Let's Eat

'Coming out as Israeli in London is far harder than coming out as gay'

Chef Eran Tibi on fermenting pitta at new restaurant Kapara and being an openly Israeli restaurateur in London


He is only a few minutes late, but Eran Tibi is full of apologies when he bursts into his new restaurant Kapara.

His parents are over from Israel to celebrate the opening, and he’s been held up showing them London, he explains, as he shrugs off his coat and wraps me in a huge hug . “I left them in Primark. Israelis love it there,” he laughs.

For the past six years the Israeli chef has been sharing his huge flavours at Bala Baya in Southwark. That was his first solo restaurant and Kapara is his second — and also his first foray north of the river. The glamorous (non-kosher) venue off Soho’s Greek Street is not quite ready: around us workmen are completing the final few things on the snagging list.

“We decided to open even though things weren’t quite finished,” he says with a smile.
He seems slightly astonished to be on his second solo venture.

“When I came to London 15 years ago to study at the Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, I arrived in Soho with one suitcase, ate a horrible kebab and found a room to rent on Frith Street. And now, I’m here. Immigrants sometimes do good!”

But success has not come without hard graft. Not long after he arrived in London in 2008, his money ran out and Tibi joined the throng of Israeli chefs working nights at Ottolenghi’s kitchens, before setting up Made in Camden restaurant, in the Roundhouse, with fellow chef Josh Katz.

He and Katz went on to launch kosher Zest at JW3 before Tibi departed to open (non-kosher) Bala Baya. In early 2020, he was on the verge of opening a second site, in Shoreditch.

“I pulled out from the deal a week before the first lockdown, and it was a good decision. If I hadn’t, I think I’d be bankrupt now.

"The money I didn’t invest saved me during lockdown.”

It was also during the pandemic that he decided to ‘come out’. Not as a gay man — he’d already done that— but as a Jewish Israeli. “I realised I was being too shy about who I am and decided to rebrand our social media and website to shout out who we were.

We added Hebrew to the menus and neon Hebrew letters inside the Balabaya toilets.” The result, he says, was better than he could have anticipated.

“Bookings soared! A lot of Israeli restaurants are coy about their provenance. They describe themselves as Middle Eastern or Levantine, as Mediterranean or Eastern basin.”

But the rebranding was not without consequences. Unsurprisingly, coming out as Israeli in London is far harder than coming out as gay.

“It started with threats over the phone, which led to the police monitoring our lines.

“I reassured my team they were safe, and they learned to laugh about it. Most of the staff are Israeli and they didn’t let the hate get to them.

“Plus, we got so much love from our customers we didn’t have to focus too much on the negativity.”

It was during the third lockdown that he was approached by the property company Soho Estates, created by the late entrepreneur and pornographer Paul Raymond, about the Kapara site. Initially reluctant, he was persuaded after managing director John James, Raymond’s former son-in-law, visited Balabaya for lunch.

“We hit it off immediately. He told me we had the young vibe they were looking for to be the crown jewel of their Soho estate.”

The site includes a basement dining room and bar and an open kitchen. “I can’t stand an afterthought basement, but this one is even better than the ground-floor dining room to which it’s connected with a quite grand a staircase.”

Plastered with mirrors, the basement bar and dining room also screams glitz.

“When I was a kid my grandpa had a little bar in his flat that I’d call the bling-bling box because of the noise the little bottles made when it opened and because of the mirrors inside it. The mirrors here were inspired by grandpa’s bar.”

Grandpa — “a naughty guy who loved his tobacco snuff, cigars, arak and whisky” — has also inspired one of Kapara’s desserts: Gramp’s Cigar.

The deliciously crunchy filo pastry stuffed with pistachio, rose, coco and a creamy passion fruit curd with a charred tuile, is served with a cute book of matches.

And there are other family favourites on the menu, too: his mother’s recipe for olive and pitta chips; his baker father’s borekitas and pitta bread (already a star at Bala Baya) plus “Sherrill’s chicken soup”, inspired by the woman he describes as his honorary British mother.

“I met Sherill and her husband Barry at a charity event with Yotam [Ottolenghi]. After that, they sort of adopted me and I’d go to them for Jewish holidays and to celebrate birthdays.

“This soup of dill, carrot and spätzle [noodles] is her signature Shabbat recipe — after the starters, she gives everyone a shot glass of the delicious stuff. Like Sherill, I serve it in a shot glass. On the sharing menu, people get a shot between courses.”

Meanwhile, another nod to Israel comes in the form of gazoz, the non-alcoholic spritz invented in 1930s Tel Aviv.

“It’s so intrinsic to Bala Baya, we had to bring it here,” he says. “Naughty gazoz” is served with your choice of alcohol — prosecco, gin, vodka or (grandpa’s favourite) arak.

A shelf above the upstairs bar is lined with jars of fermenting scraps from the restaurant’s kitchen.

“We ferment fruits, vegetables, herbs, spices — basically anything that’s edible, apart from protein.”

Most inventive, perhaps, is the pitta-flavoured gazoz syrup they make at Kapara.

“We often had stale pitta leftover in the bakery in Bala Baya, which we turn into breadcrumbs but one of my team asked if we could try fermenting it, so we toasted it to make it really dry, and then put it in syrup with citric acid.

"Bit by bit, the liquid developed a toasted bread flavour that goes particularly well with blackberries in a cocktail.”

The name of this new Soho eatery could also be described as inventive. Kapara, or kaparot, is an Orthodox Yom Kippur ritual that involves swinging a live chicken around your head in an attempt to transfer your sins to the bird.

“But in Israel it has also become slang for the word love,” he says.

“My mum would tell me ‘kapara on you’ about seven times a minute, which loosely translates as, ‘I love you so much, I’ll make any sacrifice for you.’ People now also use it to mean dear, darling, sweetheart, babes. What cuter word for an Israeli restaurant in Soho?”

Kapara is open seven days a week, 12pm-1am (11.30pm Sundays)

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