A Q&A with Dominique Khoury, the Chef Behind Local Lebanese Pop-Up Looqma

"Looqma really is a reflection of my Lebanese heritage. 'Looqma' means a bite or morsel or a taste in Arabic...but it's also this gesture of sharing and eating. That's really the sense that I'm trying to create."

click to enlarge Dominique Khoury at a Looqma pop-up at Mom 'n 'em - PHOTO: PROVIDED BY DOMINIQUE KHOURY
Photo: Provided by Dominique Khoury
Dominique Khoury at a Looqma pop-up at Mom 'n 'em

Dominique Khoury, the woman behind pop-up restaurant and bakery Looqma, moved to Greater Cincinnati last November. Lucky for us, she brought with her her family’s Lebanese cuisine — rich with spiced, aromatically seasoned meat; earthy stews; bright, citrusy fruits; elegant pastries; and nutty breads.

Looqma has been spotted around the city since May, making appearances by serving pastries at Mom ‘n ‘em in Camp Washington and Deeper Roots in Oakley. Looqma also caters private events to showcase how beautifully a table can be spread with the full array of a celebratory Lebanese feast. 

Chatting with CityBeat recently over coffee at 1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab in Over-the-Rhine, Khoury mentions how beautiful her cup’s latte art is.

“What is amazing is that, when coffee comes to me like this,” she says, gesturing to the intricate heart-shaped lines in the drink’s foam, “it’s making something that’s regular and part of my routine into something special.”

This is something she says she also tries to do with her food.

“I really do feel quite passionate about making small moments beautiful. Whether it be a loaf of bread that you're eating, and you're diving into in the morning and you're getting ready to go to work, and it's all mundane and kind of repetitive, maybe you're able to slice into a beautiful loaf of bread. And maybe that bread has seeds on it that smell incredibly fragrant,” she says. 

“So, when you're having your cup of coffee, it just makes you pause a little bit. I think, coming out of a pandemic, those pauses are really something that we've all started to find gratitude in. I think during the pandemic, many of us have had time to kind of pause and think about things. And I'm trying to really savor those pauses.”

To continue that train of thought, we asked Khoury more about her culinary philosophy, background and the genesis of Looqma. 

CityBeat: Would Looqma have happened without the pandemic?

Dominique Khoury: It was probably always in the cards. I went to business school, graduated from the University of San Diego. And I remember USD was all about wanting to be an entrepreneur. I'm Lebanese, and I feel like that's very much a part of my culture, in a sense — maybe even like the immigrant dream: coming to the U.S., thinking about it like a land of opportunity. 

My father opened up gas stations, my brothers are entrepreneurs, my mom helped to run and open his gas stations as well, and was always involved in those projects and is still involved in projects with my brothers. I think that was always innate and a part of who I am. There was always just a matter of, “OK, well, how do I cultivate this? And how do I channel this energy into a direction that is unique to me and my journey?” 

I always knew from a young age it would be something creative, whether it was in the art field, or theater, or dance or cooking. And I kind of dabbled in all of those directions, but it has culminated in food.

CB: You were born in Johannesburg, South Africa, and your parents are of Lebanese descent. How is Looqma’s food informed by this?

DK: Looqma really is a reflection of my Lebanese heritage. “Looqma” means a bite or morsel or a taste in Arabic. If we were sitting with family and friends at, say, breakfast, there would be za'atar and there would be labneh and there'd be fresh bread. And we start talking about our day, and I’d get excited about what I was eating, and maybe I'd reach across the table and even feed it to you with my hands. And it’s that idea of sharing and being together. Also, “looqma” then becomes an expression, right? So it's a bite or morsel, but it's also this gesture of sharing and eating. That's really the sense that I'm trying to create.

click to enlarge Pasture-raised lamb ribs from Freedom Run Farm — plus local plums, pickled shallots, lemony hummus, a herby zucchini cucumber salad and sesame talami bread — for a Looqma Table pop up at Mom 'n 'em. - PHOTO: PROVIDED BY DOMINIQUE KHOURY
Photo: Provided by Dominique Khoury
Pasture-raised lamb ribs from Freedom Run Farm — plus local plums, pickled shallots, lemony hummus, a herby zucchini cucumber salad and sesame talami bread — for a Looqma Table pop up at Mom 'n 'em.

