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Itamar Srulovich & Sarit Packer

23rd June 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

23rd June 2015

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

Itamar and Sarit, owners of the wonderful Honey & Co restaurant in central London, live in a bright, airy first-floor apartment in Brixton, about five minutes from the market. When we drop by one sunny lunchtime in March, they are sitting in their front room doing admin and trying not to get too excited about their forthcoming second cookbook, the sample covers of which are spread out across the dining table. This book focuses on baking – Honey & Co are justly famous for their cakes – and when friends came around to the flat to test out the recipes, they tell us, things got a little messy.

“Everyone would get on a sugar high…” Sarit begins. “And get really agitated – ‘It’s great!!!’ – then collapse,” says Itamar, chuckling. “Then everyone would start to cry: ‘I feel so empty’. They were not such successful tasting sessions.”

Our tasting session, happily, is a less of an emotional roller-coaster. For lunch they’re trying out a new dish before it goes on the Honey & Co menu – fish cakes fried with spinach and tomato, accompanied by a Turkish salad. First we have some cardamom coffee from their native Israel, which Sarit serves on one of the blue-and-white Moorish tiles that grace the floor of the restaurant. Then Itamar takes us around Brixton Market to pick up the ingredients, reflecting on how some of his favourite small traders are being pushed out as chain restaurants encroach.

Back home, Itamar takes charge of cooking; the small kitchen at the back is his domain and he notes, wryly, that Sarit hasn’t set foot in here in a long time. “Hey, I cooked you two meals in the last week!” she objects. This is a characteristic exchange: if one takes a position on something, the other is likely to raise a quizzical eyebrow and shoot holes in it. It’s all done with infectious good humour – although if they start talking to each other in Hebrew, as staff at the restaurant have learned from experience, it might be a good idea to step away until the smoke clears.

The fish cakes, for the record, are supremely good – see the recipe below. If you spot them on the menu at Honey & Co next time you go, don’t let them pass you by.

Continued below...

Is food at the heart of your relationship? Did it bring you together?

Sarit: It completely brought us together. We met while working in a kitchen in Tel Aviv. We would go on food holidays together. And moving to London was a food decision: we came to here to improve our cooking, to be exposed to new things. Israel has great food but it’s Israeli food. Coming here opened us up to Asian, Indian, European food…
Itamar: We came on holiday. The plan was to travel around Europe, cooking in different cities, but we didn’t make it further than London. It took us a month to find a place to stay. Then we got settled, got jobs and all that.
Sarit: We had to start over and take on chef de partie positions.
Itamar: We were making seriously shit money.

Could you afford to eat out?

Sarit: We were doing the cheap Indians, cheap restaurants in Chinatown.
Itamar: For my 29th birthday – or was it my 28th? – we went to Brick Lane to have salt beef bagels. We ate them on the number 88 bus.
Sarit: [cackles] Bagels on a bus for his birthday.
Itamar: We stayed in London because we weren’t keen on slumming it around Europe. We didn’t want to spend two months in some hostel sharing a bathroom.

For my 29th birthday – or was it my 28th? – we went to Brick Lane to have salt beef bagels. We ate them on the number 88 bus.

And I guess you needed a decent kitchen.

Sarit: Yes, we needed a kitchen We like having people over. It’s important to have a proper kitchen and a table to sit and eat at.

Now that you have a restaurant to run, do you cook much at home?

Sarit: For the first year at Honey & Co, it was nearly impossible to cook. We were here pretty much 16 hours a day. But now it’s a bit more normal.

Who does most of the cooking at home?

Sarit: You do.
Itamar: This is the first time she’s been in the kitchen in ages.
Sarit: Hey, I cooked you two meals over the last week! But yeah, after a long day at the restaurant I need some time off, whereas he’s okay to come in after work and cook something.
Itamar: Also I can have food on the table, a nice nice dinner, in seven minutes.

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What would that be?

Itamar: Anchovy pasta.
Sarit: [laughs] We do other things too, but pasta is usually the quickest thing to just get on the table.
Itamar: We rarely do elaborate meals when it’s just the two of us. If friends come over we might cook something new that we’re curious about. People can get really burnt here. Sarit’s parents came for dinner once and we cooked them goat. That was not a success. It was super-tough. But that’s the only opportunity we have to try these things. Do you cook a lot at home?

The service was a bit strange – we felt like the waiter was pretty much living with us. But it doesn’t matter, the food was stunning
Itamar & Sarit on their favourite London restaurants – see Address Book

Yeah, quite a bit. I love cooking but I rely too much on recipes.

