Let's Eat

From the family kitchen to a restaurant near you

Limor and Amir Chen, from Delamina and Strut and Cluck, have brought her family's home-cooked recipes to London's most fashionable areas


It may have been the unseasonal humidity, but one mouthful of Delamina’s chargrilled sea bass — crisp charcoal-tinged skin and perfectly cooked flesh full of punchy lime and garlic — was enough to transport us straight to Tel Aviv.

And it wasn’t just the fish. The menu is peppered with Israeli and Jewish favourites. Sprinklings of za’atar, tahini, labneh and generous servings of Yemeni hot, herby sauce, zhug. Plus a dash of humour — the daily pita special, proper pita piled with a mash-up of whatever’s good that day is termed Pita Balagan.

London is awash with restaurateurs jumping on the Middle Eastern/Israeli bandwagon. What’s different about Delamina is that although there’s a professional chef in the kitchen, the recipes on the menu (and on that of sister restaurant, Strut and Cluck in Shoreditch, which this week was renamed Delamina East) come from Limor Chen’s home kitchen.

It’s the food she grew up eating, and that she has cooked for years for husband (and co-owner of the restaurants) Amir Chen and their two grown up children, Eldar (23) and Daniella (19).

“Before we opened Strut and Cluck in 2016, I spent three months with our professional chef, Cristiano, who is Italian, cooking together. I taught him my recipes and he told me which would work in a restaurant kitchen. Recipes like Chraime (Sephardi fish stew) which I always used to cook. We needed to make it a consistent recipe that Cristiano could reproduce.”

I meet the Chens (pronounced with a ‘Ch’ as in Chanukah and not chicken) in the light, airy Marylebone restaurant.

It was turkey that inspired their first eatery. So fond is Limor of the bigger bird’s meat, that the idea was a turkey-centric menu. The name Strut and Cluck reflected the turkey’s mating ritual. “The male birds strut and the females cluck. I also thought it a good name for a husband and wife team” she smiles.

She’s never understood why the English regard turkey as an annual treat. “In Tel Aviv, it’s just another protein”. However, it wasn’t long before they included more meats, seafood, fish and a range of vegetables. All Middle Eastern influenced and a hit with critics and guests alike. Only the name remains dedicated to the North American fowl. Its success prompted them to open this second site, closer to their Hampstead home.

The couple (members of Central Synagogue) were born in Israel and spent their respective childhoods there before coming to London with their families. They met at school and have been together ever since, even though Limor went back to Israel.

“I came here as a teenager but went back [to Israel] as soon as I could. I was picked for an army scholarship under which I went to University first and then entered the army as an officer during the time of the Gulf War” Limor explains. “I had studied sociology and was chosen to help manage civilian stress. It was very tough and quite dramatic” she admits.

Their love survived the separation and they wed in 1999, living in New York for a while before returning to London.

Both have the dark complexions of Sephardim, but, surprisingly, boast a fair amount of Ashkenazi heritage. “My mother was an Ashkenazi kibbutznik, the fifth generation to live in Israel — I’m sixth generation Israeli on her father’s side. Her mother was from Ukraine and an amazing cook.”

Sephardi influence and much of her foodie inspiration for those home recipes comes from Limor’s Iranian father. “He cooked from his head and was amazing. He used ingredients like dried lime, sumac and barberries, and mixed them with Israeli cuisine.” His food was full of fresh herbs, spices and savoury dishes packed with dried fruits.

“The koftes we serve at Delamina are based on kebabs he made with lots of herbs — coriander, dill and mint — which make them light and fresh.”

Although the restaurants have been Limor’s first foray into food (she is a professional artist and her installations adorn both restaurants) Amir, a former investment banker, already had experience in that world. He was one of the founding partners of smart sandwich/patisserie chain, Apostrophe. “He sold out after ten years. It was his baby.”

Much as she’d always loved food and cooking, she’d had no plans to make it a living. “Food was just something I did for pleasure.” However, whilst pondering what to do next, the pair did a pop up restaurant at private members’ club, Shoreditch House in June 2016 to test the water. “I worked with their chefs, who cooked my food for five days, which is something the club had never done before. That was just one of the things we’d been considering, but it was so successful, it gave us confidence to go forward.”

As well as sharing her home cooking, Limor feels it’s important to make guests feel welcome. “As Israelis, warmth and friendliness, is very important to us, as is the staff’s knowledge of the food.” She expects her team to know the spices and flavours and to make guests feel at home. This starts from the top: “We took our manager to Israel so she could see what it was like, and who we are.”

“We wanted Delamina to be almost an extension of our home” she smiles. The walls, lined with original family photos help effect this, as does the music, streamed directly from Israel. Their wines — Israeli and Palestinian — are also directly from Israel.

Put them all together with the food and a little bit of Tel Aviv is on our doorstep.

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