CB: What are some of the flavor profiles that distinguish Lebanese cooking?

DK: That’s a great question. We use a lot of olive oil. Lebanon is a really small country, and it's on the Mediterranean. There's a beautiful wine region there. There's olive trees that grow there, all sorts of citrus. So you can imagine lots of olive oil, lots of lemon, lots of beautiful fish, beautiful, ripe seasonal vegetables. The cuisine is really fresh and delicious and simple, in a sense. There's a lot of labor sometimes associated with chopping; if you think about tabbouleh, it's tiny chopped tomatoes and minced parsley. But all that labor of love is really what defines Lebanese food. It's the fresh flavor. It's a labor of love. And I think it's things just being presented in their most natural and delicious form.

CB: What dishes did you serve at your most recent pop-up?

DK: I love that you asked. To start, we had appetizers. In Lebanese cuisine we call our appetizers, sort of like antipasto, “mezze.” Mezze is like what you start with; these are just little finger foods. We started with a little bit of hummus that was drizzled with olive oil, paprika, and then on top there was couscous that had been made into a salad with fresh olives and cucumbers, pine nuts, lemon juice and mint. 

Grape leaves are very common. Like Greek culture, it's almost like a dolma style. Rolled grape leaves (and) on the inside the stuffing is called hashweh, which could be anything from rice and lamb or rice and beef. That's cooked inside a grape leaf, or it could be cooked inside kousa, this beautiful dish with stuffed zucchinis that are then cooked in tomato gravy. I couldn't find grape leaves growing right now, but I wanted to use all these beautiful greens that are coming out. A lot of Looqma’s cuisine is really based off seasonality and what's fresh, and so I found some beautiful local swiss chard and rolled those leaves instead. Oh, and instead of using rice I made a hashweh out of lentil, fennel and garlic and lemon juice and stuffed the rolled little swiss chard leaves with that.

Proceeding that, I roasted a ton of beautiful squash with some walnuts over a bed of labneh. I made a beautiful roasted chicken. I took chicken thighs and marinated them in an apricot harissa, and then I seared them in cast irons and served them with plums and apricots that had been rehydrated in red wine vinegar. Lots of local greens, potatoes and chickpeas, so that was really lovely served in the cast iron. 

Of course, there was a big platter of hummus with lots of beautiful organic seeds. I made talami bread. Talami is our version of focaccia; it's a very spongy sort of bread, and I added some sesame seeds, leeks and chard on top that was really lovely. All of the produce highlighted the Tri-State area and Ohio River Valley produce, which was beautiful. The chicken came from Indiana. 

click to enlarge Seasonal lentil soup with fennel, radishes, butternut squash, rainbow chard, parsley and lemon. This soup was featured on the Today show's today.com. - PHOTO: PROVIDED BY DOMINIQUE KHOURY
Photo: Provided by Dominique Khoury
Seasonal lentil soup with fennel, radishes, butternut squash, rainbow chard, parsley and lemon. This soup was featured on the Today show's today.com.

CB: Anything for dessert?

DK: The cookie! The cookie was our signature cookie, the tahini dark chocolate cookie. I use Soom tahini; it’s a woman-owned company. It's a family of women that started this amazing sesame empire. You should totally look into them. They're doing beautiful things with sesame seeds, single-source sesame, and it's the silkiest tahini and I just love it. I use it in my cookies, my hummus, my halva, just about everything. We actually just used our first 40-pound bucket of tahini, and it was, like, pretty amazing, because that's a lot of tahini.

CB: How do you like this city?

DK: I’d love to elaborate on how amazed I’ve been with the city — and when I say city, I also mean Northern Kentucky — by the amount of small business entrepreneurial support that there is. And not just within our industry, because obviously I see that more closely, but just in general. 

I went into Aviatra, which is this incubator program for female entrepreneurs. And I just finished that (and) actually ended up getting the runner-up grant, which is really amazing. But through that, I was able to be introduced to amazing programs within the city like Main Street Ventures in Covington, for example, and also be linked up to other incubator programs. 

I think that's what makes being here right now so exciting. To be welcomed with such open arms, such enthusiasm, is pretty unique and amazing. I just feel really grateful for that.

Looqma’s next pop-up takes place Dec. 4 at Oakley Wines. For information about Looqma’s menus and to view a schedule or book a private dinner, visit looqma.com


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