How to be a modern balaboosta
‘Balaboosta” invokes images of a well-covered, dowdy Yiddishe pensioner who force-feeds bridge rolls and chopped liver to anyone within reach.
But New York chef Einat Admony interprets it as a person of any age who tirelessly cooks, cleans and takes care of the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of her family.
Born and bred in Bnei Brak, Admony, 42, is a very modern balaboosta. The mother of two under-sevens zips around Manhattan on a pink Vespa, visiting her three successful ventures — falafel bar Taïm, its on the move sister, Taïm Mobile, and restaurant Balaboosta.
Not one to sit still, her fourth restaurant, Bar Bolonad opens imminently and she has also just published a cookery book, Balaboosta.
Yet she still finds time to feed family and friends, inviting dinner guests two to three times a week and feeding crowds of up to 43 on a Yom Tov.
“When it comes to cooking, it’s a way to express my love for others,” Admony says. “I always want to feed everybody and unlike all or most of my chef friends, I still cook after a 12-hour day in the restaurant kitchen.”
She comes from a long line of balaboostas, citing her mentors as mother Ziona and aunt Chana, now in her seventies, who still happily cooks for large groups.
Admony’s cooking career started at a tender age: “At five, I cleaned rice, washed and picked through herbs and slowly got to do more cooking as I grew older,” she recalls. “I’d cook for Shabbat with my mother and then go over to our neighbour’s house and help her cook her meal.”
Friday nights included a starter of salty and spicy fish with carrots, tomatoes, onions and paprika, home-baked challah, three to five Israeli/Arabic salads and chicken or beef as the main course with more vegetables and then fruit and nuts or baklava.
Both her mother and aunt cooked entirely on instinct and this has influenced her cooking.
Also influential was experience she gained during her national service as a chauffeur to fighter pilots at the Nevatim Air base.
It was a lowly job but one with perks. On Fridays, instead of taking the bus, she got to fly home to Tel Aviv.
Then there was the pilot’s kitchen. Unlike other army canteens which generally served up a bland diet of school dinner style fare cooked by 18-year old enlistees, elite pilots were allotted their own kitchen.
“The Yemenite grandmothers who cooked in the pilots’ kitchen worked like my mother — a pinch of cumin here, a pinch of paprika there. No cookbooks, no recipes.”
She describes them as “surrogate mothers”. Fortunately her superiors were happy to let her cook, provided it did not interfere with her duties. When the IDF chiefs of staff met there in 1991 to plot strategy around the US’s plan to bomb Iraq, she was given three hours to cook the generals a feast and received a standing ovation for her banquet.
After national service she spent four years in Germany as a street seller, before returning to Israel where she enrolled in Herzliya’s Tadmor Culinary School.
After graduation, she worked in top Tel Aviv restaurant Keren before heading to New York for a “stage”. What should have been a few months became four years and she worked at some of the Big Apple’s finest restaurants.
She briefly returned to Israel but was back in the States within the year. What started as a holiday, became permanent and she eventually opened her first restaurant, Taïm, in the West Village.
“It was a hard first year and we almost closed before a couple of good reviews changed everything. Eight years on and we are an institution in New York.”
She admits to a “twinge of shame” in opening a “falafel place” — “a shekel a dozen” in Tel Aviv — especially as she had graduated from Israel’s top culinary school.
But “at Taïm, everything from the food to the colour of the aprons perfectly reflects who I am”.
Her empire grew and five days a week she also operates the Taïm food truck across the city as well as the more formal restaurant, Balaboosta. She describes this as “fancy shmancy” — albeit not too fancy, without tablecloths or ceremony. The latest restaurant, Bar Bolonat, will offer diners more of her interesting Middle-Eastern meets Mediterranean cuisine.
Her book has been a labour of love, taking three years to write.
“The recipes I cook came from my mother and from friends. As a chef, I had not really written them down. I had to keep changing them so they were accurate,” she explains.
It is interspersed with chatty snippets on her personal life and divided into chapters to fit occasions. They include “Fat like me” (healthier options); “Kidding around” (her children’s favourites); and “Thinking about home” (Israeli recipes). In the vein of Ottolenghi, they introduce Middle Eastern staple ingredients like pomegranate confiture, s’chug and dried limes.
“I pride myself on being the one who feeds everybody without asking anything in return except to see them happy,” Admony says. She seems to be doing just that.
Balaboosta: Bold Mediterranean Recipes to Feed the People You Love by Einat Admony (Artisan Books, £20.99). The book is available to readers at a special price of £16.99 including p&p. To order a copy telephone 01206 255777 quoting ref MPS137.