Time for a Pinch of Druze Pizzazz at This Tel Aviv Eatery

At L28, where the person ruling the kitchen rotates every half year, Naifa Mulla is remaking the menu in her own image

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Naifa Mulla in the kitchen
Naifa Mulla in the kitchenCredit: Anatoli Michaelo.
Libby Sperling
Libby Sperling

The L28 restaurant opened a year ago, offering an innovative concept to Tel Aviv’s gastronomic landscape. Yoram Yarzin, one of its founders, introduced the idea of having the kitchen taken over every six months by a different chef, generally someone young and less well-known to the locals, who would remake the menu in his or her image. First up was chef Shuli Wimer, an Israeli living in London, whose menu integrated marked Italian influences; she was followed by Gabriel Israel, who offered an eccentric Israeli menu that had already undergone a successful test run in New York.

Now it’s the turn of Naifa Mulla, who has for some time been one of the more fascinating voices among the young generation of Israeli chefs. She spoke to Haaretz about how she got this far, the lessons she’s learned on the way and her vision.

Dish by Naifa MullaCredit: Anatoli Michaelo

Mulla, 30, was born and raised in the Druze village of Yarka, in the northern part of the country. Both her grandfathers were leading members of the Druze community and her husband is a lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces. Five years ago, when she was studying accounting while juggling an executive position at Israel Discount Bank, she realized that something wasn’t working.

' To me the Druze kitchen is a Mediterranean kitchen that’s very hard to define. If I had to pinpoint it, I would say the Druze kitchen is local, close, devoted to the raw ingredients around us'

“My husband and I had just moved to the center of the country,” she says, “but I felt as if I wasn’t taking full advantage of the city, that I wasn’t going out enough, that the two of us were both busy in our own worlds, in the rat race of work and a career – plus studies, in my case. There began to be a disconnect. We were growing apart from each other. Something bad was happening to me and I didn’t exactly know how to put my finger on it. I felt like I was choking. I wanted to leave my job but didn’t know what I would do instead.

“My husband, who to this day is my best friend, my ‘fuel’ and the one who supports me more than anyone in the world, said: ‘Take a break. Leave work if you have to, look for something else.’ But I didn’t know what,” recalls Mulla. “He even sent me on a trip to Greece with a friend so I could rest and recharge my batteries while thinking about what I wanted to do.”

How did you get from that period to the kitchen of the Yaffo-Tel Aviv restaurant of Haim Cohen?

“Totally by chance. During that period my husband and I were going a lot to the open bar at Yaffo-Tel Aviv. I would sit there mesmerized by the cooks, by the pace, by how they worked with the frying pans and got the orders out. Anyone who’s sat there knows how amazing it is to watch them. At the time I didn’t know that that’s what I wanted to do, but I enjoyed looking at them.

“Although I was always cooking at home and I enjoyed it, I had never thought in terms of [work in] a restaurant. One day I told the chef there that I love to cook but I didn’t know how to make fresh pasta, and I asked if he could teach me. He said, ‘No problem, come tomorrow morning and start’ – and that’s what happened. I got there at 7:30 A.M. and started to learn how to make pasta; they assigned me to a young woman who worked there and that’s what I did for a couple of days.

“I fell in love with it and after a few days I asked to continue working by myself, and I saw I was managing. At that point the penny dropped. For the first time I realized how much I enjoyed food and cooking, and I was sucked into the kitchen at Yaffo-Tel Aviv. I started to come in every day, and went on to the stage of food preparation and making broths, a more advanced level. I was very open to learning. I was always asking questions and clarifying things. I said straight out: ‘Guys, I don’t know anything. Come teach me.’ I remember them sending me to the refrigerator to get rocket and I didn’t know what it was. I’d ask about everything.”

Cigar borek by Naifa MullaCredit: Anatoli Michaelo

And very soon you’ll be in charge of an entire restaurant by yourself. You must have made a long culinary journey to get to this place.

'There’s no question that everywhere you go, you find knafeh or other dishes associated with Arab or Druze cuisine. The problem is that it’s not always done well'

“For sure. Yaffo-Tel Aviv was the best school any cook could want. I learned so many things there, about the kitchen, but also about hospitality and people and yes, also about how to run a restaurant. Haim Cohen is an amazing teacher and mentor; when he believes in you, he’ll give you all the backing in the world, but also wings with which to fly alone, which is no less important.

