CHASING SMOKECOOKING OVER FIRE AROUND THE LEVANT
The award-winning Honeys are back with more delicious dishes from the Middle East, and this time their focus is firmly on the grill. Join Sarit and Itamar on a journey filled with flavour and fire as they visit their favourite cities collecting recipes, stories and the best of culinary culture along the way.
Fire has always seasoned Sarit and Itamar’s food – both at home and in their own grill house, Honey & Smoke – and now you too will fall in love with this comforting, no-fuss, fare. Organised into five ingredient-led chapters (Fruit & Vegetables; Fish & Seafood; Birds; Lamb & Other Meats; and Bread & Unmissables), it couldn’t be easier to create a simple mouth-watering meal for two or a joyful feast for your friends and family. From grilled peaches with almond tahini and charred endive, figs with manouri cheese and pomegranate sauce, prawns in honey and fresh coriander, and smoked short ribs, the scent and flavour created by the meeting of heat, wood, flesh and plant will never fail to lend your food a special, magical quality.
You’ll also find five city features on Alexandria, Egypt; Amman, Jordan; Acre, Israel; Adana, Turkey; and Thessaloniki, Greece, all bursting with inspiration from the best fire-fuelled eateries each destination has to offer – from the greatest grill houses to the humblest roadside kebab joints, balcony culture and open fires on shores. Complete with culinary souvenirs including beautiful ingredient combinations, age-old tricks and techniques, curious kitchen tools, and clever ‘rainy day’ advice on how to recreate the dishes using a conventional oven or stovetop, heat the coals, come together and cook with the flavour of smoke.
Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich
Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, two of London’s most celebrated chefs, are one of those couples that finish each other’s sentences. Which makes talking to them that much more fun. The successful couple are busier than usual these days. They have, according to Itamar, ‘two and a half restaurants’. A column in The Financial Times, a podcast, and Itamar has even taken it upon himself to teach some writing courses. Then there are the books. They have previously written two with Chasing Smoke, which might be best described as a travelogue with recipes, being their third and latest.
We recently had the great pleasure of talking with Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich about a great many things including their new book Chasing Smoke.
BAF: You have, beautiful book.
Sarit Packer: Thank you.
Itamar Srulovich: : Thank you so much.
BAF: I’m just curious, it kind of threw me off when I was going through it, because it seems like a fairly simple concept, but then there’s a lot of layers to it. It’s part travel, it’s part cultural, there’s a lot going on. And it’s maybe kind of appropriate because you’re in such an archeologically rich area. Did you set out to do something that was so, I don’t want to use the word complex, but it has a lot going for it?
Sarit Packer: I don’t think we set out to do it no, actually.
Itamar Srulovich: We didn’t know how… actually I’m quite happy that you can see it because it is very… it’s quite a complex project, it was.
Sarit Packer: It was.
Itamar Srulovich: A lot more complicated than we thought it’ll be.
Sarit Packer: We originally thought it would be a book about Honey & Smoke, our restaurant, so this is the restaurant we were probably opening when you tried to do stuff with us. We opened that one four years ago.
Itamar Srulovich: 2016.
Sarit Packer: 2016. And when we got asked to do a book, we thought originally that it would be like a classic restaurant book, all the recipes from the restaurant and that’s it. But when we started to think about it, the restaurant was quite young and we didn’t feel it had enough of a kind of full identity. It takes restaurants a few years to get their full identity, and we just thought actually it would be better for us to research the origin of why we ever wanted to open this restaurant, why it was important for us to have a restaurant that was about grilling food and on fire. And that’s where we started.
All we said is to go to some of these countries that inspire us on a day to day basis. We didn’t really know much more than that. And then when we hit the road and we started collecting the material and we started collected the photography, we kind of struggled with how to put it together for a bit. It took us a while to get it all into something. It did out more complex than we were going to, because we wanted to talk about the people and the culture but also about the food and the countries and the inspirations.
Itamar Srulovich: And our own personal experience, and we wanted to give the recipes.
BAF: You almost had too much going on. In a good way.
Itamar Srulovich: We had to cut down a lot as well.
Sarit Packer: We did have to cut down a lot, and we have so much more material that could never be in the book, do you know what I mean? There’s so many pictures, so much stuff. But you have to stop somewhere.
