Want to know more about your favourite London-based chefs beyond their basic foodie likes and dislikes? Curious to know what motivates them on a professional and personal level? Me too, which is why I’m launching my Spotlight on Chefs series, where I quiz them on a range of subjects. And who better to kick off proceedings than my delightful work neighbours Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich aka Honey & Co? It may have taken me a long time to schedule my first visit (link to review below), but good things do come to those who wait, and I have definitely been making up for lost time ever since.
What’s the one dish you have tried in another restaurant that you wish you’d created, either in London or elsewhere, and why was it so memorable?
Sarit: The aubergine and bonito flake dish at Roka in Charlotte Street is one of the best dishes in London and we go back there for it on a regular basis. It’s pure simplicity: fried aubergines, delicious miso dressing and lovely bonito flakes, nothing else, but it’s so effective and delicious. It even inspired us to create our BBQ aubergine dish that we serve at Honey & Co.
Itamar: There used to be an excellent little restaurant in Jaffe in Israel with a woman who cooked homemade food, but so delicious that you wanted to eat there every day. One of the dishes was wedded sardines filled with herbs and tarma and then fried. She used to serve it with some grated tomatoes and the dish was just perfect.
What’s your least favourite job in the kitchen and why?
The truth is we love most of the kitchen jobs. The most boring jobs are the best ones, most meditative, so prepping artichokes, peeling carrots, juicing lemons are all so much fun and allow you to sort your thoughts out for the day. If we had to say anything, then cleaning is the worst; you sometimes wish at the end of a shift that you could just walk away from it all and come back the next day to a magically clean space.
Middle Eastern food is increasingly popular, especially in London. How do you stay ahead of the competition?
We never try to stay ahead of the competition; if anything, we are trying to stay as far behind it as possible. We are trying to cook food that has been cooked for generations, without messing with it too much. We pay a lot of attention to the food, our love for it and the staff that cook and serve it, and that’s it.
You both started cooking at a very young age, but if you had had to choose an alternative career, what would it have been?
Sarit: I’m not sure. I think possible something to do with my hands, maybe pottery or jewellery design.
Itamar: Maybe a writer of some sort.
How do you decide who to invite for your “Foodie Talks” sessions, and was there any particular reason why Rachel Roddy hosted the first one?
We are avid cookbook readers and absolutely love a good book that can take you away to another location and we are trying to base our foodie talks on those books that inspire us or make us want to go travelling to a place. Rachel is an excellent writer and made Rome look like the most exciting food destination, as well as being a lovely person, so she seemed a natural fit to start us off.
Apart from your own, which books do you gift most often to family and friends and why?
We are always buying cookery books for people. I think it’s very much about matching the level and subject to the end recipient. There is no point in getting books that will never be looked at, so when buying for family, we would go for something more approachable, fun and suitable for family cooking. Skye Gyngell’s My Favourite Ingredients is one example, or Diana Henry’s A Change of Appetite. For our chefs, we try and take a more inspirational route, so we would choose Claudia Roden or Anissa Helou for them to understand the culture and background of the foods they are cooking. For the pastry chef, something a little more professional like Bouchon or Tartine.
What have been your favourite failures and what did you learn from them?
I’m not sure this is a possible sentence. No-one likes to fail ever, and we do our best to make things good before we leave them be. But there are always funny cooking incidents that happen, like setting food on fire, forgetting to serve something we prepared especially and then having to eat it the next day. Sometimes, creating something from a catastrophe can be fun too, like a great iced tea from a batch of fruit you have overcooked.
Are there any opportunities that you wish you had taken and what was the consequence of not having done so?
When we moved to the UK in 2004, the idea was to move on in six months and thus travel all through Europe cheffing for six months at a time so we got to know a country and its language. Alas, that never happened: we ended up staying here and only travelling on holiday. It took so long to get stuff settled and the idea of moving again simply didn’t make sense. It could have been fun to see the working kitchens of European countries from within and gather experience, but we are not complaining; life turned out OK for us.
What has been your least extravagant purchase, but the one that’s had the most positive impact on your lives?
Probably Honey & Co. We were looking for locations for two years and really wanted something that would suit this grill restaurant Itamar had been dreaming about. The menus were sorted as was a basic business plan, but we couldn’t find anything in our budget. When we saw 25 Warren Street, it was an empty, old deli that had been vacant for a year. It was nothing like the place we had in mind, but it had a working kitchen and we could afford the rent for at least a year. That was that: we took it on and said, “Even if all we do is make lasagne, at least we will have a starting point.” That turned out to be the best decision we ever made.
Who are your food heroes, either personal or professional, and what do they represent for you?
We don’t really have food heroes per se. We love Claudia Roden and her studied research into an area that means so much to us. There are plenty of our staff that we admire on a day-to-day basis; they inspire us with their hard work dedication and commitment.
What’s your most valuable possession, how did you acquire it and why does it mean so much to you?
Sarit: We aren’t really into valuables. I suppose our wedding rings would be the most precious to us personally. They’re probably not the most expensive as we were young and not well off when we married, but they have the most sentimental value for us (even though I can never wear mine in the kitchen, so it rarely comes out).
If you were invited to speak about a topic unrelated to food, what would it be and what about it appeals to you?
I think there is a possibility it would be about the Arab-Israeli conflict and how we believe early education would be the best way to start making a change. It’s a hard subject to discuss, with so many tensions on both sides, but there must be more that can be done to try and solve this. There’s so much more that is similar between the two cultures than there is difference and yet the conflict rages on. We wish we had a way to help solve problems.
I hope you enjoyed this Honey & Co interview. If you have any comments and/or questions, either for me or the chefs, please drop me a message below, via email (firstname.lastname@example.org) on social media (@SavlaFaire). Thanks!