ICONIC – Charles Khabouth & Hanif Harji

In our new series, ICONIC, we feature people in the restaurant industry whose contributions have made a mark. They have transformed how we think about food and restaurants.

It is only natural that we start with Charles Khabouth of Ink Entertainment and Hanif Harji from Icon Legacy Hospitality.

Apart, Charles and Hanif have had many successful restaurants and clubs over the years. Charles (Club Z, Acrobat, Stilife, Boa, The Guvernment and Koolhaus Entertainment Complex, This is London Nightclub (now known as Product Nightclub), Cube Nightclub, Tattoo, La SociétéSpice Route, and many, many more**) and Hanif (Blowfish, Kultura, Nyood).

Just four years ago, they met at the Whole Foods Café upstairs (interestingly located directly across from their new steakhouse NAO) to talk. Hanif and Charles had places next to one another (WeslodgePatria) and realized they both have high energy and drive and want to continue to evolve, so they joined forces.

Together they have created an empire of restaurants (WeslodgePatriaStorysByblosNAOCitta) that have a luxe look and feel without being exclusive to the everyday crowd. And the variety of types of restaurants and cuisines they've created in four years is staggering - a saloon, catering company, Asian steakhouse, Spanish, Middle Eastern and Italian restaurants.

And there is more to come - Byblos Miami will be opening in March and construction starts next month on their Japanese concept on King Street - a 6,000 square foot restaurant with 30-foot ceilings overlooking David Pecaut Square, to open in August.

Just back from South Beach, Charles and Hanif sit down long enough to share the secrets to their success:

HH: I always wanted to work with Charles. The innovation was a huge factor. My first restaurant (Blowfish on King) was 13 years ago. It’s been a journey of learning and really understanding the industry. It’s nice to talk to someone who speaks my language. Our aesthetics are similar. Charles eats and travels extensively. And when we speak about food, it’s a conversation.

CK: Part of that language is the details of food and wine.  Hanif works closely with the chefs. Hanif is balanced, level headed and this is a big burden off my shoulders. I love what I do and what we're planning to do is so exciting. We’re so diverse in what we’re doing. There’s no ego involved - we're doing it for ourselves.

HH: Nine years ago, I started with Chef Stuart Cameron. We have a great working relationship. He’s one of the most talented people I've ever met…

CK: …He’s very level headed for a chef of his talent (Note: Charles should know – just some of the chefs he worked with over his 30-year career - Didier, Mark McEwan, Susur, Chris Zielinski, Chris Potter).

HH: Our litmus is never compromising quality. I don't want to do something without Charles.

CK: I wouldn't have as much fun doing it on my own.  It pulls away from the creative side. What makes us great is neither one of us has to be sitting here. My biggest goal in life? Do what I want to do, have a great time. I was working on a hotel, looking for someone else to work with. I met with people like Nobu, Jean-Georges… I’m much happier with Hanif. We have the same focus and similar vision. We’ve got a lot of long-term plans.

HH: It’s super exciting. The passion we both feel resonates with staff. They understand what we're doing.

CK: We spent a lot of time finding our strengths. We’re feeding a combined 1500 guests sitting down to eat every week. 

HH: We take each customer complaint very seriously.  We want each consumer experience to be great.

CK: This is the most important thing.

HH: We believe in quality, authenticity and cultivating culture.

CK: We are humble. We learn a lot and never copy work. Everything is 100% ours. It takes longer and is a bigger challenge, but it’s worth it. I spend around 100 days outside of Toronto, meeting with suppliers, booking agencies… I do a lot of research and travel from Montreal to LA. If I read about something, I have to go. It’s incredible for me; it’s what drives me. It allows me to see other concepts, other things. It’s never to copy, but to get inspired. It’s better than what I do. It helps me grow and get motivated.  A lot of talented chefs and designers come up with great concepts. It’s exciting. And often I wonder, why didn't I think of that?

HH: We spend a lot of time on everything. You might not notice it, but you’ll feel it in the restaurant.

CK: You don't notice how it all is put together, but if done right, you leave feeling the food tasted good. We sit in every banquette. EVERYTHING counts.

HH: We spend so much time from details to the light from the light bulbs to how many speakers do we put in. Take our knives at NAO. We didn’t want regular steak knives. We wanted a knife that defines us. So we found a guy who makes them. Then there’s the finding the right containers, hand cream for the washrooms...

CK: One of the hardest things that people don't realize is the amount of work behind the scenes, the time it takes to open and the time it takes to have a successful place. It’s all about personalizing interactions, listening. I learn something new every day.

HH: We’re passionate and creative. What we’re trying to do – act small, think big.

** Throwback to the 80s: Charles’ Oceans appeared in the first episode of The Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous with Robin Leach. It was 1983 and there was dry ice.