BAF: I guess the next question is obviously the area you’re talking about, there’s a lot of countries to go to. I mean I guess obviously Israel would be the first choice, going home, I’d imagine. How did you narrow down what countries to include or to visit?
Itamar Srulovich: That was a tricky one as well, because originally we wanted to go to the Balkans as well and the visit North Africa. So we had to be brutal, so we just stayed on the easternmost side of the Mediterranean.
Sarit Packer: Yeah, we kind of looked at in our heads this kind of crescent shape of the Eastern Mediterranean along the coast, from Egypt going up to Turkey, and we thought to try and hit some spots along that way. But we also added Jordan because we’ve really always wanted to go to Jordan, and like you say it’s natural for us to go to Israel, but Jordan is literally just across the road, if you would say, across the river.
So we really wanted to do that, but that was our thinking. We would have done other countries if the year of lockdown hadn’t hit everything.
BAF: So you got the countries narrowed down, but how did you find all these wonderful locations within these countries? How did you find these wonderful people?
Sarit Packer: This was a really interesting process as well actually. We started with a little test trip to Greece, because our sous chef at the time, Gina, is Greek, and we have a really strong team of Greek chefs that work with us in our restaurant.
Itamar Srulovich: And we love Greece as well.
Sarit Packer: We love Greece, we’ve been several times. And we thought we would go on a specifically more culinary focused trip. So Gina did a lot of research for us and sent us to all these specialist makers and producers, and we just had so much fun doing it, because when you go with a list of places and they know that you’re coming as well, so they kind of want to show you everything. It was just really exciting and we thought this was the best way to do it in every country.
So in every country we got in touch with people we knew who knew people-
Itamar Srulovich: Or from friends of friends. A lot through social media as well.
Sarit Packer: Yeah, a lot of social media and just wrote to people and said, “Hey, we’re coming, what should we do, what should we see?” We made lists before we went everywhere. And then we left a percentage of experimenting while we were there, so we went with a photographer, Patsy, Patricia Niven, she came with us on five of these trips, and when we saw something beautiful and we wanted to take pictures of it she took the pictures. It was kind of all as we were going.
BAF: How long did this project take? I mean the travel part and then putting it all together in a book.
Sarit Packer: Over a year. Our first, first trip was the tail end of 2018.
Itamar Srulovich: 2018, yeah, December.
Sarit Packer:: December 2018 was our first trip to Greece. And then we spent a lot of 2019 on and off on separate trips, working a bit in the restaurant, going for a few trips and coming back.
Itamar Srulovich: Especially around the winter and spring, because we didn’t want to get to the hot seasons.
Sarit Packer: Yeah, the hot seasons in that whole region if you go July, August, you can’t get much done. It’s very hard. So we did most… I think our last trip was June 2019. Then we started the testing recipes again in London in our restaurant and then at friends’ houses and things like that in more makeshift barbecues.
Then 2020 hit and we sat down and wrote a lot and edited a lot of pictures and edited a lot of copy and changed our mind quite a few times on what’s going to go in and out.
BAF: That actually leads into another question is with so much information, what kind of book did you set out to do and how did this finished product change? Or was it fairly close to the original idea?
Sarit Packer: I don’t think it’s close. Well, we had different ideas on what the book was going to be.
Itamar Srulovich: What I find with every one of the books, and also with the restaurant, you have an idea and you have sort of an identity, but actually what happens on the ground, these things take a personality of their own and a life of their own. So we have input into the book, but it’s not a hundred percent us. Something happens there, I don’t know what. It’s different what we set out to be, but I think better for it.
Sarit Packer: And more involved and more current I think. I think if we have this kind of structure in our head that we will be able to go and learn things the way we thought, that’s not possible because people are living their lives and running their restaurants in these areas as well and cooking for friends.
Itamar Srulovich: And everything’s very dynamic so-
Sarit Packer: Yeah. We just joined that. So a lot of the stuff was influenced by the seasons we were there. None of the major summer stuff is in the book really, because we just didn’t travel in July, August. It had to be about what was around when we were there, that’s what we were shooting, that’s what we were cooking. So I think it evolved, but it evolved in a way that feels much more genuine to us in the end. If it was going to be more of a study, it definitely hasn’t ended up as a study of cities and culture, it’s more of what did we do, how did we do it? What did we eat kind of thing?