"That’s exactly how I blossomed there, slowly but surely. After all, Yaffo-Tel Aviv hosts a lot of food events – chefs from restaurants all over the world, ‘round table’ events and other classy culinary events. I started to come in, in the evenings just to see how the service works, and I got drawn in to that as well. To the special atmosphere that’s felt in actively serving, to the magic that takes place between the frying pans and the hot line, when you are hosting people. Then Haim suggested that I work in the evenings and slowly I evolved. When Tomer Tal left for the George & John restaurant, Haim suggested I take the reins instead.”

It was to be expected that more veteran chefs would not view Mulla’s meteoric rise very favorably. “I had a difficult period,” she admits, “and plenty of eyebrows were raised – how was it that I was asked to take over the kitchen when I’d come out of nowhere and essentially learned everything I knew solely from being there, over a period of a few years. I consulted with my husband and the minute he said I should go for it – I went for it head-on. I think once people saw what I brought and learned to work with me, they took it well.”

'I was very open to learning. I was always asking questions and clarifying things. I said straight out: ‘Guys, I don’t know anything. Come teach me'

Credit: Anatoli Michaelo

How do you explain the fact that Yaffo-Tel Aviv has given rise to stars like Tomer Agay of Santa Katarina, Tomer Tal of George & John – and now you?

“The answer lies precisely in what Yaffo-Tel Aviv is known for: the support and inspiration that come from Haim, a great chef and a great person who believes in you and pushes you forward. The moment he sees that spark and talent in you, the passion for food and the ability to translate techniques into the magic that takes place very evening – he will do everything so that you will break through: first, through the boundaries of his kitchen and then the limits of the restaurant itself, if need be. It’s no coincidence that such talented and successful people have emerged from his restaurant. Of course, they are immensely talented in and of themselves. Tomer Tal is someone I really admire, but Haim gives the very significant push.”

'My foundation is my grandmother’s cooking, from the village. I think that’s why what I am choosing to serve here is a combination of these things: the high and the low, homey and restaurant-like'

Credit: Anatoli Michaelo

How did you get invited to take the stage at L28 for half a year?

“Yoram Yarzin called me up one day and asked me if I’d heard of the L28 concept. I said yes, and then he asked if I thought it would be appropriate for me. First he asked me to come to the restaurant for dinner, to see and experience how it works. This was during the period that Shuli Wimer worked in the kitchen. I was very enthusiastic about the atmosphere, the concept itself, and of course about Shuli’s food. I thought it would be amazing but I didn’t believe Yoram would suggest that I, Naifa, whom nobody ever heard of, take over this kitchen. He invited me to make a meal for the staff and they were very excited. After that it was clear to us that we were going to do it.”

‘A bite from Yarka’

The culinary direction Mulla will be taking at her chef’s restaurant involves a return home – to the Druze home in which she grew up. Recently it seems that there has been a lot of discussion about the connection between the Israeli and Arab kitchen. Now the Druze kitchen will be entering this cauldron, at 28 Lillenblum Street in Tel Aviv.

When we talk about the Druze kitchen, does it have specific characteristics? And, practically speaking, how does it differ from the Arab kitchen?

“The Arab kitchen is large and far away from ours because it relates to cuisine in all the Arab states, even those who are physically and geographically distant from us. To me the Druze kitchen is a Mediterranean kitchen that’s very hard to define. If I had to pinpoint it, I would say the Druze kitchen is local, close, devoted to the raw ingredients around us. Essentially, in my context, it’s the kitchen of Yarka because almost everything here will come from there, whether it’s vegetables or other raw materials, herbs or spices. There will be the taste of Yarka and of home and of everything I grew up on.”

Credit: Anatoli Michaelo

The restaurant project here is for half a year each time. Is that enough time to hit your stride? Doesn’t the concept trip up the chefs?

“The truth is that was one of the things that scared me most at the beginning. Because, yes, half a year is a very short time. It’s important to remember that the cooks who work with the chef don’t change; they remain and must learn a new culinary language and new techniques all the time. But we work on this for a very long time beforehand. I’ve been here for a few months already, training the staff, teaching them what’s important to me for them to know, and essentially explaining my food and how it’s meant to turn out. It’s a language you have to learn and I’m happy to say that it’s happened.

