“Why do you ask me that, because you think I’m fat?”
Israeli Chef Einat Admony looked me straight in the eye as she countered my question with a question — and then broke into a smile. We sat in the corner booth of Balaboosta, her restaurant on Mulberry Street in Nolita, for an interview for Clean Plates. My timing was lucky. Originally the chef had 30 minutes to answer my questions, but then her next appointment cancelled. We settled in to chat about street food, travel, her new cookbook, and what it’s really like to be a woman in charge of the kitchen.
As we popped crispy fried olives into our mouths, it emerged that I had never traveled to Israel, and she had never traveled to Ireland. I told her to get in touch if she was ever planning a trip to Dublin. “It’s a smaller restaurant scene than New York, but I can point you in the right direction.”
She thanked me, but when I asked if she would tell me where to go in Israel, she paused and responded with a sly smile, “Maybe.”
This slightly dark sense of humor characterized the rest of our interview. I imagine that it brings entertainment to the kitchen, and as I learned a couple weeks later eating dinner at Balaboosta, it brings vibrance to the restaurant floor too. Chefs sometimes have a reputation for being irreverent, but Einat took this characteristic a step further: she is unapologetically herself. The result is ambitious, delicious food that takes a risk — and succeeds.
Excitement takes over as she talks about cooking. I asked her about conceiving dishes, about what sparks an idea for something new. She immediately started describing a dish called “Israeli street fair”. This playful appetizer includes chicken and merguez stuffed into a fresh pita with amba yogurt, served with sweet potato sticks and pickles in a plastic bag. It is the type of handheld food you would eat while strolling the streets in Israel. This dish brings not only flavors, but experiences, of a different country straight to a table in New York.
Einat is a wife, mother of two, and chef of successful NYC restaurants. She travels to Israel several times a year, often bringing her 5 1/2 year old son, Liam with her. “My son is my tester — he is always very honest. He tastes everything. He grew up in restaurants, really. When we go out, he orders his steak medium rare.” She has a beaming smile of pride on her face talking about her son’s developed tastes.
“Is it difficult to balance running a successful restaurant and being a mother?” I asked. “How do you find the time for both?”
“It is not easy, but it is not difficult either.” she replied with a wink. “First of all, I’m a very good delegator. I know what I can handle. It’s also important to put yourself first. Take care of yourself. If I don’t put myself first, I have nothing to give.”
The empty plate of olives was taken away, and a plump lamb burger stuffed with goat cheese arrived. Einat cut into a steak, tapping the surface with her finger first to ensure it was cooked medium rare. She shared some of her crispy cabbage salad with me, complete with roasted almonds and a fresh mint vinaigrette. As we continued to chat, her fork hovered over my plate. When I nodded, she stabbed a couple golden patatas bravas.
As we ate, I stopped to think about how much I admired Einat’s philosophy about putting herself first. Some women can wear themselves thin always putting loved ones first. I was certainly guilty of this at times.
“Is this a lesson you try and teach your children?” I asked.
“Sometimes I ask my son, I say Liam, who do you love the most? He responds: You, Mommy. And I say no, not me, you love yourself the most.”
“Does he admire what you do? Or does he have a hard time with the fact that you work at night?”
“I asked him once if he was going to work for me in the restaurant when he gets older. He said no. He wants to open his own restaurant.”
Chef Einat Admony’s cookbook is coming out in 2013. The chapters are broken down into situations or moods, providing recipes for a rainy day, backyard party, or grown-up table.
Must-try dishes at Balaboosta:
- Hummus “mortar and pestle” with lemon, tahini, and roasted garlic
- Shrimp Kataïf, Wrapped in Shredded Phyllo
- Grilled Whole Branzino, Beet-Citrus Salad, Grilled Asparagus, Lemon-Dill Sauce
- Lamburger : Stuffed with Herbed Goat Cheese, served with Caramilzed Onions, Brioche Bun, Patatas Bravas