Maison Bleue duo recall escape from Algiers on restaurant’s 20th anniversary

Dad and daughter duo Dean and Layla Gassabi are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their restaurant Maison Bleue. Picture: Jon Savage
Dad and daughter duo Dean and Layla Gassabi are celebrating the 20th anniversary of their restaurant Maison Bleue. Picture: Jon Savage
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Restaurateurs Dean and Layla Gassabi are feeling anything but blue right now.

Twenty unbroken years of serving up top notch Mediterranean cuisine has earned the dad and daughter duo’s iconic Old Town eatery a place at the top table among the Edinburgh institutions.

Maison Bleue celebrated their 15-year anniversary by hiring a vintage DeLorean. Picture: Greg Macvean

Maison Bleue celebrated their 15-year anniversary by hiring a vintage DeLorean. Picture: Greg Macvean

But, Maison Bleue would not have existed at all if life had gone to plan.

This is the story of how one family overcame personal setbacks to end up as the victors of Victoria Street against all the odds.

Speaking in his distinct Scots-Algerian lilt, Dean Gassabi, the 62-year-old founder of the franchise, recalls arriving in Scotland as a student in 1976.

“I just loved it,” he says, fondly.

The eyes of the world were on Maison Bleue at Home in 2016 when Leonardo DiCaprio visited. Picture: Social Bite

The eyes of the world were on Maison Bleue at Home in 2016 when Leonardo DiCaprio visited. Picture: Social Bite

“What hit me, though, was the lack of restaurants. The only place open on a Sunday was a Crawford’s (bakery) on Princes Street.”

Within a few years Dean was married with children, and managing a popular Cockburn Street denim emporium: Jean City as well as continuing a post grad degree in urban design.

With Dean required to complete his military service, the young family relocated to Algiers in 1983. Entrepreneurial success followed, when Dean started up his own architecture and construction firm.

Everything was going great; then the troubles started.

Josh Littlejohn with Dean Gassabi of Maison Bleue at the opening of Home in 2016. Picture: Social Bite

Josh Littlejohn with Dean Gassabi of Maison Bleue at the opening of Home in 2016. Picture: Social Bite

The Algerian Civil War, a violent and bloody struggle that claimed up to 200,000 lives, broke out in early 1992 when a military coup dismantled the Islamic Salvation Front, just as the pro-sharia party appeared to be triumphing in the general election.

Business people, journalists, intellectuals and foreigners- such as Dean’s late Scottish wife Joanne Boyd were targeted by the Islamists and were advised to leave.

“The terrorism was so bad in Algeria,” Dean explains, “they even shot at the kids’ school”.

The Gassabis packed their bags and fled for Edinburgh; leaving everyone they knew and everything they owned behind.

Dean Gassabi pictured outside Maison Bleue in 2004. Picture: TSPL

Dean Gassabi pictured outside Maison Bleue in 2004. Picture: TSPL

Layla, 38, recalls the transition.

“I was 13... It was quite traumatic,” she explains. “But we just had to adjust”.

Here in Edinburgh, Dean encountered Pierre Levicky, a French chef, who owned the hugely-successful Pierre Victoire chain. Dean decided to invest in the franchise, running restaurants at Union Street and Stockbridge.

In 1998, Dean, with Pierre acting as consultant, founded a new restaurant, ‘Bleue’, at a prime location on Victoria Street.

Right from day one, Dean sought to infuse his own origins into the venture.

“It was named after La Grande Bleue; the Mediterranean – where I was born,” reveals Dean.

Three months in, the ‘Maison’ prefix was added. Dean made it his mission to offer something completely new.

“We did street food before anyone,” he beams, “the big thing back then was ‘the new way of eating’. We asked people to eat with their hands if they wanted to.”

The fare at Maison Bleue was, and remains, rooted in the tastes and textures of France, North Africa and Scotland.

One of the Maison Bleue’s staples is Rosco’s haggis balls; deliciously crispy spheres filled with spicy Caledonian goodness. They are, it turns out, named for the family dog, who lapped them up every morning for more than a decade.

When Maison Bleue first started, Dean and Layla explain, there wasn’t so much competition. That isn’t the case now.

“We’re really proud we’ve managed to make it to this stage, considering the market’s absolutely saturated with restaurants now,” says Layla.

“We must be doing something right”.

But increased competition isn’t the only threat Maison Bleue has faced. There was an uncertain period post 9/11 when tourism slowed down to a trickle, followed by the hugely challenging financial crisis.

Now Brexit is on the horizon.

“Depending on what’s going to happen, it’s going to be a massive hurdle,” says Dean.

“Our challenge here is to continue to ensure our chefs are highly-skilled to be able to produce all these dishes from all over the world.”

The past few years have been among the most exciting for the brand.

The business expanded in 2014 with the opening of the main restaurant’s ‘little sister’, Maison Bleue Le Bistrot in Morningside.

Then, two years ago, the Gassabis teamed up with Josh Littlejohn at Social Bite to create a revolutionary new venture where customers could ‘pay it forward’ and buy meals for those living on the streets. They called it Maison Bleue at Home.

“We came up with this idea of opening up this place for the homeless, where once or twice a week they would get fed in a restaurant atmosphere and get a proper restaurant meal served by proper restaurant waiting staff. Make them feel wanted.”

With none other than Leonardo Dicaprio there for the launch, ‘Home’, made headlines across the world.

“He loved my mac and cheese!” grins Dean.

Dean was honoured to join Josh in welcoming Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to Social Bite on Rose Street earlier this year.

“Meghan told me, if they’d had time, they would’ve dined at Home.” says Dean.

Raising more than £70,000 for Social Bite’s mission to end homelessness in Scotland, Home was a massive success. Dean and Layla have now passed the spurtle on to a new operator though continue to be involved at board level.

“What we’re trying to do now is to put Maison Bleue back in the forefront of people’s minds” explains Layla, “we’re a household name, an Edinburgh institution now and that’s fine. 
But we have to keep things fresh.”

And what of Rosco’s famous haggis balls?

“Oh, they’ll be here till the end – as long as we can catch enough fresh haggis!” laughs Dean.

To celebrate Maison Bleue’s 20th anniversary, Dean and Layla are reverting back to 1998 prices from the end of October till the of the year: “It’s our Christmas present to our loyal customers,” Dean explains, “because, without them, we wouldn’t be here”.

He adds: “Who would’ve thought that when we left Algiers. left everything... the business the home that we’d one day be celebrating this? I don’t think we could’ve done this in another place.”