“In any case, I’m taking the half-year term to a positive place, understanding that this is a one-time, short-term opportunity to demonstrate your kitchen, its language, your knowledge and abilities. To serve food that will excite and stir people up, that will give them something new and introduce them to a menu that is less familiar – certainly in this particular variation, which is my own combination between what my grandmother cooked in her pots and the influences of Yaffo-Tel Aviv and everything I learned there. It definitely takes you out of your comfort zone and that’s an amazing advantage. It’s challenging.”

What are you more connected to: haute cuisine or food that is simple and popular?

“I like good food very much and I enjoy good restaurants but my foundation is my grandmother’s cooking, from the village. I think that’s why what I am choosing to serve here is a combination of these things: the high and the low, homey and restaurant-like, with strong local influences from the Shami kitchen – meaning from Syria, Lebanon and Turkey – and everything that’s close to us, along with influences from Italy and France.

“For example, I plan to serve malfouf [stuffed cabbage rolls] in a deep French beef broth, topped with grated hard yogurt and dry oregano; or fish dumplings in bouillabaisse with fried calamari heads, with goat cheese and a salad of fresh herbs. Or for example, mansaf [lamb] on white rice with yogurt, a green salad, onion in sumac and Druze pita with labneh [a sour cheese] – so everyone can take a little of this and a little of that, and put together his own bite. But it will be a bite from Yarka.”

It’s very sexy these days to talk about local cuisine. You can find knafeh [a traditional Middle Eastern pastry] or akoub [a vegetable dish] nearly everywhere, even in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Do you feel that there some recognition is finally being given to this cuisine, that there’s been cultural appropriation, similar to what has happened with hummus?

“There’s no question that everywhere you go, you find knafeh or other dishes associated with Arab or Druze cuisine. The problem is that it’s not always done well. That’s why much of my what I have wanted was to put this cuisine at center stage, to show how diverse and interesting it is and what can be done with it, since people don’t know it that well yet. I’m glad I have the opportunity – and, specifically, in the heart of Tel Aviv – to cook things I know from home, based on a cuisine that is well-planned and meticulously prepared, with multilayered and multi-flavored food. There’s no doubt that this kind of food is part of Israeli culture.”

Just before we part, our conversation shifts to dream fulfilment and making wishes. The final question, about where she’ll be in 10 years, was unhesitatingly answered by Mulla: “In a small place of my own. Obviously, that’s my dream, that I have a place of my own where I decide everything, starting with the design, the music and the ambience, up to the food that is served. A small place in which I can forge unmediated connections with diners, see how they respond to the food and pamper them. It will happen!”

Desserts and hot drinks by Naifa MullaCredit: Anatoli Michaelo

What’s on Mulla’s menu at L28?

In terms of vegetable dishes, you can order a Fattoush salad with Tulum cheese, mint leaves, purple onion and pita chips sprinkled with wild hyssop (38 shekels); tabbouleh with freekeh (roasted green wheat), with greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, labneh, hyssop and walnuts (41 shekels); grilled vegetables including zucchini, broccoli, black-eyed peas, parsley, balls of dried goat or sheep yogurt, and almonds (46 shekels); and baked vegetarian siniya, with potatoes, zucchini and beets in warm tahini, with a green salad and radishes (42 shekels).

For pastry lovers there is fatayer (a meat pie) with hyssop and homemade labneh, olives and cucumber (24 shekels); a meat samosa with pine nuts, hyssop dough and white cheese, spinach and garlic with tahini, salsa and slowly-cooked vegetables (51 shekels); musakhan “cigars” filled with slow-cooked chicken and onion, sumac yogurt and green chili (44 shekels).

Other offerings include Yarka-style kibbeh nayeh (patties), with meat, bulgur, harissa sauce, onion confit, pine nuts, radish and green onion (52 shekels); slow-cooked beef with grilled eggplant, pita slices, tahini yogurt, chickpeas, brown butter and green salad (78 shekels); and grilled fish fillet with risotto and dill, kohlrabi, fennel and vine leaves (118 shekels).

For dessert, L28 will offer a semolina pudding with mascarpone, a pistachio Chantilly with rose petals (38 shekels), basbousa with malabi milk pudding, roasted almonds and rosette ice cream (40 shekels); labneh panna cotta with pine nut crumble, sumac and grape jam (42 shekels); and a particularly intriguing plate of petit fours, including pistachio marzipan, ma’amoul (date-filled semolina cookies), qatayef kaymak (dumplings) with grated orange peel, served with herbal tea made of lemon sage and white-leaved savory (46 shekels).

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