at home: Middle Eastern Recipes From Our Kitchen, by chefs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, is one of the most inspiring cookbooks out on shelves. From recipes such as their Green Shakshuka to their Potato and Feta Fritters and Lentil Stew with Burnt Aubergine, Eggs, Tahini, and Zehug, the dishes Packer and Srulovich share with their fans will satisfy the most discerning of taste buds. Of London’s famed Honey & Co., at home is yet another of the dynamic duo’s successful ventures. Below, the the husband-and-wife team share their thoughts on our very long list of questions on recipes, the importance of breaking bread with friends, their many businesses, and so much more!
Downtown: What made you move from Israel to London?
Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich of Honey & Co.: When we were living in Israel, 16 years ago, the food scene was rather limited and most modern establishments were looking West for culinary inspiration. Italy, France and America were the biggest influences on food, so we decided that as we had the relevant passports it was best to simply learn at the source. Of course, since then— well, in in the last 10 years—the food scene in Israel has exploded and become its own thing.
Downtown: What was the process like before you opened your restaurant, then deli, and then Middle Eastern grill? I am amazed at the drive and dedication to creating such incredible successful businesses in a foreign country—and all while doing what you love!
SP & IS: It was a really crazy road. We wanted a very small place which we could cook at and serve and just be part of our surrounding community. We looked for ages in our own neighborhood of Brixton in South London, but we couldn’t find a place that would work. At the time we had this idea of walking to work in the morning, not having to use public transport.
But as life goes, we were having a stroll in Fitzrovia in London and saw this cute little empty place. This became Honey & Co. and we’re so happy with it! We were cooking and serving and only had another two members of staff. As we got busier and busier, we needed more help and our team grew to 12 members in the tiniest of shops (it can only sit 25 guests at a time). As our staff progressed, they wanted to take on more responsibility, and we felt we had to expand to make room for them all (physically and professionally!). We wanted to take on a larger restaurant with a big office. But that took time and signing a new lease was difficult. So in the meantime, we snuck in the opening of our little deli, Honey & Spice, as well as our head office just across the street from Honey & Co. A few months later, Honey & Smoke, our grill restaurant, was finally ready and we opened the doors there too! It was really all simply organic growth. All of our places are less than a five-minute-walk from each other which we are really happy with.
Downtown: What brought about the idea of creating your first cookbooks, and now, at home: Middle Eastern Recipes From our Kitchen?
SP & IS: When we opened our restaurants we didn’t realize we were actually in the middle of London’s publishing district, but it soon became clear. Within two months of opening we started getting agents coming down to the kitchen to introduce themselves and to tell us they would be happy to represent us in writing a cookbook. We politely declined for about six months and then happened to have a conversation with the literary agent who said: ‘you know, if you sign a contract now, it can still be two years until the book is out.’ We thought, ‘no way, we can do it in a year!’ It was like a challenge to ourselves, and the result was ey & Co The Cookbook. The second book The Baking Book (published as Golden in the USA), and the third book, Honey & Co At Home, came about through our continued work on recipes both for our Financial Times column and for the restaurants.
Downtown: How do the books differ?
SP & IS: It was so much fun working on the first book Honey & Co The Cookbook, almost like a diary of the first year of our restaurant. It actually helped us a lot in training our chefs to cook our food exactly as we wanted it. It is more like a manual to how we see Middle Eastern food; it has the structure of a meal. We then followed with The Baking Book (published as Golden in the USA) which covers all our pastries, breads, cakes, cookies, and bakes. It is a companion to the first and follows a day in the restaurant from dawn till lights out. This current book, Honey & Co At Home, is a return to our flat and our home—a way for us to connect again to cooking for ourselves and for our friends. It was a great way for us to return to the joy of everyday cooking outside of the restaurant kitchen, and it carries a wider range of simpler entertaining tricks and easy dinners.
Downtown: We absolutely love how you separated each chapter, i.e. Spice Mixes; Relishes; Sauces and Pastas; Main meals; For the weekend; For Friends, etc. What was the thought process behind this idea?
SP & IS: As we started working on the book, we realized the regular structure of a starter and main doesn’t really apply to us. We cook for an occasion. It doesn’t have to be a grand occasion, dinner for the two of us is great, but there are certain foods we make for ourselves for dinner that we wouldn’t really go and serve for guests. Then there are more elaborate dishes we would only make if a crowd were coming over. And the weekend recipes are the recipes we relish, the ones that take time, that you enjoy the process sometimes more than the result. Really the book mimics how we live, and it was all shot in our flat in London with our friends around.
Downtown: Are the Potato and Feta Fritters your invention? Despite my Middle Eastern background, I have yet to try what sounds like an incredibly delicious dish!