Itamar: It’s interesting: for a professional chef the written recipe is the end of the process, whereas for the home cook it’s the beginning.

Do you enjoy cooking at home?

Itamar: I do. It’s never a chore.
Sarit: I think it’s very different when you cook for a living, you don’t think of it as anything.

You do it instinctively without really thinking about it?

Sarit: Yeah, you cook with what is there, or you drop into a supermarket and buy one or two things, but there’s none of this planning what you are going to eat and how you’re going to do it. Which I think makes a big difference in the amount you get stressed about it, right?
Itamar: I wasn’t listening to what you were saying.
Sarit: He wasn’t listening to what I was saying.

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When people invite you over for dinner, do they get stressed because you’re chefs?

Sarit: Yes, and it’s terrible when people think you’re going to judge them because you’re a chef. We’re just grateful if anyone bothers cooking for us. The worst thing is when someone puts in a ton of effort cooking loads of courses.
Itamar: You see they’ve been cooking since the dawn of time. You just don’t know what to do with yourself. You feel like you’ve destroyed someone’s life.
Sarit: We have some friends who never know what they’re going to cook till the last minute. This is the best way to do it, because you know they haven’t gone completely out of their way.

Tell us how Honey & Co came about.

Itamar: It was meant to be a kebab shop, a really greasy hole in the wall.
Sarit: This is what you’d planned for years.

How did you feel about that idea?

Sarit: We had a lot of debates about it. First of all, I was scared of opening up a restaurant. In Israel, I had a small business didn’t work out and I was really scared this would end up different from how I wanted it to be – the fear of paying salaries and rent forces you to do things you’re not happy with. And for a long time, I didn’t know what my place would be in a kebab shop. Grilling meat – where would I come into that?
Itamar: We wanted it to be a neighbourhood place.
Sarit: We were looking at Brixton, Clapham. Then we found the place on Warren Street. It had been empty for six months. They took an offer that was reasonable for us to handle. Plus the kitchen was functioning – we could just walk in, clean a lot, and start working.

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Was it a quick turn-around?

Sarit: Six weeks. It was a leap of faith. We didn’t know the area at all. But we liked the shop a lot.
Itamar: It had been a jacket potato shop.
Sarit: We stood outside and looked at all the people passing by and thought, if we get a fraction of them to start coming in, we’ll be okay. By then, the kebab shop idea was over, we knew the place wasn’t right for that.

So you had to rethink it from scratch?

Itamar: No, we knew it was going to be Middle Eastern food. We’d both always been fascinated with authentic, home-style food. Niche stews that just one household makes.

On The Menu

Lunch with Itamar Srulovich & Sarit Packer
London, March 2015

To eat:

Fish cakes with spinach and tomatoes »
Turkish salad
Sourdough bread from Wild Caper
A selection of honeys

To drink:

Cardamom coffee (by El Nakhleh)
Beer

Did a lot of research go into it?

Sarit: A lot of gluttony went into it, not so much research as enjoying food, eating things in various places.
Itamar: But this is how we’ve always been. Looking to find that super-special sauce. The place that does the best sweetbreads. This is completely what we’re about, always have been.

Did you take inspiration from anywhere in particular?

Sarit: In a surprising way, Japan was more inspiring than other places. We went to this crazy Japanese candy shop with a tea house upstairs. We sat and had tea and we could see a different ways of doing things. We were inspired by izakaya bars where you get just a skewer on a plate, nothing else.
Itamar: There were also specific things we had in Israel. I’m thinking about the vine leaves we got from an old woman in a shopping mall. We were eating them in a parking lot…
Sarit: We said: we have to put this on the menu.
Itamar: This is completely the kind of food we were interested in – the kind of food we try to cook at home.

Do you get a lot of homesick Israelis eating at the restaurant?

Sarit: Yeah, quite a few.
Itamar: I think it’s the cakes that press the button.

Rooftop Honey from Melbourne is amazing, like toffee. Everyone who goes somewhere brings us back some honey.
Itamar & Sarit on their favourite ingredients – see Pantry

Reading between the lines, do I sense that you’re more organised than Itamar?

