Israeli memories inspire a Montclair chef
A native of Yerucham draws on the flavors of his mother’s kitchen
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Chef Meny Vaknin is on a roll. Mishmish, the Montclair restaurant he opened in December, was reviewed in The New York Times, which called it a “little gem.” The Star-Ledger called its Mediterranean cuisine “amazing” and a “wake-up call.”
And on Tuesday, June 2, the Israeli-born Vaknin will appear as a contestant on Chopped, the Food Network’s competitive cooking show.
After the Times review, “the restaurant got so much busier overnight,” said Vaknin, who grew up in Yerucham in Israel’s South. “People were making reservations weeks in advance. We had to step up our game because such a review can either make a restaurant or ruin one, so we had to make sure our cuisine and service was top notch.”
All the attention might make it even harder for his mother-in-law, Abby Meth Kanter of West Caldwell (who happens to be managing editor of New Jersey Jewish News), to get a table. Even now, she quipped, she sometimes cannot get a reservation.
The restaurant, although not kosher, specializes in Middle Eastern cuisine, and its flavors rely heavily on things Vaknin tasted in his Moroccan-Jewish mother’s kitchen and on memories of his native town. Mishmish means “apricot” in Hebrew and Arabic. “Apricots were part of the selection of dried fruits and nuts my mother always kept on the table for guests, and it reminds me of the warm feeling in our house that I wanted to bring to the restaurant,” he told NJJN.
“My Moroccan-Jewish roots are expressed in every part of the restaurant — from the food to the front of the house. Growing up in a Jewish Moroccan house shaped my love of food and food culture. I could say my first training came from my mother and grandmother — both fantastic cooks who taught me the best of the Mediterranean and North African cooking,” he said.
One of the items on the menu, the Moroccan fish, is based on a dish that Moroccan Jews eat on erev Shabbat in Israel. Yerucham, a development town in the Negev, was and is home to waves of immigrants. “I could walk through town and smell the flavors of the cooking of Jews from many other places, like India, Tunisia, Yemen, and even Ashkenazi cooking from Eastern Europe and Russia,” he said. “This gave me a great feeling for the traditions of Jews from all over the world.”
Vaknin also brings serious culinary training and his own philosophy to bear on his food. After serving in the IDF, he came to the United States at 22 to pursue a career as a chef. He later graduated — with honors — from the French Culinary Institute in New York. But, he said, his real training came in restaurants all over New York — including Rosewater in Brooklyn and Grata in Manhattan, and under the supervision of world-renowned chefs like Daniel Boulud at Boulud Sud.
“In every restaurant, under every chef, you learn something new about the business and the art of cooking,” he said. His own philosophy about food? “It has to be something that makes you happy,” he said. “It should be simple, not manipulated and fussed with like it is in a lot of places today.”
He added, “I do believe that chefs have to keep things in perspective; I don’t like to be too precious with my dishes — you can eat most of them with your hands. As long as my food makes you happy, then I’m happy and satisfied.”
Vaknin lives in Montclair with his wife, Sarah Kanter, and their two children, Maayan, two, and two-month-old Leo. While the restaurant business keeps him busy, he said, “I try to keep the Jewish culture and tradition alive, so my wife and I celebrate the Jewish holidays with family and friends and attend synagogue on the High Holy Days and stay connected to the Jewish community. These connections keep me grounded and give me a spiritual home. “
As for Chopped, which was filmed nearly a year ago, he is prohibited from saying much. “Chopped was a great experience. It was a lot of fun being on set. It was new to me — both being on TV and competing. It was a really satisfying and fun day. That’s all I’m allowed to say!”
Whatever the outcome — bli ayin ra (the Hebrew version of the incantation to ward off the evil eye) — of the Chopped competition, Vaknin isn’t resting on his laurels. “I am a very ambitious person,” he said. “I’m going to give Mishmish some time and make sure it’s successful. I’m already thinking of the next project — I have a lot of ideas for the future!”