Chef Olivier Gougeon and Doctor in Business Administration Marie-Hélène Moawad are the creative minds behind Villa Clara. Having enchanted guests with their Beirut-based hotel and restaurant concept in 2011 before being forced to close after the tragic Beirut blast, Villa Clara is now making a comeback. In this exclusive interview, Gougeon tells us about the decision to relaunch and what’s on the horizon.
What led you and your wife, Marie-Hélène Moawad, to open Villa Clara in 2011?
Back then, hospitality’s offerings centered on large luxury hotels and aged classic Lebanese venues. Albergo stood out as the sole boutique option. Knowing Lebanon and its unrivaled charm, we wanted to explore and develop this market. Moreover, we saw the magic of Beirut as its energy and aimed to introduce a completely unique experience in Beirut. Encouraging visitors to immerse themselves in the city and embrace it like a local ensured that Villa Clara was a success from day one. We rapidly became a cultural and art hub.
In 2011, Mar Mikhael was among the few affordable locations for entrepreneurs. Together, we forged an eclectic and avant-garde microcosm. At that time, Beirut needed an alternative destination and people were curious to explore the city. For instance, we never had a sign and would tell people to look for us and enjoy a walk in the area. However, a great deal has changed since then.
Why did you decide to return to Lebanon and reopen Villa Clara?
We started to look for a new location in 2021, but we were waiting for things to settle. As an entrepreneur, it is very important to have a global vision of the market, to be pragmatic and not rush when taking decisions. So, we visited over 50 locations, mainly in Achrafieh, but found the perfect setting in Saifi.
In parallel, we took advantage of this period to develop Villa Clara Leros. It is a project that we initiated in 2015 on a Greek island. The project’s success has enabled us to reinvest in Beirut. Access to funding remains a primary challenge for entrepreneurs in Lebanon today.
What can you tell us about the project and its special features?
I see myself as an artisan. My mission is to use my know-how to offer the right product at the right moment. Ultimately, we are offering moments of grace, whether it is through a croque monsieur for late lunch or pan-seared foie Gras during a first date. As always, I will build my menu by listening to the requests of our guests. With effort and work, we can recreate the madeleine de Proust, evoking vivid memories and capturing priceless moments through culinary craftsmanship.
When is the official opening, and what can guests look forward to experiencing?
Villa Clara Saifi is supposed to open in a few weeks. It is two different entities next to each other. Villa Clara, Le Comptoir, Café and Bar will have around 20 seats and will offer a selection of bites and sharing plates.
As for Villa Clara, La Table, it will provide a small space with an open kitchen and 18 seats. Here, we are proposing a more classical lunch and dining experience.
Furthermore, Villa Clara can accommodate a table for 20 guests for a private party. In addition, we will have an outdoor seating area that’s common to both places.
What will be on the menu?
Currently, I’m traveling nationwide, meeting farmers I used to collaborate with to secure my kitchen’s supply amid recent challenges. Unfortunately, after the challenging times we’ve faced, some of them have had to halt their activities. However, I’ve observed numerous new and promising initiatives. Moreover, I am hopeful that I will be able to propose some of them soon.