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‘Paris is where I want to be. It’s the best place to be a chef.’
Gems in this
Dubai-born, Palestinian chef and owner of Dirty Lemon bar in Paris, Ruba Khoury, is something of a lucky charm in the kitchen. She trained in Paris’ best kitchens — Septime, Frenchie and yam’Tcha — and each went on to win a Michelin star during her tenure, or shortly thereafter.
Raised in Dubai, educated in upstate New York, schooled at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, and honing her craft in Paris’s best kitchens, Khoury then opened Dirty Lemon in late 2019. More than a bar, it’s a space created in response to a lack of safe, queer and lesbian-friendly spots in Paris. Beyond fusion food and cold-pressed juice cocktails, it has since become something of a cultural meeting place for the community, playing host to female resident chefs, live music and art performances. We chat with Ruba about her Cordon Bleu-meets-Mediterranean-street-food menu, and her favorite off-the-tourist-track spots to eat for her Paris Travel Playbook.
On growing up in Dubai
The first years of my life growing up in Dubai were completely different because, back then, nobody knew what Dubai was. It started developing to what it is today when I was 15 or 16 years old. But growing up it was just a little town by the beach, everybody knew each other and it was quite a small community, even though it was still very heavily expat-based at that time. It was mostly Arab expats trying to make a name for themselves and build community in the city, but everybody pretty much knew each other and it was quite quaint. It was a very quiet, relaxed, laid-back childhood. When I was a teenager was when the big skyscrapers started to come in, and the malls with ski slopes and all these crazy cars. I left a couple of years after that, when I was 18. So my memory of Dubai is different to how people experience it today.
On the influence of your Palestinian culture
In our Palestinian culture we love to host and have people over and cook for them, and we’re very gourmand as a culture. We love eating and sharing food and stories around the table, and I would always try to help my mom in the kitchen. I love starting from a simple ingredient and turning it into a dish, and handing the dish to someone and seeing their faces when they eat it — it’s like, the whole experience from start to finish. And I love working with my hands, I’m a very tactile person.
On your path to Paris, via New York
After Dubai, I went to college in upstate New York and got a bachelor’s degree in hotel management. Then, I came to Paris for cooking school at Le Cordon Bleu when I was 22, which in the industry is quite late (usually you start around 16). Historically, it’s a place you go to get educated or ‘straightened out’, because it’s very rigorous work and long hours in the kitchen with a kind of military-like discipline. So after a year at culinary school, I would just go around and give people my CV, and ended up at what are all now Michelin restaurants. So I’m very, very proud of my background and the chef I am today because of those experiences.
On cutting your teeth in Paris’ best kitchens
My first job was at Septime in 2013 and it was very tough. It was at a moment before they were awarded the Michelin star, so it was a very rigorous and stressful time, but I learnt a lot. After that, I worked with Adeline Grattard, founder of Yam’Tcha, and was pretty much a sous-chef by the end of it. I attribute the chef that I am today to her as she really pushed me — it was tough but a great experience. After that I worked at Frenchie and then started doing my own pop-ups around Paris and France. There was a whole wave of Mediterranean food at that time, like how Levantine food took off in 2016, and that’s when I started experimenting with my own cuisine, because there's nothing I can do better than the food I grew up eating and cooking. That took off and here I am.
‘Dirty Lemon is a bar from a woman’s point of view. I wanted to create something that everybody can come to. It’s not just for the community but also to show the world that women can do it too.’
On the ethos of your bar, Dirty Lemon
It was basically to create a bar from a woman’s point of view. Historically, bars — especially cocktail bars — are seen as very pretentious and masculine and are run by tatted and bearded men. You feel like you can’t enter without knowing a thing or two about spirits or cocktails, it can be unwelcoming. Also, bars are known to not be a safe space for women. It’s not so common that a woman can go to a bar and sit alone at a counter and have a drink without being harassed or spoken to. So the whole idea was to create a space for women — the queer community, because I’m queer — that was inclusive and welcoming, where you can have a good drink with great music, good vibes and good food at the same time. Which is quite rare, especially for the queer community in Paris. So often the queer community is cornered into the section of the restaurant or bar industry where it’s just like dingy places found in certain neighborhood, and there’s no food or good drinks or music. I wanted to change that and create something that everybody can come to. It’s not just for the community but also to show the world that we can do it too, and have it just as nice as other establishments.
On your whistle stop tour of the best tables in Paris
Le Royal China is definitely the best dim sum in town. You go in and you feel like you’re in Chinatown in New York City. It’s super delicious and fresh, definitely an experience. Aujourd’hui Demain is the best vegan brunch spot, and it’s in the middle of a vegan grocery store that sells vegan clothing. I think it’s very unique in Paris. La REcyclerie is an urban farm and industrial café workshop. There are many things going on there. It’s a huge space, super fun. For good, down-to-earth, authentic home-style Japanese food, go to Chez Miki in the 2nd district. It’s woman-owned, a one-woman show in the kitchen, a very tiny place run by two women.
