Punk Proletarian Restaurant Breaks Mold in Funky Jaffa

With no financial backing, no experience and barely knowing how to operate a cash register, two artists-cum-restaurateurs stage a hipster extravaganza.

Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad
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Dafna Arad
Dafna Arad

A person gets up in the morning and suddenly decides to open a restaurant. He may or may not have financial backing, talent or experience, but what's certain is that he's going for it. He finds a place, usually not virgin territory, it's the site of a restaurant that failed and closed. So what? He paints and equips it, enters the kitchen, cooks and invites everyone to taste. He doesn't think for a moment that his fate will resemble that of the restaurant on whose ruins he is sitting.

In recent years, veteran restaurateurs have been offering a valuable tip to those who dream of opening a restaurant: Forget it, you don't have enough money. And if someone opens that new restaurant anyway - and there are many such people - what is he thinking? How does he plan to avoid the statistics?

Two people who have realized the first stage of the dream and recently opened a small restaurant in Jaffa, sound quite certain that they've done the right thing. Naama Fenichel (35, a photographer, pastry chef and hostess ), joined her friend Roi Avraham (31, who describes himself as a drummer-chef - a chef who is a drummer in the Zvuv Im Groove, Energia Holanit and Dirty Hands bands ). Together they are operating Hatarnegol (The Rooster ) restaurant (4 Shearith Yisrael St., Jaffa ), on the ruins of a Romanian restaurant.

The two met at an art course in the Musrara art school in Jerusalem. Until now, the culinary cooperation between them was limited to a food stand that wandered among rock festivals, where they served chili con carne, pretentious tapas or tofu for vegetarians, in field conditions. They also produced events combining music, art, lectures and food. For a while they have been making grandiose plans for their restaurant, where they will hold art events, festivals and knights' meals, and they serve cheap gourmet food.

Meanwhile, in their spacious restaurant, which was opened for a trial run before the holidays, they serve fresh comfort food at low prices: small courses for NIS 18-NIS 25 and main courses for NIS 34-NIS 55. At this point the place is open only for breakfast and lunch; dinners will come later.

Only one item has been hung on the white walls so far: a plate with the painting of a rooster, a gift from the father of Roi Avraham, whom everyone calls "the rooster." "It was supposed to be a small and very cheap restaurant, belonging to one person with a few pots. It turned out much more restaurant-like and serious. But the prices will remain cheap, it's a matter of principle," says Avraham.

Fenichel explains: "It's a kind of workers' restaurant, with a colorful, young and fresh design."

Can't operate a cash register

In articles prior to the opening of restaurants, at about this stage, if not in the headline, food writers usually decide that it's going to be the hottest spot for the coming winter; that the delicacies are unique; that the place is amazingly beautiful; that the chef is a magician and the service is embracing. It's hard to differentiate between the buzz they are reporting and the buzz they are creating. Many readers use this information, reserve a place, arrive with high expectations, and are surprised to discover that the restaurant is having difficulty dealing with the masses of readers/customers; that the service is horrible, and they have run out of the recommended dishes.

The truth is that in this field there's no way of knowing which places will survive, offer good food, build a base of customers for themselves, maintain uniformity and pleasant service and get through the autumn safely. It is impossible to absorb the atmosphere in a place that is still going through a trial run, not going anywhere yet; its workers cook huge meals for themselves and are still trying to decide whether the chairs suit the concept.

I arrived at Hatarnegol on its opening day. At the time, the owner of the property was enjoying a meal of rich food; he insisted on paying, and discovered to his surprise that the new owners had no idea how to operate the cash register. In the end he received the wrong change, gave back NIS 10, said "I'm proud to be the first customer," and left. Cooking in the pots were stuffed pepper, chili con carne and a tofu dish.

Every few minutes, neighbors entered suspiciously, surveyed the place, asked questions and wished Avraham and Fenichel success. "The previous restaurants that operated here caused problems for the neighbors, they're examining us very carefully," said Fenichel, and went back to unpacking glasses.

I'm sitting alone in the new restaurant. They serve me gazpacho in a glass, in which there is a toothpick with phosphorescent green tails skewering cubes of Bulgarian cheese, and send me the cutlery in a toy shaped like a green-yellow-orange car. The atmosphere of a kindergarten party. Avraham explains: "There will be tasteful toys here. I have bad taste. I like pyrotechnics. A lot of flavors. I'm crazy about everything that's colorful, glitters, jumps, burns and explodes, I have a huge collection of toys at home. I don't think my nature has changed since the age of 7."

