Brunswick East's beloved modern Middle Eastern restaurant Rumi has turned 15 and its owner Joseph Abboud is back in the kitchen, along with his wife, son and father.
"It's no secret there are no staff around – we've been advertising for an apprentice for eight months," says Abboud. "But the real driver for getting the family around me is that the pandemic has made me feel exposed and vulnerable. Bringing the troops home is about focusing on what's important."
Joseph's wife, Natalie Abboud, does an early prep shift, washing vegetables and setting the kitchen up for service. "My 75-year-old father comes in to peel garlic, pick herbs and trim the whiskers off the prawns," says Abboud.
Eldest son Malachy, 13, helps on the fryer and the dishes. "He caught on very quickly to saying, 'Yes chef!' to me," says Abboud. "He even says it at home now, really sarcastically."
Younger sons Patrick, 12, and Percy, 10, had a taste of working life in lockdown. "There were lots of containers to pack so all three boys got involved," says Abboud.
The former closed in January and Abboud sold the pizza place to a longtime staff member around the same time. "I couldn't keep sacrificing my attention to Rumi for something that hadn't been making money for years. It took too much out of me."
Shifting from restaurateur to hands-on owner-chef has been hard but great. "It's been cathartic to be back in the Rumi kitchen where it all began," he says. "I realised I needed to be here and protect something that's been important to our lives and our family and our neighbourhood."
The pandemic period has reminded Abboud how important Rumi is to its regulars. "When we emerged from the long lockdown and saw the bookings flooding in, I just burst into tears," he says. "It was so moving."
But could this be Rumi's final year? Having moved from 132 Lygon Street in 2009, the lease at No. 116 is now up. The site is due for development and there's no new home on the horizon.
"It's just a matter of time," says Abboud. "We have a loose arrangement with the landlord and we won't be out on our ear but leaving is inevitable."
He's been looking for a new site for years. "We've come close a couple of times but it has to be local and it has to be right," he says. "I'm letting fate decide. Life has a way of putting things in place when you need it to."
116 Lygon Street, Brunswick East, 03 9388 8255, rumirestaurant.com.au