at Danny Meyer’s North End Grill in Tribeca. Working for the founder of Shake Shack, Massih studied the kind of restaurant marketing they don’t teach in culinary school. “In NYC, shit, you are in brand-mania,” says Massih. “It’s the mecca of the brands.”
When his suspension was up, Massih took online classes, then commuted a few days a week to Hyde Park to complete his degree. He graduated in 2015 and came out to his parents that weekend. “They stopped talking to me for a while, and that’s when I took it upon myself to do this on my own,” Massih recalls. (They later reconciled and are now close.) He found his calling, and financial stability, working for high-end caterer Pamela Morgan. “I started seeing all these invoices, and I was like, Holy shit, this is where the money’s at,” he remembers.
In 2017, he started his own catering company, working out of a home kitchen in the basement of his building — an illegal but common practice — and growing his client list along with his Instagram following. At his peak, Massih catered ten to 18 events per week: bar mitzvahs, weddings, and Victoria’s Secret photo shoots. Abundant spreads served on sheets of brown paper became his signature. Much of his cooking was Middle Eastern, but when models demanded low-carb health foods, or 13-year-olds begged for sliders, he gamely obliged. The money — over $ 200,000 in his last year — was more than Massih knew what to do with, so he both saved and spent. He purchased a Peloton bike and banked almost $ 75,000 with plans to lease a commercial-kitchen space.
Then, last March, Massih returned from a monthlong vacation in Australia to an in-box stuffed with cancellations. As COVID shut down the city, clients were asking for refunds. Massih shifted to delivery. Selling bulk orders of a Lebanese “quarantine survival menu” was successful enough to ensure its demise: An article in the New York Post featured him and his basement operation, and, responding to the press, the Health Department threatened to shut him down.
“I was like, This is the end of me,” Massih thought at the time. He returned home to his parents in Canton for a couple of months, where he calmed himself and wrote a business plan for a storefront that could carry on despite COVID: “If I was really running a restaurant, see you later on having a life.” A grocery, technically an essential business, fit both his aspirations and the moment.
Massih’s parents were skeptical. Would he have enough Lebanese customers to sustain a business?, his father wondered. “I’m like, ‘It’s not the Lebanese that are gonna buy,’” Massih explained.
(He also ignored his dad’s other business advice, gleaned from the gas stations he runs in Massachusetts: Sell cigarettes and lottery tickets.)
Instead, by adapting Lebanese food for American palates, as he does at Edy’s Grocer, Massih widens his potential customer base, since only about 40,000 of Brooklyn’s 2.6 million residents are Arab American, according to the Arab-American Family Support Center. But this common act of culinary translation also puts Massih in a bind. “You’re not cooking real Lebanese food!,” a Lebanese customer recently told the chef. For other customers, Edy’s Grocer isn’t American enough: “They’re like, ‘Oh, you don’t got no roast beef?’ And I’m like, ‘No, darling.’”
Many of Edy’s items do adhere to tradition, like riz a jej, a chicken and rice dish studded with ground beef, caramelized onions, and pomegranate seeds. It’s listed on the menu as “Lebanese Dirty Rice,” for the benefit of the uninitiated. But marketing Lebanese cuisine to outsiders is nothing new — it’s part of the country’s culinary tradition, says Akram Khater, a professor of history and director of the Khayrallah program for Lebanese American studies at North Carolina State University. By catering to European and then American and Arab tourism in the 1950s, “Lebanon positions itself as this entrepôt between the Middle East and Europe,” Khater says.
Massih has likened Edy’s to a mini-Sahadi’s, his main supplier of spice blends and bulk foods. Christine Sahadi Whelan, the store’s third-generation Lebanese American owner, is flattered by the comparison. As a wholesale customer, Massih is “the perfect demographic for us,” she says, an Instagram-savvy culinary ambassador for Lebanese ingredients.
But Edy’s Grocer is more than a next-generation Sahadi’s, and Massih’s aspirations are broader. He wants to publish a cookbook by age 30, and his long-term sights are set on a career in television — the real real money in the cooking world. “The goal,” he tells me, “is to be the Middle Eastern Martha Stewart.” After all, she too started her business as a caterer working out of her basement. Someone should fill the role, he suggests, citing the dearth of Middle Eastern and openly gay chefs on television.
Right now, Edy’s has yet to turn a profit, and Massih doesn’t expect it to in his first year of business — especially without catering, which he plans to add. But he’s able to employ a staff of 12, including friends from culinary school, and a consultant who manages finances. Massih could also conceivably add more locations, such as the West Village, ideally. “It’s goals for a gay person,” he says. “That’s where our ancestors were and fought for us and where I want to make my voice heard.” The neighborhood could also use a Middle Eastern deli, he adds. Right now, “it’s Citarella, Whole Foods. The usual bullshit.”
In the meantime, Massih is also getting a handle on the behind-the-scenes reality of food TV. In June 2019, he taped an episode of the Food Network’s Chopped. It aired this past July, shortly before Edy’s opened. Massih was eliminated in the second round — his cauliflower gnocchi were too gummy — but a producer on the show took a liking to Massih, he says, while the winner, a white vegan chef who received what’s known as “the villain edit,” presented to appear pleased with Massih’s failure. “She messaged me after it aired and said ‘I promise I wasn’t that mean!’” He could have played the victim, but the truth is that Massih didn’t mind: “I think it made America like me more.”