My plan was, is, to write about food and people who are serious about it for a living. I have another plan to be a photographer. Both ambitions have had some success; I write for greatbritishchefs.com and minim.com has taken a number of my photos for its library. It’s a beginning. But I guess my pitch for an interview with Honey & Co was poorly timed or went straight into spam folders, maybe. Well, here it is, and I really like the photos, too.
I spent an afternoon talking to Itamar Shrulevitch and Sarit Packer of Honey & Co outside their restaurant, on a sunny afternoon the day after their first cookbook, Food From the Middle East, has won the Guild of Food Writers best first cookbook of the year. A couple of weeks earlier it had won cookbook of the year at the Fortnum and Mason awards. It had already been named the Sunday Times cookbook of the year. And it has just been published in America. Prizes are fun, says Itamar, if you win. The first printed copy of their second book, The Baking Book, has been delivered an hour earlier. Also, it’s three years to the day since they opened their tiny restaurant in the less pretty part of Fitzrovia.
I’d read through the first book again the previous day. I hadn’t realised how many of the recipes I’d cooked from it, maybe a good half of them. A high percentage for any cookbook. All the recipes work. My favourite dish in the restaurant is gundi – a chicken dumpling in broth. I’ve made it many times from the book, too. Oh, and the cherry, pistachio and coconut cake is the best cake I’ve ever made or eaten. And the feta bouikos – triangles of cheesy deliciousness – are finished much too quickly. I could go on.
The introductions to each section are mostly written by Itamar. They tell the story of the pair getting together, working together, opening the restaurant together. They are lovely pieces of writing. While we’re talking Sarit seems serene while Itamar frets about a cake someone has ordered but not yet collected or paid for. A waitress brings him a copy of the first book to sign for some Australians eating there. Come again soon, he writes. It’s not so easy to find a free table.
Every few minutes he gets up to hug a passer-by or a porter who has arrived for work. The couple make their customers into friends. We all laugh a lot while I’m with them. The restaurant is a landmark in the wrong end of Warren Street. It was championed by their friend and former employer Yotam Ottolenghi and noticed and loved by food writers and bloggers from the day it opened. It’s a tiny space that’s always busy. As you sit reading the menu you will notice a mexican wave of oh my gods, and wows as peoples’ orders are delivered to their tables.
Their food is a middle-eastern mix, Turkish and Iranian and Israeli, North African and Lebanese, warm with spices and herbs, pomegranate and quince. It’s interesting, I think, how middle-eastern food is becoming part of the mainstream in Britain. Thanks, not least, to the global popularity of Mr Ottolenghi, but also to chefs and writers like Itamar and Sarit and Sabrina Ghayour. Diana Henry, the doyenne of great British food writing, says this is the food she mostly cooks at home. All British supermarkets sell pomegranate molasses, and zatar and sumac are becoming easy to find.
Sarit thinks we’ve taken to it because, quite simply, it tastes so good. It does that, of course, and it suits the natural British taste for sweet and sour. There isn’t a fridge in Britain without a bottle of ketchup. Sweet fish and chips are soused with sour vinegar, and, heavens, let’s not forget the Hawaiin pizza. Middle eastern food satisfies that taste with it’s pomegranate seeds showered over lamb and apricots nestled in stews. And there’s the chilli heat, reminiscent of a sweet curry, tempered, of course, by sour yoghurt. It fits our tastebuds perfectly. And with its emphasis on vegetables it sits comfortably on the healthy eating table. It’s easy to make, too, although it calls for chopping, the way Chinese food calls for chopping, i.e., a lot.
Itamar and Sarit are Israeli. They met when they worked together in Tel Aviv. When she accepted his proposal she said, I have a new lease on happiness. I ask them the what the best part of working with your husband/wife is. Without hesitation Sarit says she loves being able to share everything with someone she loves. The successes, but also the hard work and the problems. They share tasks, too. Sarit is the pastry cook, a pastry genius, really. In the restaurant Itamar is often found front of house, hugging people he knows, charming the first-timers, while Sarit mostly stays in the kitchen. At home Itamar does most of the cooking, the same sort of food you can eat in the restaurant, while Sarit looks after the details, paying bills, the other stuff that needs to be done.
A truly captivating thing about them is how close they are and how supportive they are of each other. The new book is mostly Sarit’s recipes but it is, emphatically, their book. It is timed, I suppose, to coincide with the Great British Bake Off, and Britain’s enthusiasm for baking, or at least Britain’s enthusiasm for books about baking. They’re proud of the whole book, as they should be, and are travelling all over the country to promote it.
It is broken up into times of the day; First Light, After Dark, and so on. I ask them which are the recipes in the new book people should try first. They both point to the babka sitting in the window, a yeasted chocolate cake which will deliver lots of oohs when you make it. And a lemon drizzle cake. They continue listing their favourites. Breakfast cake is a thing! says Itamar. Their jams and preserves are in the Dead of Night chapter. There are lots of cheesecakes. There are savoury muffins and pastries, too. They’re proud of the shakshuka, eggs in a spicy, tomato sauce. It is good to know that there is no time of day without an appropriate baked food.
They are thinking of opening a second restaurant but only if it’s within walking distance. They don’t want to be taken from the thing they most love, cooking. Also, it would be less fun. They want the people who work for them to be able to grow and have good careers, good lives. They think of their staff as family and speak warmly about all of them, especially Rachel, who has been with them since the beginning. They’re good at choosing the people who work there, but Itamar says the people who work there choose them. It is a good sign, I think, in an industry with such a high staff turnover, that people stay with them for so long.
I ask what is it about London that suits them and Itamar’s answer surprises me. There is distance between people, he says. People can be left alone. When they found the site there was a large fridge in the kitchen. They called it the cold heart of the restaurant. It is the only cold thing in the place. Itamar and Sarit bring a rare warmth to the food and the restaurant. Itamar says that everyone doesn’t get it. I don’t think anyone could really not find something to enjoy about their food, but the place is noisy and un-English. It can feel chaotic even though it isn’t. No one ever has to wait long for their order.
Why are they so successful? Good food at good prices, says Itamar. Nice food, nice music, nice people, that’s it, that’s life. Every day they wake up thinking it will explode, but I don’t think it will. It’s not fancy dress food, it’s not a put-on style. The generosity that’s at the heart of all hospitality is found at Honey & Co in abundance. The food comes from their hearts and this comes through on the plate. You can taste the love. Sarit says, We’re feeders completely, in that Jewish mother way. We want people to sit, enjoy, and love the food. They do, Sarit, they do.
Honey & Co, 25a Warren Street, London W1T 5LZ