Let's Eat

Bare Grills

Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer have produced a gorgeous collection of Middle Eastern recipes for cooking over coal - here's what inspired them



Last week, Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer, the Israeli husband and wife chef team behind the London restaurants and food group, Honey & Co, published their fourth cookery book.

The book is fabulous. Full of their trademark warmth and generosity and groaning with gorgeous recipes and delicious travel tales from their recipe gathering trips.

But alas, with the events of the last week in Israel, the timing of a book with the title Chasing Smoke – Cooking Over Fire Around the Levant, felt unfortunate at best.

When I spoke to them in April about the book, things were looking positive. Israel was opening up; and, with a world-leading vaccine programme, tourism looked promising.

What a difference a few days make. Now, one of the restaurants they refer to in the book — Uri Buri in Acre —has been destroyed by fire. Srulovich and Packer had told me back then that its owner, Uri “Buri” Jeremias is one of their heroes and recalled how the restaurant had, years earlier, been the inspiration for them to set up their own place.

But they are not about to bring politics into the kitchen. For them (like Buri) peace and food are what they believe in, so understandably they were unwilling to discuss the current situation.

They had told me that one of the things they’d found when writing the book was how similar people across the Middle East are. “[In the book] we celebrate the region and the commonalities of how we all cook and eat. Everywhere we travelled — there’s a joy in getting these bowls of salads and in choosing your grill. The smell of fire is the same everywhere and takes you to the same place — we just wanted to trace that and follow it.”

They had visited five countries around the Levant — Israel, Egypt, Greece, Turkey and Jordan. Fortunately, their research trips and photography were complete ahead of last year’s lockdown. The enforced isolation gave them time to finish editing.

Like everyone else in the restaurant world they’ve had a tough year. Lockdown halted service at their three London restaurants: Honey and Co; Honey and Smoke; and deli, Honey and Spice. “We went through the five stages of grief. First we were angry and negotiating then depressed, and now we’re in and out of acceptance. We’re starting to move towards moving on” Srulovich told me over Zoom from the echoingly empty Honey and Smoke.

After they’d both recovered from coronavirus, they kept going throughout the year as they knew their team of kitchen, front of house and office staff — who felt like their family — needed them.

“Having people who depended on us and relied on us, not only for their livelihoods but for their place in the world and the stuff that fills their day — was the make or break. We had to step up, be positive, gather everyone and do the best we could” said Srulovich.

They kept going with internet deliveries and creative takeaway boxes that went out on a Saturday night. They would choose a theme — which, over the year, included Passover, Easter, Eid and Persian New Year — and devise a menu to fit, with various treats and props for your evening.

Two of the restaurants, with outdoor space, reopened in April, and this week, Honey & Smoke, their grill house on Great Portland Street is finally buzzing with eager diners.

The new book had been intended as a straight cookbook about this restaurant, which opened in 2017. “But we thought there were too many restaurant cookbooks out there; and Honey & Smoke was still changing its identity. A restaurant takes three to five years to develop and we lost a year with Covid. We’re still changing it, so didn’t feel it yet had its classics. We wanted to explore it more” says Srulovich.

So they followed their fascination with fire and the smoky flavours of cooking over coal — the reason why they’d created the restaurant in the first place. “We used the same instinct and curiosity” says Srulovich.

The book is an indulgent travelogue — joyful when most of us haven’t set foot outside the UK for so long. It takes you, a meal at a time, through the pair’s five chosen cities — Egypt’s Alexandria; Amman in Jordan; Israel’s port city of Acre; Adana in Turkey and Greek port, Thessaloniki.

In each location, there are colourful stories of people they met and food they tasted, setting the scene for the many chargrilled recipes that come out of this region. But, Srulovich says, it’s not all pomegranates and rose petals. “We didn’t want to be misty eyed about it. Yes, we wanted to show the beauty, but something real and how it is now — in all its gritty glory.”

As well as sun-soaked meals in tiny family-owned tavernas, there are hair-raising taxi journeys and a gory trip to a live market in Alexandria, where animals and birds are selected and slaughtered to order. “It was shocking to us even as chefs, but this is a big part of eating and we get disconnected from that when everything comes to you. We wanted to show this is very much a way of life in a lot of places.”

Recipes range from simple baked potatoes cooked in the embers of a Lag B’Omer bonfire through Turkish-inspired loquat and lamb kofta; sardines in vine leaves and ash-baked beetroot, lentil and feta salad as well as breads like sumac, oregano and black pepper griddle bread. There are salads and and some desserts. All except four dishes can be cooked on an ordinary oven grill, so everyone can join the party.

The pair have launched the book with a series of must-listen podcasts with people they met on their trip to find out how their year has been and cook a recipe from the book. “We were planning a series of podcasts in Israel before the pandemic with our food idols but had to cancel them” says Packer.

Hopefully we’ll all be able to return soon.

Chasing Smoke, Cooking Over Fire Around The Levant (Pavilion) is out now
JC reader offer: Readers can buy a signed copy of the book with a 10% discount from
Offer valid until August 31 2021

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