An innovative off-grid Lebanese kiosk will open on Monday at Federation Square, even though its chef is stuck in Beirut.
Therese Helou has been in Lebanon all year, caring for her dying mother, coping with the challenges of the pandemic, and regrouping after her apartment was damaged and friends injured in the Beirut blast of August 4.
At the same time, she's been planning Atiyah, her first food business, with son-in-law Ben Armstrong. "I have had a very tough time here," says Ms Helou from Beirut. "Ben was doing something to lift my spirits, to keep me busy."
She went to nearby hills to find the best za'atar spice for the manakish flatbreads Atiyah will sell. She tutored her son-in-law in dough-making via video and she tasted couriered samples of Australian olive oil to find the one that tastes most like Lebanese varieties.
"All of this took away the bad thinking and helped me look forward to a beautiful future," she says. Ms Helou didn't need to test the flour. "In Lebanon they all use Australian flour anyway."
Atiyah will be part of the revival of a crucial Melbourne gathering place but its ambitions go beyond Federation Square.
"We want to revolutionise the fast food industry and show other businesses they can do better from a sustainability point of view," says Mr Armstrong, who devoted himself to environmental action two years ago.
"I had a crossroads in life. I was in marketing and I wanted more purpose. I looked at industries that were behind the eight-ball and thought of food. My dad was a publican and my brother is a publican. I'd worked 12 years in hospitality, and my mother-in-law wanted to make manakish. It all fell into place."
Assembled off-site, Atiyah is a zero-carbon showpiece Armstrong hopes will inspire other food businesses. A solar panel on the roof powers a Tesla battery while a biodiesel generator runs on cooking oil waste.
Rain fills a water tank that's purified for drinking and used in a chemical-free cleaning system. Produce is sourced locally and from carbon-neutral meat suppliers. Packaging is compostable and customers can put used containers and any leftovers into compost bins at the kiosk.
"I'm supposed to be the sustainability part of the business and Therese the food side," says Mr Armstrong. "But circumstances got in the way." With Therese's remote assistance, he learnt to make manakish using a traditional domed saj (like an upturned wok) and will now be on deck in the kitchen.
"The project has had its challenges but we've been able to work together very well considering," he says. "It's been really enjoyable."
Mr Armstrong is looking forward to summer in Federation Square. The precinct has installed new outdoor dining spaces and furniture, there will be live bands on the main stage, roving entertainers, a Sky Castle sound and light installation from November 14, and free parking throughout November.
By early December, top chefs Jo Barrett and Matt Stone will be living on the river terrace in a house designed by zero-waste innovator Joost Bakker. "We're building a closed-loop home that transforms waste into a resource," says Mr Bakker. "By February, the whole building will be covered with food."
It's just one more instance of hope rising. "We're already seeing the city picking up," says Mr Armstrong "I'm very confident things will improve quickly. We got through, we're here and I'm excited."