"I started cooking at an early age, but I'm actually a drummer and a multidisciplinary artist. There was a period when I was involved with cinema, but I've put it aside for the moment because I can't do everything. Food provides a better living than music or video, and I'm trying to pour my creativity into it. I've always known I would open a restaurant some day. But now it has to succeed and survive for a certain period," he continues.

Avraham identifies himself as a colleague. He writes a food column in the magazine Af and publishes an independent and subversive fanzine, "Hatarnegol," which he photocopies and sells along with a red rooster candy. "The whole idea is to create an alternative food magazine that will give a fight to all the elegant magazines and the food columns of Haaretz and Al Hashulhan, and the sterile food blogs," he says in disgust.

"Enough, there are already a million recipes, how many more do we need? Another glazed beef patty?"

Curious, I pluck a paper from the pile and read: "The problem with cookbooks is the plot. It's really boring. Let's say there a story about an apricot cake and at the end there's always an apricot cake! Besides, they always ask us for all kinds of special ingredients and tools and accessories that nobody but crazy lovers of cooking and wealthy housewives have. Of course you can buy silicone baking pans in a specialty store, and baby carrots from the selected green grocer and pistachios from the land of pistachios from the strange old man from Levinsky who opens only in a rain-deficient leap year. But let's be honest. Who has time and money for all that crap?"

"I love to write," he says. "It's hard. When you create something you don't want to work hard, you want it to be cool, you don't want to recycle yourself and you also want it to come out good." A girl holding a smartphone close to her heart enters and asks for a cola. "There's no cola," they tell her. She leaves. Fenichel explains. "We don't see any need to sell such things. They're ordinary. We make soda. It's more fun, tastier and cheaper. In general we prefer working with the little people rather than the big shots."

"I've always dreamed of having a place. The place where all the things that annoyed me in other places won't happen. I can't stand shaky tables, bad service, a place where it's uncomfortable to sit, where the atmosphere is bad."

She mentions overly expensive restaurants, and other restaurants that disappointed her, and makes a date with Avraham to eat a meal in a sophisticated chef's restaurant that opened in Tel Aviv - to test the competition. I ask her whether she feels that she has accumulated enough experience. She says that she has worked as a waitress, a barman and a pastry chef for years. "Anyone can open a place. The question is what will happen in another three years. There's never enough experience. When you invest money, you look at things differently. Even though it's the first day and everything's a mess and people didn't really come, I feel that we're doing the right thing."

It's hard not to be fancy

As far as the food to be served , Avraham says of himself: "I have a tendency to come from alternative, to improvise cheap food at home, with punk cooking. But I actually did my training in gourmet restaurants such as Shiraz, Artichoke, and Lavan, and I'm crazy about food, so it's hard for me not to be fancy."

How did you do in the kitchens of the restaurants where you worked?

"They would always ask me why I put ginger into everything. I was talented, efficient and loyal, but I didn't have my feet on the ground. In the kitchen you have to be focused and I'm not like that. I could bring out service for 100 people like a Ninja and then burn half the kitchen by mistake."

What's so punk about chile con carne?

"The idea of punk cooking is that you can do cool things with modest means, intention and honesty, it makes no difference whether it's pretty on the plate or whether the bread is cheap or expensive. I try not to be full of hot air. To take something that comes from cans and looks terrible and to make it really tasty. The entire cooking experience has to be far more rock 'n' roll-like in its essence, something full of energy and spontaneity and fun that inspires you beyond that moment."

A central principle in punk music is that you don't have to know how to play or sing well. And in the kitchen?

"It's not that I don't know how to cook, but I can do what the great chefs do with modest means. From my student apartment I produced crazy dishes, petit fours on whipped coconut with spearmint sorbet and goose liver that I prepared in a toaster oven. It comes out dirty and not always edible, but it's fun. I wish us success in achieving all our pretentions. And that we don't become commercialized."

Naama Fenichel and Roi Avraham at 'Tarnegol' in Jaffa. Credit: Daniel Bar-On
Punk food at 'Tarnegol.'Credit: Daniel Bar-On