Itamar Srulovich: What I’m happy with and what I feel this was something that we managed to carry through, it is very personal. And it is about us and our experiences.
BAF: It sounds it’s almost a couple things. Almost like you threw things up in the air and let the universe take over in a certain way.
Sarit Packer: It’s what we do in life.
BAF: I do have to say, at times this does feel like you’re going through a travel diary almost, because you’re writing about dishes and recipes but there’s something very personal about it, a very personal touch to it. You mentioned finding these interesting people. You have the guy here cooking in a kitchen sink (page 149). Things like that, they’re hard to find sometimes, they’re easy to miss. The local eccentricities.
Sarit Packer: This is what we wanted to show, that it’s approachable and for everyone and everyone does it in their own way, and all you kind of need really is…
Itamar Srulovich: You don’t need the kit.
Sarit Packer: Yeah, you don’t need kit. You need fire, you need some passion for food. We’re happy with it. We know it’s not what you would call a standard cookbook, but there’s plenty of those.
Itamar Srulovich: We didn’t want it to be another restaurant book or another barbecue book, we wanted to have its own kind of quirks and personality.
BAF: That’s again, what really intrigued me about your work here, is that okay you got two chefs writing about cooking over fire. Interesting. But then you’ve really turned this into something different, you really found a unique niche and an interesting way to approach it. And a fun way to approach it. It’s the most basic cooking method and fun way to look at it. And it is so universal.
Itamar Srulovich: Very elemental as well, you know. It’s just like fire, stick, food, that’s it.
BAF: Kitchen sink optional.
Sarit Packer: Yeah exactly. Kitchen sink, hole in the ground, any kind of thing that you want. It’s all optional.
BAF: You’ve got three restaurants now?
Itamar Srulovich: Two and a half.
Sarit Packer: We have two restaurants and a deli, but the deli sells a lot of food.
BAF: So where do you find the time to go off to travel and write a book?
Sarit Packer: Well, we’ve been building teams… this has been our kind of biggest thing, I think our exec chef now, Julia, she joined us three months after we opened the first one, so she’s been with us almost nine years now. And she learnt with us in the kitchens first of all and then slowly took over one kitchen then I moved to the other one. And then she started to learn that. So now she runs that, and each kitchen has their own head chef and their teams, and we have really amazing management. And what we do is we are very involved when we’re here, and when we go away, we’re away and they have to deal with it and we come back and we make changes again and then they have to deal with that. It’s evolved over time.
There’s two of us as well, it helps, because it’s not a single person owned company, we each have things that we’re stronger at and we’re more kind of involved in and that helps, so we spread it like that. We enjoy traveling together all the time. We work when we travel a lot. Not just on books, on other things as well. It’s all part of it, and our holidays are all about food and stuff like that.
Itamar Srulovich: And learning as well.
Sarit Packer: Yeah. We don’t take traditional holidays where we go and bum out. When we go away that’s what we do, we learn something.
Itamar Srulovich: Well it’s not that we don’t bum out.
Sarit Packer: Well, we also learn and we bum out. Yeah, so that’s how we do it, with a lot of people that we trust and love and hopefully will stay with us for a very long time.
BAF: You’ve experienced, you grew up in the area, roughly, in Israel. Did anything really jump out at you? There must have been loads of aha moments and things that you just discovered.
Sarit Packer: I think definitely southern Turkey was a huge revelation for us. We’ve been to Turkey before a few times but not to the southern part, that’s just on the border with Syria, just above the border with Syria. We went to Gaziantep and Adana and that was amazing, because you really felt that it was kind of where things started and spread out. You know, the Ottoman Empire obviously at some stages, kind of ruled the whole area, but you kind of feel it there. It’s hugely abundant, the pride and the interest in food is like their culture. One of them said to us something very funny, he’s like, “We don’t go to the ballet, we don’t go to the theater, our culture is food.” And it’s true, it’s in everything that they do. They’re so passionate about food. There’s food celebrations, they have an orange blossom festival, they have a kebab festival, pistachio, they have 300 grades of pistachio! We didn’t even know that that existed.
Sarit Packer: Just so engulfed in everything.
