Einat, the chef who rules New York City’s Mediterranean and Israeli food scene with restaurants like Balaboosta, Bar Bolonat, and Taïm, took a quick breather before work one day to sip homemade mint tea and regale us with stories about cooking for generals in the Air Force, learning from her kids, incorporating Jewish traditions into her life on her own terms, and so much more.
What’s your earliest memory?
Sitting with my mom and watching her cook. Being in kindergarten with all Ashkenazi kids and getting teased. My parents put me in religious school and I cried and said, “I don’t want this school,” and my dad took me back to the old school. I remember the shouting and screaming of kids who were so happy that I was back. That made me feel loved. My dad put the religious aside and took care of me.
Tell me about your parents.
My dad was Yemenite. Born in Israel. My mom was born in Iran and came to Israel when she was ten. They both grew up religious. My dad was in cheder [traditional Jewish elementary school] where they would all gather around one book and read. He left the religious community, went traveling, lived on a kibbutz, and was a very famous athlete in Israel. He played soccer, but he was a referee later in life. When I was around ten years old, they started getting more religious. They said, “We’re back to our roots.”
How did your Yemenite background influence your childhood?
You wouldn’t see my dad chewing khat, but we did have hilbeh sauce every weekend. Every Shabbat morning, we had Yemenite food and, on Friday night, we had Yemenite soup and a lot of Iranian food. My neighbor – and, you know, “neighbor” in Israel means you leave the door open and you’re going in and out like it’s your home – was Moroccan and was like my second mom. I learned how to roll couscous with her. I remember the stool I was standing on. I grew up with a lot of interesting culture and cuisine.
What was your kid personality?
Funny. Very funny. Like a joker, nothing serious, pranking everybody. Rebel, big time. Running away from home every week.
Police in Ramat Gan know my name very well.
And you always went home?
Yeah. There is no place like home, right?
What was your army experience like?
I wanted to be away from home, so I went to the Negev, to the South, and I was in the Air Force. I was a pilot driver. I didn’t want to be a secretary – that’s what most women end up doing. It was all fighter pilots, so it was very tricky at the beginning, because I’m the driver, the lowest, and pilots are like gold. They weren’t nice until I stood up and showed them who’s the real boss here. I became like their mom. They used to come crying to me about their girlfriends, asking what to do.
They found out I could cook pretty fast. I became the chef. It was the Gulf War and all of the Air Force generals came to the base and my general asked me to make the dinner.
It was one of the biggest dinners of my career.
He gave me two or three pilots to be my sous chefs, so I’m moving everybody around, saying “You do that, you peel that, da da da.” I got to go to the main kitchen of the 3,000-soldier base and ask for whatever I wanted. I made a crazy meal. I made Chinese chicken with garlic – a lot of garlic and honey and soy – and it was simple. I made some rice, salad. They loved it and were clapping.
What did you do after the army?
I studied a little bit, I showed my parents my grades – 100, 100, 100. I said, “If I want to do this, I can, but I don’t want to.” I left after two months. I wanted to travel. I went to Germany. I didn’t have the money to go to South America like everybody else. I saw an ad in some Israeli paper for hoznekim, people who get a percentage from selling stuff in the street, so that’s what I did. I didn’t have enough money to get to Germany, so I stopped in Switzerland and hitchhiked all the way to Germany. I slept and traveled for 5 years in a van. I know all the roads.
How did you become a professional chef?
I was 23 or 24 and I thought, “OK, now I need to choose something I want to do.” Everywhere I went, I always became the one who cooked for everybody. I went to Eilat and worked as a waitress for a little bit, then I decided I was going to go to culinary school. At the end of culinary school, the principal came and asked where everybody was going. When it came to me, I said, “I’m going to Keren,” and he started laughing in front of everybody. He made fun of me and said “If you want to peel potatoes for two months and come back crying because you didn’t get a job, go ahead, but this is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”
Everybody was scared of Keren. No one had the guts to go. It was the most prestigious restaurant in Israel. It was one of a kind. I said, “Fuck him,” and went, of course. The sous chef at Keren said, “Nobody ever comes with a resume. Just for that, I’m going to take you.” I was an intern at the beginning, after a month I got promoted, then I got a job at the fish station. I couldn’t wait to go back to school and tell this motherfucker that he can go fuck himself.
What do you love about your husband?
He can take me! He’s in love with the way I am.
Tell me about your kids.
Liam – I had my friend pick his name. I love this name, and I love Liam Neeson forever. And Mika? Listen, I’m married to a Frenchie. Mika is a Frenchie and Liam is me. Totally Israeli in every bone in his body. He eats like an Israeli, he talks like an Israeli, with his hands. He’s hilarious. Mika is beautiful. She’s stunning. She has a phenomenal ear for music.
What’s the most surprising thing about being a parent?
They teach me tons. They show me that there is a different way. All my friends really enjoy them. Kids can be annoying and needy and my kids are a little bit different. They’re cool. Liam is a very old soul. He’s always talking like an adult. He’s the boy that never sleeps. He told me, “Mom, it’s a waste of time. You know how many things I could be doing while I sleep?” I said, “It makes you stronger, sleep is important for us. I wish I could go to sleep early.” He said, “Let’s switch. I will watch movies and you go to sleep now!”
Tell me about your Shabbat dinners.
Stef isn’t Jewish, but he loves it now. He knows that on Friday he needs to help me organize the house, the table, cook, and then, around 7 o’clock, I have everybody around. Almost every week. This last Friday, I said I didn’t want to cook. I wanted to go to a restaurant because my friend was here, but, every Friday, I get five calls asking what time dinner is. I’m like, “Stop!” I said, “OK, but I’m not going to make much.” I made this Moroccan fish and challah. It was a beautiful challah. I made short ribs and rice and salads. It was going to just be a little, and then it ended up being a whole feast, as always.
What do you most value in your friends?
Communication. If somebody hurts me, I will be a upset for a little and then that’s it. We talk. We sit and break it down and understand. I want to hear the truth, even if it hurts.
Tell me one thing you’ve learned about being a boss.
I waited tables for years, I’ve been a cook for fifteen years, I dishwashed, I’ve been there. I relate to the struggle of being in New York and paying rent. A lot of bosses try to cut hours, but I know what it means at the end of the day for that person.
I’ve changed a lot. I used to have a lot of ego.
I try to treat people the same, they are not just employees.
What’s your favorite place on earth right now?
There’s tons. I cannot choose one. This year, Ireland was one of my favorite places. The best people in the world by far. I love Costa Rica. I love to get to Thailand for the food. I like my upstate house because I have sixteen acres of open space and I can just breathe fresh air. I like my home. Even though it’s Brooklyn and it’s an apartment, it feels really homey.
What’s your favorite meal?
Photos by Tim Gibson