SP & IS: It is the best dish in the book! Potato latkes are a staple of Jewish cooking and have always been a comfort food, not a daily thing, but something you eat to make yourself happy at the end of a hard day. We have made several versions, many with various vegetables and herbs. But sometimes an empty fridge equals a happy accident —the ingredients we had to work with resulted in this amazing combination of salt and honey and savory fried potatoes.
Downtown: Tell us about your Green Shakshuka… as the red sauce-based one is already incredibly popular, our minds were blown by the green! What distinctive flavors come forth?
SP & IS: The green shakshuka is the dish we call our Wednesday night dinner, because we tend to go to the farmers market on a Sunday and buy loads of leafy vegetables. By Wednesday, they start to wilt. So, we wash all the leaves well (carrot tops, radish leaves, swiss chard, spinach, anything and everything really) and wilt everything together to create the most fragrant mix within which to poach eggs. We serve it with yogurt and bread and are as happy as can be.
Downtown: If you had to pick one favorite dish, what would it be and why?
SP & IS: For me (Itamar), it is most likely the Tahini and White Chocolate Cake. For Sarit, it’s the Mansaf. Mansaf takes work, but it is the tastiest thing you will ever encounter. But it is really hard to choose.
Downtown: The Four Friends section of your book had our mouths watering. What are some of the biggest recipe hits amongst your friends that you included? What do you think is so important about breaking bread and sharing a meal made with love with those in our lives?
SP & IS: We love having friends over, it reminds us of what life is really all about. We can get very obsessed with work and the demands on our time. But when we sit for a lovely dinner, and eat, chat, drink and laugh, it is simply the best. Our friends are obsessed with the little Harissa buns, as they come out of the oven all hot, cheesy and spicy. Other favorites are the Strawberry Ricotta Cakes, the Aubergine Dips, the Chicken in Plums and the little chocolate cakes… and so many more.
Downtown: Savoury bakes! That is one of our absolute favorite sections because recipes for people who love to bake but aren’t necessarily into sweets are very rarely focused on. Do you have a favorite from this section? What has the reaction to it been like?
SP & IS: We bake everything. Using filo or puff pastry is always a good little trick for an easy, satisfying dinner. We love the Fish Pastilla, it’s a pie with a rich filling and crisp filo casing. The Olive and Orange Maamool are very popular when we serve them as pre-dinner bites at the restaurants—they’re rich orange and semolina pastries filled with a savoury olive concoction.
Downtown: As we poured through this book, with a seriously growing appetite, it became very obvious how fresh all of the ingredients are. What do you think is so special about the Middle Eastern diet?
SP & IS: Eating mostly fruit, vegetables, and nuts is the way forward, for sure. The Middle Eastern diet is low on meat, high on pulses and grains, and involves lots of tahini. More and more people are understanding that this is about wellbeing.
Downtown: One of our favorite terms in your book was “comfort cooking.” We agree! While we aren’t chefs, that is completely a thing. It helps one relax and let the stress fall away. Can you explain to our readers what that means to you?
SP & IS: In our professional life cooking can really be a thing of stress, but at home it is all about enjoyment. If we don’t want to cook you can always have takeaway, but if you take the time to cook for yourself, you really feel the satisfaction of it.
Downtown: What are some of the most unexpected recipes you included and what do you most love about them?
SP & IS: The lentil stew is so simple but deeply satisfying. We love the reaction on people’s faces when they eat that for the first time. We had to include our BBQ Aubergine with Jeweled Rice Salad—this is one recipe from the restaurant that snuck into the book because so many people ask for it! It is the most popular vegetarian dish we serve in the restaurant. The Cherry, Herb and Freekeh Tabule has had a great reaction—the colors are just as amazing as the flavor. In terms of cakes, the Tahini Cake with white chocolate and lemon has become a real favorite for us. It has a bit of an American feel to it as we took a Buttermilk and Peanut Butter Cake recipe and added a Middle Eastern twist— we use tahini instead of peanut butter and added white chocolate and lemon zest.
Downtown: How did you narrow down and choose the recipes you have included in this book?
SP & IS: Once we came up with the idea for At Home, we had a clear idea of what would be in each section because it is an exact replica of how we cook at home! We both championed our favorite recipes and it worked out.
Downtown: What is next up for you? Can we expect another book? If so, what will the focus be?
SP & IS: We are excited to be visiting the USA on a couple of tours and getting out and meeting people cooking our recipes. We love to hear from people who have tried something at home, it is so fun to get a little email from someone who’s just cooked something new for the first time! We are always busy with the restaurants and coming up with new ideas. For now, we are very happy with our three near-to-each-other places in our lovely neighborhood.