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Food - Q&A with chef Todd Ginsberg

The chef dishes on Yalla, one of two Krog Street Market concepts from the team behind the General Muir

Wednesday October 22, 2014 04:00 am EDT

Chef Todd Ginsberg and business partners Shelley Sweet and Jennifer and Ben Johnson (West Egg, the General Muir) are set to open two stalls in the new Krog Street Market any day now — a sandwich shop called Fred’s Meat & Bread and a Middle Eastern shop called Yalla that will serve hummus, falafel, sabich, and more. We recently caught up with Ginsberg to learn more about what to expect from Yalla and his recent trip to Israel to seek inspiration.


What’s the idea behind Yalla? Where did it come from?

The idea was actually Jennifer’s. I’ve eaten at Pita Palace as long as I can remember. I’ve always been infatuated with it, but I really had never given a thought to opening something along those lines. But worlds kind of collided ... a chef named Avi Bitton from Adora in Tel Aviv was here and he was talking about opening a hummuseria, and I was thinking ... that sounds interesting. Then Jennifer had started seeing similar places opening up. And then she found out that there was a stall space opening up next to Fred’s at Krog Street Market and asked what I thought of the idea of adding a Middle Eastern food stall. I felt confident we could do it, and I love the cuisine. We actually made the decision in one day, about six months ago, and Ben Jennifer’s husband was emailing the landlord that very night. We thought there was an opportunity to provide a healthy, vegetarian-friendly option that’s lacking around that part of the Beltline.

So you went to Israel earlier this year to study up?

When we decided to open Yalla, I had to go to Israel, mainly because I didn’t have the confidence to do this without that firsthand experience. I didn’t have the soul and the heart yet, understanding what modern Israeli cuisine was. Sure, I’ve read every single book from [Israeli restaurateur and cookbook author [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yotam_Ottolenghi|Yotam Ottolenghi], I was familiar with Israeli restaurant Zahav in Philadelphia, and there’s a film called The Search for Israeli Cuisine that was another catalyst for me realizing I didn’t yet know enough. I had never really sat down and thought through making hummus, making falafel. I needed to go experience a place like Abu-Hassan in Jaffa to know what I was striving for, smelling the hummus while it’s being made, picking up the cues, seeing the techniques. And while I’ve been to Israel now, I also want to reflect what’s going on more broadly in that part of the world. I brought back some sumac, za’atar, dukka — spices that you see constantly there. I’ve had my spice guy trying to match the quality of what I found in Israel, and we’re actually working on sourcing some things that can’t typically be found here.

Tell us about Yalla’s menu.

Yalla will be lunch and dinner, maybe a breakfast option or two like shakshuka on the weekends. Shawarma, falafel, sabich, hummus, all kinds of salads. The menu won’t change often, but it will follow seasons and what’s available. In the middle of winter, we won’t be featuring tomatoes. I’m going to treat the salads the way we do some of the small plates at the General Muir — all about the vegetables, fresh, light.

We’ll be making fresh pita and laffa every day, but my trip to Israel also reinforced how important the condiments are — we hope to have 15 things you can choose from to go with the falafel or the sabich, like tahini and pickled cabbage and roasted cauliflower and Israeli pickles. I want people to crave what we do. And I don’t want to make it if I can’t make the best falafel — just like we do with the burgers, the fried chicken, the pastrami at the General Muir.

What surprised you most while you were in Israel?

The purity of the food — there was no masking, no muddling of flavors, not trying to do too much — which goes back to their traditions. They’re not showing off, and they’re looking to things that have worked for centuries. Like I had an amazing simple grilled eggplant at an Armenian place behind the market in Tel Aviv, just with tahini and lemon and garlic. Also, they use a lot of paper and want you to use your hands. It’s intimate — it’s how people who love food eat.

Anything unrelated to food?

I was struck by how empty the streets were on Friday as Shabbat was starting. The quiet. Then the most beautiful part was going from the western wall and driving out toward the desert, with no one around. You walk a few minutes out into the desert and it’s primordial, with no one around you, and you can sense that struggle to survive in such an environment. It was a life-changing experience.

What are you hopes for Yalla?

“Yalla” means “let’s go” like: “c’mon, hurry up!”. It’s an Arabic expression, but it’s also used by Hebrew speakers, too. So it shows some of that cross-pollination that has occurred in the Middle East and that continues to occur. The same cross-pollination has happened with food. With so much dividing the region, the food is something that unites it. That is what we want to celebrate at Yalla. We want to respect the traditions from all over that part of the world.