New York-based chef Tara Khattar is, in a word, exuberant – immediately clarifying how, by her mid-20s, she has appeared on Top Chef France and in media collaborations with Dewars; is publishing a book that contrasts her progressive Lebanese techniques with her grandmothers’ traditions; consults for small restaurants and businesses; and is clamoured after by celebrities. “I’m in a family where everyone is lawyers – Quand tu viens d’une famille d’avocats, et que toi tu fais de la guacamole!” she laughs of her unexpected heritage. Watching Jamie Oliver or Ina Garten on Food Network as a child – which led to a ban on her grocery trips given her penchant for creating pricey after-school macarons – ignited her passion. Fast forward two decades, qualifications from Institut Paul Bocuse and NYU, and training with Michelin star chef Joel Robuchon, Khattar is riding a wave sparked by the childhood dream of being those chefs on TV.
“I realised food and hosting makes everyone happy,” she says. Her attention to pleasure-driven detail resonates through her approach, which embodies aesthetic finesse from her head – with her trademark bandana and red lipstick – to signature dishes and tabletops, which her website elaborates on.
Khattar’s trajectory is based what feels right rather than expectations. “I left Lebanon because I didn’t belong, but I arrived in France not realising what I was getting myself into,” she explains. The reverse Cinderella experience proved transformative and resulted in a competitive edge and understanding of the importance of kind team management, but without naiveté: “If someone asked for my pot I would say sure, but when I didn’t make my omelette because the pots were all used, the Chef would tell me it was my problem and I better learn to hide them!”
The rigorous Lyon-based Institut Paul Bocuse encouraged Khattar to pursue Paris’ Joel Robuchon. “It was Michelin star but accessible, the menu is simple and people understand it,” she says. “I wanted to work there but it was known as the toughest kitchen in Paris with no interns, no women. I harassed him to get an interview and then showed up in a pencil skirt and stilettos! I had broken my thumb recently from holding the door, and he said, ‘I don’t take interns or women because women are full of problems, look at your hand,’ so I said, ‘Well, I tend to get what I want!’” Khattar laughs again. Half an hour later, she had the job. “I walked out thinking ‘Wow, I made it 1,000 times, but 1,000 times after that I also felt like a failure.” Working there sharpened her technique and ability to make split-second decisions: “It has to be perfect. You learn to solve every problem when pushed to your limits and that’s when you create your new self. That’s why I never take on a project unless it scares me.”
Her move to New York saw pay-offs. “Going home for Christmas I ended up sitting next to a well-connected couple planning a 75th birthday,” recalls Khattar of her inadvertent initiation into her current business. “They completely trusted me even though I had just gotten to New York and had no idea how to do a catered event or where to get the food – I ended up flying in foie gras from France!” While the legwork may have incited a sharp learning curve, the success of her decision to present restaurant-style food cooked on-site saw her quickly acquire 30 high-profile clients. A further 60 were added by her business of delivering homemade Lebanese food in jars straight to clients’ fridges. “My motto was, ‘It’s like having your mom in town, except the food is better and your mom isn’t here!’” quips Khattar. “Then Top Chef France called me – the most intense culinary competition in the world. I never thought I would qualify, and I hadn’t cooked professionally in a kitchen for two years. It’s like asking someone who swims at home to compete with an Olympic swimmer!” It was Top Chef that formed her culinary language: Progressive Lebanese, or, Accessible, bold, delicate dishes created with sophisticated techniques.
It is a desire to remain authentic to both her culture and the reach of to her growing voice that resonates. Khattar’s hustle, which she attributes to how every Lebanese person has a tinier Lebanese person living inside them fearlessly dreaming big, is what propels her forward.