Itamar Srulovich: Rich.
Sarit Packer: Rich and generous and hospitable.
Itamar Srulovich: I think it should be like one of the biggest food destinations in the world. Like people go to San Sebastián and Tokyo and Paris. I think definitely this part of the world should be on everyone’s list.
Sarit Packer: It’s beautiful as well, absolutely beautiful.
Itamar Srulovich: And so friendly. So friendly. People are so hospitable and generous and proud of what they do.
Sarit Packer: Yeah, but they have very little international tourists there. They have a lot of Turkish tourists coming to that area because it’s known as a really beautiful part, but it’s not so big on international tourism. We had an amazing time there, that was quite a revelation as well in the complexity of the food.
Itamar Srulovich: I do hope that this area gets a little bit more recognition for these reasons, for the amazing culture, the amazing produce.
Sarit Packer: And the amazing people.
Itamar Srulovich: And the amazing people.
Sarit Packer: Really, we traveled all around there, we told everyone where we were born and where we grew up, nobody had an issue with us. We didn’t have an issue with anyone, it was so friendly, they were so welcoming that we’re hoping to slowly start to shift this kind of misconception.
BAF: That’s the beauty of food. It unites, because it’s universal and certainly the people would rather discuss the 300 types of pistachios than political issues. That’s the beauty of it.
You touched briefly on the photos. It sounds like you had this great photographer and she traveled with you, the third wheel I guess.
Sarit Packer: She’s done all the books with us from the first book and she shoots the Financial Times column with us that we’ve been doing for five years. So we kind of work together very well and you need that when you’re traveling with someone, especially to places you don’t know and do experimenting. We get on really well. She understands what interests us and what to look at, and then she can manage to capture things we’re seeing and then we sit at the end of a night and collect the best bits from the photos she shot in that day, so that it’s all very fresh in our minds.
Itamar Srulovich: Actually I learned so much from her during these trips, because she has a way… I think every photographer has a way of engaging with their surroundings, especially when it comes to people. She has this kind of light in her eye and a smile and she manages to communicate with strangers and just to charm them. And I was mesmerized looking at it and kind of tried it a little bit myself. And you learn how to open doors and how to reach the people. For me it was a huge learning experience as well.
Sarit Packer: Yeah, she was so good at capturing people and them in their days’ work or just sitting. There’s a beautiful, beautiful picture along the promenade in Alexandria and Egypt, just these girls sitting having lunch (pages 50-51).
I just love that picture so much! She’s just capturing this kind of moment of serenity. In this city, it’s hard to explain, but this city is hectic, it’s hectic, there’s so much traffic, and even though we were there, I think in February when we were shooting this, so you would say mid-winter but it was hot and hectic and dusty and noisy. But then she just… exactly that. She just captured this beautiful moment of calm. She has a really beautiful eye.
Itamar Srulovich: She projects that, and it was wonderful to see.
BAF: With all these things going on. What’s next for you guys?
Itamar Srulovich: We don’t know.
Sarit Packer: We’re waiting for this stupid pandemic to be over, it’s quite hard in London, it’s been a difficult year. Restaurants have just reopened, but then it’s a difficult start. Also the UK is suffering from quite a lot of Brexit shortages, staff wise and energy wise. So we’re focusing on getting our restaurants back to what they were pre pandemic. That’s our main kind of focus this year.
Itamar Srulovich: It’s a big deal, it’s a big deal. This is where we are now, just kind of bringing things back to where they were, hopefully doing it a little bit better.
Sarit Packer: Learning from mistakes, learning how to improve. Our online really kind of exploded over lockdown, so we’re working a lot on how we do that better, how web store works better, how we engage with people more, so we have our podcast that’s the Food Talks, and that goes down very well, and we’ve just recorded a season about this show, but then we’ll be doing other one with event son Zoom. And then Itamar teaches a writing class. So we do all these things that are more online, more engaged with people, and what it helps us is get I suppose a population that’s outside of London, which is nice. That’s our main focus is at the moment, to continue doing that and do it well.
BAF: You did okay during Covid, you were able to weather the storm?
Sarit Packer: We survived.
Itamar Srulovich: Yeah, ‘okay’ is not the first word I’d use. But we’re here. We call it Covid good.
