Israeli chef in NY presides over a food mini-empire

Israeli chef in NY presides over a food mini-empire

Einat Admony serves slow home cooking from the seat of her successful eatery, Balaboosta

The 'balaboosta' of New York eatery Balaboosta, Chef Einat Admony. (photo credit: Courtesy Einat Admony)
The 'balaboosta' of New York eatery Balaboosta, Chef Einat Admony. (photo credit: Courtesy Einat Admony)

NEW YORK — It’s the pre-lunch rush at Balaboosta and, without turning around, Chef Einat Admony fires off last-minute instructions to her kitchen staff. Yes, on the ceviche. And sure, she can fill in for the dishwasher tonight.

The Yiddish definition of Balaboosta is “perfect housewife.” For Admony, 42, it means more.

“It means a strong woman,” she said, hands cupped around a tall glass of mint tea.

It means presiding over a burgeoning food empire in Lower Manhattan with her husband, Stefan Nafziger. Their culinary kingdom started in 2005 with Taïm, a falafel joint in the West Village. In 2010 came Balaboosta, and next autumn they’ll open Bar Bolonat.

For Admony, Balaboosta means doing all this while promoting a bestselling cookbook and raising two young children, 7-year-old Liam and 4-year-old Mika.

Black hair in neat braids, Admony zips around the city on her pink Vespa with the same energy she harnesses to run Balaboosta. The neighborhood restaurant tucked on Mulberry Street features Middle Eastern food that leans Israeli.

Street sign for Balaboosta (Cathryn Prince/The Times of Israel)
Street sign for Balaboosta (Cathryn Prince/The Times of Israel)

“I mix Turkish, Italian, Greek — things from all over — into my food,” Admony said. “A lot of Israeli dishes are defined by the limitation of kosher and Shabbat — you’ll see a lot of slow cooking. I want to make it more playful.”

Lamb meatballs on papparedelle spiked with cardamom, lemon and lima beans. Dates pop in the banana-bread pudding, and fried olives appear to float on a dish of white yogurt swirled with fiery, homemade Harissa oil.

Admony’s newly published cookbook, Balaboosta, showcases her food philosophy. Quite simply, Admony cooks what she likes. And what she likes reflects her Yemenite, Persian, and Jewish heritage.

“With the cookbook, I didn’t set out to prove to other chefs that I know how to cook,” Admony said, chocolate brown eyes flashing. “Except for the ‘Fancy-Schmancy’ chapter, it’s simple Mediterranean dishes that are easy for everyone.”

The book was just named one of the International Association of Culinary Professionals 2014 finalists.

“Einat worked real hard for a while on the stories and recipes for the book. The relationship with Artisan was amazing throughout. They understood Einat and they did an amazing job with the photos and graphics, so we were really happy with the result and knew this was going to be a good book,” Nafziger said.

“We just had no idea of the momentum it would create. I think the timing was perfect. The success of Taïm, then Balaboosta… The cookbook kind of completes the circle,” said Nafziger.

Admony can’t remember a time when she didn’t cook.

The kitchen was her playroom where her mother taught her how to turn out golden challah and braise short ribs. Her father, who worked as a cook in the Israeli army, had two dishes: Shakshuka, and fries.

A look inside New York's Balaboosta. (Cathryn Prince/The Times of Israel)
A look inside New York’s Balaboosta. (Cathryn Prince/The Times of Israel)

Admony graduated from the Tadmor Culinary School in Herzlia, Israel. Afterwards she went to work in New York City and in August 2001, at a party in the West Village, Admony met Stefan Nafziger. It was, as the French say, a coup de foudre. Yet, as she explains in her cookbook, she was already engaged. And so Admony flew back to Israel and wed; the marriage lasted months.

During a visit to New York City with her brother, she reconnected with Nafziger. In many ways, Admony said, there was no choice to make; she and Nafziger were destined for each other.

“I let everything go, I sold my apartment, and came to New York with $200 in my pocket and a big love,” she said.

The couple moved into a flat in Brooklyn and opened Taïm in the West Village in 2005. Opening the restaurant was not “a dream come true,” Admony said. It was supposed to be temporary stop until they figured out exactly what kind of restaurant they did want to run. That was nine years ago.

Meanwhile, Admony yearned for a restaurant that spoke to her soul in a way that serving pita drizzled with tahini did not.

Just like the first time she met Nafziger and knew he was the one, the idea for Balaboosta came like a thunderclap.

“The minute I had the name, everything just came together,” Admony said. “The food, the décor, the ambiance — it just came.”

Navy linen curtains frame two large windows that overlook the narrow street. Cookbooks, many authored by women, pack the bookshelves.

On one white brick wall a giant chalkboard lists daily specials. Opposite hangs a large portrait of Admony’s Aunt Hannah. The women bear a striking resemblance. Soon the portrait of Hannah will slide to the left to make room for portraits of New York female chefs.

Chef Einat Admony intends to make an homage to female chefs in a 'Women of the Wall' display. (Cathryn Prince/The Times of Israel)
Chef Einat Admony intends to make an homage to female chefs in a ‘Women of the Wall’ display. (Cathryn Prince/The Times of Israel)

“It will be the Wall of Women. It will be Balaboosta,” Admony said.

While she said she never encountered problems as a female chef, she conceded that coming up in the profession as a woman has its tough moments.

“At Patria, I was the only woman on the grill at the time,” Admony said. “I was with 20 Latinos. It was fun. They ribbed me constantly and talked to me like they talk to each other. I’m Israeli. I handled it.”

She’s also handled competition.

Admony, who recently took up boxing, appeared on the Food Network’s show “Chopped” three times and won it once. She officially lost to her one-time boss Bobby Flay in a falafel throw down on “Throw Down With Bobby Flay.”

Afterwards, Flay came to Taïm and televised an additional segment for his show. As Admony tells the story, Flay effectively overturned the judges’ decision and proclaimed Admony’s falafel the best in New York City or anywhere else. Aside from Bolo and Danube, Admony worked for Danny Meyer at Tabla in 2000.

Come fall, the couple will open Bar Bolonat. Diners can expect a playful twist on Israeli classics, Nafziger said.

“In a way, it will be different than Balaboosta because of the focus in Israel, in another, the same bold Middle Eastern flavor and style,” Nafziger said. “Einat likes to play with mixing acidity, sweetness, savory and textures. I’m sure you’ll see a lot of that.”

‘Cooking is relaxing for me. It’s what makes me feel the most Zen’

“Cooking is relaxing for me. It’s what makes me feel the most Zen,” Admony said. “When things were hard the only thing I could do to relax was cooking.”

So it’s not unusual for Admony and Nafziger to host dinner on their days off. A casual invitation for four becomes 20; a planned menu of three dishes becomes dozens of courses.

“It’s to the point where if there are only two dishes on the table for dinner Liam will ask where is the food?” she said.

While passionate about dining well, she doesn’t want to be that chef who lives above the kitchen and obsesses over whether the linen napkins are sufficiently starched and the saltcellar perfectly angled.

“I don’t want the pressure of three stars or four stars. I want balance,” she said, smoothing her braids. “Here for lunch you are going to eat what I’d make for you at home in my kitchen. People come in here off the street; they may not even know the restaurant before. But the food is delicious, it’s relaxing and they come back.”

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