LONDON - Since the opening of his restaurant this past spring, Kurdish-Israeli chef Tomer Amedi has been the buzz of London’s toughest food critics.
“These are dishes that demand to be shared, talked about, Instagrammed and fought over,” wrote Tracey McLeod, a critic for The Independent, in her review of the The Palomar.
The 30-year-old Amedi is no newcomer to the restaurant scene. He has a pedigree from some of the most popular restaurants in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Longing to work abroad, Amedi and his partners opened The Palomar near Chinatown, in Soho. The small restaurant, with its narrow bar and open kitchen has been booked solid since it opened in May.
Known for his small plates fusing the multi-cultural flavors which mirror Israel’s population; Amedi’s kitchen is part of a big trend in London where there’s an increasing appetite for simple, lighter, healthier food to share with interesting and dynamic flavours. Just ask one of the patrons at The Palomar: Jane Sunley waited a week to get a table.
“It’s everywhere, this food at the moment. Everyone’s talking about it. The food is really simple; it’s delicious and just to read the menu, you could eat everything and it’s as good as it sounds or better,” Sunley told Rudaw.
Amedi’s incorporates influences from Yemen, the Levant, the Maghreb, Turkey, Eastern Europe, and his own heritage: Moroccan and Kurdish, are what makes his dishes so special. Amedi says much of his inspiration comes from his Kurdish side.
“My father’s family is originally from a lovely little hillside village in Kurdistan called Amedia, very close to the Turkish border. My grandpa came to Israel in 1917. He walked all the way on foot and settled in Jerusalem, where he built his house with his own hands, brick by brick.”
A father passionate about cooking the food of his forefathers left a strong impression.
“My Dad was the first cook in a Kurdish-Iraqi restaurant; really simple cuisine, things like rice and long-cooked beans and meat dumplings called kubeh.”
These small, homey restaurants of the Kurdish Diaspora, Amedi says, are part of the classic immigrant story.
“After World War II everybody came from all over, Europe, Argentina, Kurdistan, Turkey, Ethiopia, and decided to live together, so they had to adjust what they cooked, using whatever was available, and keeping it kosher. They started to form circles, so there are a lot of Kurdish restaurants in the Jerusalem market; really home-style places that do great food. We call them ‘workers’ restaurants because all the builders came there for cheap, good food.”
Raised by a mother who loved cooking her native Moroccan food, along with his father’s passion for Kurdish cooking; it’s no wonder Amedi decided to become a chef.
The home-cooked food Amedi knows best provided him with an important foundation for many of the recipes he’s adapted for The Palomar. Amedi says most Kurdish cooking is a labor of love.
“Kurdish cooking uses small amounts of ingredients, but the process is very long and tedious. It’s a lot of cleaning meat, filling the intestines or curing it or making a filling for the kubeh, which is a semolina dumpling filled with meat. Some ingredients they cook for four hours, and then they dry it out, then chop it, so it takes a long time, but uses very few ingredients. I like it. I call it Grandma world because there are so many meanings for me associated with this food.”
Fond memories of his grandmother’s cooking are so strong, Amedi is almost speechless remembering a typical Kurdish dish she made every Friday for the Sabbath.
“Kubeh hamusta is the one dish of my Grandma’s that’s scorched in memory and my mouth. We used to go there every Friday. The dish is a stew that cooks from the beginning of the Sabbath on Friday evening until Saturday noontime. It’s made out of really thick pasta that cooks in a huge pot with tomato paste and a big chunk of cow breast rolled with chopped meat inside and placed in the center of the pot. I know it sounds weird, pasta cooked for 24 hours, but there’s no way to describe the flavor of it. The meat is so tender because it’s been cooked only with steam. I’m dying just remembering it.”
The slow cooking involved in Kurdish cooking plays a very big part of Amedi’s repertoire. His menu is sprinkled with food from different traditions, but, he says he’ll never serve his grandmother’s kubeh hamusta in a restaurant.
“I ate this dish only once after my grandmother died. My Dad made it, so it’s something deep inside. I may try it at home, but I will never make it here. There are things I feel are sacred.”
But he happily blends a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, particularly his Moroccan side, which Amedi says is very different to Kurdish food, in both taste and process.
“It’s a richer kitchen, Moroccan food. There are many more flavours and ingredients and the work is not a long process, but lots of small processes, peeling small things like fava beans, cleaning peppers and chopping garlic; small things, but a lot of them. The Kurdish side is just a really long process with long cooking times. Moroccan food is kind of spicy and Kurdish cooking, generally, is very sour. These are my two favourite kinds of flavours.”
One of the most popular dishes at The Palomar, aside from the Yemeni bread, made by Amedi’s wife, the pastry chef, is the pork belly. Yes, pork belly; a dish created especially for the British palate, and one which perfectly represents Amedi’s familial influence.
“The pork belly is a combination of old and new. We serve it with Israeli couscous. The couscous we cook simply with tomato paste and water, but we innovate that by adding chicken stock and caramelized onions and then take the pork belly and do a tagine again and again. We cook it overnight. It’s a long process, but it combines elements of my childhood, my Kurdish side, my Moroccan side, and being exposed to new products, like local, organic pigs. It’s a fun journey.”
It’s a journey that’s getting lots of attention, not just for Amedi’s food, but also for his approach to service, something he takes very seriously.
AA Gill, the British food reviewer who can make or break a restaurant, noticed and wrote about it for his column in the Sunday Times.
“It all comes with such gasps of hospitality its impossible not to feel well-fed and wanted… they are really happy to feed you a comforting, good time,” Gill says, even going to the extreme: “If you were going to get stood up on a date, this is definitely the place you’d want to get stood up at.”
Gill was so moved, he thanked Amedi at the end of his meal with a hug, the equivalent of five stars for the humble chef.
“All I’m interested in is making great food and making people happy,” Amedi says, “everything on top of that is extra.”