Sarit: This is not between the lines, this is very clear.
Itamar: I don’t think it’s as simple as that. She won’t give me credit for it but I can get a lot done. I’m super-organised.
Sarit: That’s not what I’m saying. All the boring stuff, paperwork, paying bills, tends to be what I do. And Itamar tends to think where we should be going next.
Itamar: That said, Sarit is extremely creative, extremely inventive. All the best things that have happened at Honey & Co are down to her.
Sarit: I think we’re very similar actually. We usually end up in the same place, it’s just that our ways of getting to that place are different. We don’t argue about where we should be going, we argue about how we should get there. That makes for a really good working relationship.

Honey & Co wasn’t the first time you’d worked together, was it?

Sarit: No, we’ve worked together on all the same jobs in London, apart from one. He worked at the Oxo tower, then I joined the Oxo tower. It was good for me, because I’d send him out and he would find the good jobs for me.
Itamar: The thing is, she has very bad people skills.
Sarit: I come off as very Israeli. Very abrupt, and when I’m at work I’m very work-oriented, so I think it was easier for me if Itamar was already there.
Itamar: To explain and apologise. Explain before, apologise after. When I left Oxo, I gave them a survival guide: don’t talk to her, don’t touch her…

If you’re not growing, you’ll be left behind. Rents go up, neighbourhoods change. A little mom-and-pop thing is no longer a viable financial model

When you met, did it take you a while to get used to each other? You didn’t have survival guides.

Sarit: No, nobody gave us the user instructions. We weren’t an obvious couple from the first meeting. It took us a while.
Itamar: She makes a very bad first impression, she’s very standoffish.
Sarit: Very professional I prefer to call it. When we met I was a sous chef, which he doesn’t like to talk about. I was his boss, to all intents and purposes.

Was he a good employee?

Sarit: No, he was horrible. Always late. Messy beyond redemption. He was like a young beach bum with an occasional job. It was really horrible at the beginning.

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But now he’s grown up and changed his ways?

Sarit: There are always things that infuriate anyone about their partner, but yes he’s changed a lot.

Any plans to open another restaurant?

Sarit: We’re very much against the chain, I think that’s quite clear. We would like to have another place but somewhere small. Itamar has been talking about opening a kebab shop since the minute I met him.

Are you looking for locations?

Sarit: Yeah.
Itamar: I’m in two minds about it. What do we need it for? What do we need the headache for?
Sarit: For the last two years you’ve been bugging me about the next place. I finally succumbed to it and then he’s like, maybe we shouldn’t.
Itamar: It’s going to be so much work again, so much money.
Sarit: But we kind of have to open another restaurant.
Itamar: It’s true. We feel that if you’re not growing and using your momentum, you’ll be left behind. Rents go up, neighbourhoods change. A little mom-and-pop thing is no longer a viable financial model, you need to have growth and a strong financial base. You need to be one step ahead, otherwise you’re three steps behind.

So sometimes restaurants expand out of necessity rather than ambition?

Itamar: It is a necessity. If you’re realistic about the world you live in. You see a lot of people in Brixton being priced out. Well of course they are. This is the way the world works.
Sarit: You grow and you become a corporation, or you’re fucked. It’s sad, in that it doesn’t allow places to stay small and continue doing what they do.

Has Honey & Co changed you both?

Sarit: Completely. I think so. Are you happier now than you were before?
Itamar: Yeah, I’m very happy now, but I was happy before as well. If the restaurant was not successful, we would still be happy.
Sarit: We’d be divorced1 [laughs].

Itamar: But I think the restaurant is just a continuation. It’s not very different from how we used to live, it’s just on a more industrial scale.
Sarit: I feel more in control in what I’m doing. Also it teaches you more respect for people. Which is a big part of growing up. Now as an employer I can understand how important it is to create a good atmosphere for people to work in, rather than just achieving a goal.
Itamar: Now we stop for cuddles every five minutes.
Sarit: [laughs] It’s ridiculous. I have a video on my phone of one of our girls complaining that Itamar didn’t come to work the day before: “I’ve been so lonely, no one’s hugging me.”
Itamar: We’re the softest kitchen ever.

For more about Honey & Co, have a look at their website (Twitter, Instagram) or better still go straight to their wonderful restaurant at 25A Warren Street, London W1T 5LZ

You can buy The Baking Book here from 2 July. For the first Honey & Co book, click here

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  1. On this subject, Sarit recalls going for a meeting with their book publishers, “with all the big bosses around a table”, and asking: “Is it a problem that we announce our divorce at the book launch?” The joke didn’t go down particularly well.

Posted 23rd June 2015

In Interviews

 

Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Yousef Eldin

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