Sarit Packer: No, we did the thing where, I call it the, I don’t know if you know the Joseph story of the seven good years, saving for the seven bad years?
So we spent a lot of time in the last seven years building up a contingency and that’s helped us survive. And we’re glad that we did.
Hoping it’s not seven bad years, we’re hoping it’s just like a year and a half of bad and then we go back. But we’ll see. We’re not in the clear yet.
BAF: Itamar you have a writing class.
Itamar Srulovich: It’s fantastic. It’s my midlife crisis I call it.
BAF: No sports car, just the writing class?
Itamar Srulovich: I love doing it, because I think people think… everybody says, “Oh, everybody can write, just sit down and write, you know how to write.” But actually it’s hard work and it’s a skill just like learning how to make pasta or learning how to, I don’t know, make pottery or, I don’t know what. There are certain things that you can do in order to…
Sarit Packer: Get better.
Itamar Srulovich: You need to work at it. And nobody, maybe they do in university writing classes and things like that, but I sort of stumbled into writing, it wasn’t my career, I didn’t have training for it, and this is all the stuff that I wish someone told me ten years ago when I embarked on that career.
Sarit Packer: But all the beautiful stories in our books and in the Financial Times, Itamar writes all of those, and I think over the years he’s improved and learned skills on how to do it better and how to come across a story better, and this is what he teaches in the class. I’ve sat in on a few of them, and it’s interesting. You think of things differently when you have to phrase them in that kind of way. I’m recipe writer, this is not a recipe writing course that he teaches, he teaches about how-
Itamar Srulovich: To tell a story.
Sarit Packer: How to tell a story, how to get the emotion across, how to get someone engaged with it. And I write quantities and instructions, it’s different kind of skills. So it’s interesting.
Itamar Srulovich: Even my course I think is very technical, it’s just the stuff that will help you along the way. The stuff that you need to focus on. I’m really proud of it actually. I’ll just have two-
Sarit Packer: Two parallel classes.
Itamar Srulovich: I have two parallel courses going now. It’s three classes each. And after the second class they have a big assignment, so I’m worrying about them all the time. I’m thinking about all my food writers.
But I’m going to see them again on Sunday so I hope they all are doing well.
BAF: If people want to sign up for your class, how can they do that?
Itamar Srulovich: On our website. On our website. I don’t think I’m going to do any classes until September.
Sarit Packer: Just because it’s summertime and Zoom. But next one’s starting in September.
Itamar Srulovich: Yeah.
Sarit Packer: And then for the winter.
Itamar Srulovich: Yeah. I get to read, people work on their own essays and pieces and stories, and I get to read what they’re doing, and comment on them, and it’s just fantastic. I’ve learnt so much from this, and it was just the most incredible journey and privilege. If there’s one thing to come out of this year then this is it. It’s a wonderful midlife crisis.
BAF: The car comes later.
Sarit Packer: He can’t drive, so he had to find a different one.
BAF: I should mention you’ve got a really good podcast. I listened to a few about the book, and certainly your enthusiasm here has been great, but to hear you tell the story much more in your own words, it’s contagious, or for lack of a better word these days, to hear you guys tell your adventures in your own stories, it’s wonderful.
Itamar Srulovich: And you get to hear our photographer and to the people that we met on the way. This has been a real privilege to do.
Sarit Packer: A privilege and a kind of personal project again. We kind of wondered if… again, the podcast wasn’t planned until this year of lockdown, and then we just missed travel so much, we missed these people that we met on the travels and doing these trips with Patricia. And we just wanted to convey that to people that this is going to come back, this joy of traveling, doing fun things, experiences, it will come back to all of us. And we just kind of wanted people to remember that somehow. It’s hard for me to explain in a better way.
BAF: No, I think that’s great, and I believe those you can listen to on Spotify and Apple Music.
Sarit Packer: Our next season of the Food podcast are going to be all on Zoom. We’re talking to some really interesting people, and tickets will go live as well on our website if people want to join a recording. So you can get a bit of a behind the scenes if it’s just a recording of us talking to these really amazing chefs and cookbook writers, and we have some really nice people on this season and that should be fun. People can do that. And if not then they can then download the episode when they’re out. The new season will start I think in September as well. We kind of take a July August hiatus here in London and we focus on our restaurants.
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