On how Paris inspires you creatively
It’s just such a beautiful city. You step out of your apartment and have everything around you. There’s an open-air market a couple of times a week, there’s a museum or a monument on every corner. I find the culture very rich, as well as the country itself.
‘You step out of your apartment and have everything around you. There’s an open-air market, a museum or a monument on every corner. I find the culture very rich.’
On a creator in Paris you are inspired by right now
Graffiti artist Ahlam Jarban, a Yemeni refugee who recently moved to Paris. Her art often explores female oppression in the region and I’m very inspired by her work.
On finding (and refinding) creativity in Paris
Good question. I actually usually leave the city. I think leaving Paris, taking a step back, and being able to reflect and look at it from a different angle opens up the inspiration channels and lets things be absorbed differently. Because when you’re in your daily life, you can get into a zone and have tunnel vision, and you’re unable to see things from another point of view. I feel like leaving the city from time to time is good for inspiration.
On finding community in Paris
When I moved to Paris, finding a community was quite difficult. It was a new city in a different language. However, because I went to culinary school here, I started to make friends who, to this day, I still speak to — I married one of them, actually! I met my wife there. So that helps build small roots. Then, working in the restaurant industry, you create such a strong bond with your coworkers because you’re going through thick and thin. You spend long hours together, usually in small spaces, and you’re all there building towards the same goal, so you create a bond. It’s been a long journey, but I really feel like, in the past couple of years, I’ve definitely found my community.
‘Musée de la Vie Romantique is a free museum — it’s super tiny, like bite-sized. Go through the museum and then don’t miss the café in the garden, it’s beautiful.’
On showing a friend around Paris for the day
I’d take them for a croissant and coffee in the morning, then a walk around the Marais. I’d take them to the River Seine and to see some monuments, like Notre-Dame or the Eiffel Tower. Then, I’d take them to a typical French bistro lunch in Saint-Germain, and then over to Dirty Lemon for a drink.
On your top culture spots
If you like live music, definitely go by La Gare / Le Gore in the 19th on a small, old tramway line that used to run through the city border and has turned into a jazz club every night of the week. It’s donation-based, so at the end of each performance, they pass along a purse and you put in what you feel. It’s very community-based. Musée de la Vie Romantique is a free museum — it’s super tiny, like bite-sized. It’s perfect if you’re like me who gets bored after half an hour. Go through the museum and then don’t miss the café in the garden, it’s beautiful. For Jardin de l’Hôtel de Sully there’s a secret entrance from there into Place des Vosges, which is also a beautiful manicured garden. Le CENTQUATRE is an old factory that’s been renovated into an edgy cultural center where they host exhibitions, artists and performances. La Roche Mère is a crystal shop in the 11th district. They do customized readings. They have very strange hours, usually there’s a line out the door of people waiting to get their auras read. I highly recommend it, it’s an experience.
On exploring the city by foot and hot air balloon
If you happen to be in the 12th district, definitely take a walk on the Coulée Verte. It’s actually what inspired the New York High Line. It’s a green space on top of the viaduct in the 12th, and if you walk all the way to the end, past the bridge and keep walking, you’ll end up in a forest in the middle of the city. It’s beautiful. If you want a nice view of the town, definitely take the Ballon de Paris Generali hot air balloon ride in the city. It’s in the middle of the city in the 15th arrondissement. You go up and down — it takes about 15 minutes, very easy. You get a beautiful view and you get to actually see the Eiffel Tower, you can see all the beautiful monuments.
On having a love-hate relationship with Paris
My relationship with Paris is love-hate, after talking it up so much! It’s a city, at the end of the day, it’s very stressful. There are a lot of people in a tiny, concentrated area so, of course, daily life can be heavy, but at the same time I love it so much. It’s where I want to be, there’s nowhere else in the world I’d rather be right now. I feel like it’s my home and I feel very safe here, and it’s the best place to be a chef as well.
‘No matter what your socioeconomic status, you can step out and have access to everything almost anyone has. It’s accessible to everyone, you can have a really rich quality of life here.’
On a window or aisle seat
Honestly it all depends where I’m going. If it’s a short trip, less than three hours, I’ll take the aisle because you get quick access to the bathroom and you get out of the plane faster — you know, grab your bag and go. But if it’s a long haul, definitely a window, I need to lean on something to sleep, for sure.
On Paris in one word
In the sense that, no matter what your socioeconomic status, you can step out and have access to everything almost anyone has, like affordable fruit and vegetables, cheese, great wine. It’s accessible to everyone, you can have a really rich quality of life here.