"I feel like it's very hard to limit myself to Israeli food. This is where I play."
Chef Einat Admony of Balaboosta is both a creative, passionate chef and a nurturer by nature who wants family and customers alike to eat often and well. Her dishes tease with familiarity—hummus, pizza, olives, burrata cheese—but then take off in wild and unexpected directions in both flavor and presentation. As Admony speaks about food, you can tell she really loves eating it.
Your menu is interesting because the roots seem Israeli, but with Mediterranean ingredients from beyond. How do you define your cuisine? I don't call this restaurant Middle Eastern. I call it Mediterranean, because in each dish I take from different cultures. But there is always something to bring it back to my roots.
How did you figure out that those cuisines—pan-Mediterranean and Israeli in particular—work so well together? Experience. And experimentation.
Was there a first dish that opened your eyes to that connection? No, but I traveled most of my life. I'm like a gypsy; I barely lived in Israel. I get a lot of inspiration from my travels. I feel like it's very hard to limit myself to Israeli food. This is where I play.
What goes through your mind when starting a dish from scratch? It's very important to me to have crunch and texture at the beginning, and then end with balance. I have to be sure that I'm not flying away with getting out of the borders of what I told myself this restaurant is going to represent.
What are those borders? I really believe that what I do the best is my comfort food. But I don't want to limit myself too much. So it's tricky—how do I exactly define my cuisine? Yes, it's Israeli in its roots and soul, but with other influences and other touches. The way I want to eat, health-wise or taste-wise, is the way I want my customers to eat.
So let's go back to those roots; where did this all start? My mom and my aunt. I've cooked since I was five. My mom is a religious Jew, and on Fridays before Shabbat I was her sous chef. That was my role as early as I can remember. I used to do all the small things: cleaning and opening beans, picking through four pounds of rice. She's Iranian, and slowly I started learning this beautiful and very rich cuisine. I learned very young.
Was there a time you remember when you chose or just accepted that this was what you were going to do as a career? When I was around 23 and living Germany, I was at a cross-roads where I said, "what do I really want to do?" And the answer came naturally. Because wherever I went I became "the cook." It's just what I was; at every house I visited the first thing I did was look to see what I could cook with for people. So I knew I'd never get tired of it.
Along those lines, you often throw extravagant Jewish holiday meals here and then go home and host 30-40 people. What do you get to do differently at home? Things that don't look good, which are all family-style. Even if it's a few courses it's going to be family-style at a long table–more or less a lot of food and a million salads.
Do you still find comfort cooking at home? Yeah. My husband used to come home from work at 2 a.m. when I was sleeping and I'd jump up—BANG!—and start cooking. Fridays I take off work, wake up late and start to cook for family and friends from about ten or eleven until about five o'clock. I love it.
The influence of Israeli chefs has grown the past couple of years. Where do you see the state of food rooted in Israel right now in New York? Do you see our knowledge growing? I call it "New Israeli" cuisine. It's a little bit like what I do. But I think mine is a little bit more specific.
Do you see us moving in the right direction? I like what is happening because it's making people understand more what Israeli food is; people always thought of Israeli food as Jewish food and Jewish food as matzo balls, and that's the worst! They make fun of that food in Israel! Israeli food has so many colors and cultures—people came there from all over. And people in the United States don't know much about that. So in Israel people try to cherish that and not lose that.
So what are some staples we're still missing? A lot of great fish that people don't do the same, a lot of Iraqi food, Jewish Yemenite cuisine, all the soups. I do something here that's very tricky so people don't do it any more: a kibbe soup wrapped with semolina and bulgur, beef inside, and in a broth kind of like borscht but warm, sweet, and sour. Ahhh! I'm going to make it once for you. It's great. I'm putting all of these kinds of recipes in my book so people don't forget. A lot of the recipes are complicated, but I don't care. This is the kind of cuisine I miss that you can find anywhere in Israel.
When you showed us how to make gondi, you told us that you consider yourself almost a "feminist chef" in a way: what did you mean by that? I see a lot of men working here. Yes, but I've also been in a kitchen just with women. I get a lot of questions about how it is to be a woman in this industry. I can tell you most of the places I've worked at, the first position they put me at is garde manger—not the meat station, even though I had the experience. In the beginning that would make me angry.
But I realized I was strong and pushy enough. So in two weeks I would go to the chef and say, "look, you know I'm good. You see my food is fast and perfect. I'm loyal. I am moral. I come early to work, I come on my day off to learn." Then I would move to any station I wanted. So as a woman they would treat me a little bit differently until they realized I could kick ass. I like to work with women—I love it. There's something different about it when there are women working in the kitchen.
Like what? Attention to detail. A study. A better end. I never get jealous of another woman. I appreciate them. It's nice.
Thank you, that's all I've got for questions. Good. Let me get you food.
About the author: Jacqueline Raposo is a writer and frantic private chef celebrating her last weekend of cooking in East Hampton by eating at Balaboosta this week. Join her alternatively baking at www.thedustybaker.com and tweeting furiously at @dustybakergal.