Let's Eat

Safta Cooks: Tel Aviv to East Dulwich

Chef, Orr Barry, has been sharing Israeli hospitality in a corner of South East London


In a small corner of south-east London, Orr Barry has become a phenomenon during the pandemic.

Israeli Barry was executive chef of Jerusalem’s Mamilla Hotel when it opened in 2009. He later opened his own restaurant — Bertie — on Tel Aviv’s King George Street where he cooked for five years before moving to London in 2015. The past five and a half years have been spent developing new products at bakery chain, Gail’s. “I was behind the savoury food offer” he explains.

Last year — furloughed by Gail’s — Barry realised he had to keep cooking. He created catering business and market stall pop up, Safta Cook. He could still access interesting ingredients: “I realised there was no limitation of supply. I wanted to be open and to tell people who I am through food — it was a way of practising my heritage.”

Like all the best things, from The Queen’s Gambit to podcasts, Barry operated by word of mouth. In Dulwich, if you bumped into someone friendly at school pick-up or in the park, the conversation might have turned to Safta Cook. “Did you try Orr on Friday night?” It was a safe topic of conversation. You could be reasonably sure the person you were speaking to had.

I meet Barry outside his pop up stand on Lordship Lane, and ask him why food matters so much to him. “For me, it’s something that takes you into memories and nice moments, certain feelings like you’re trying to kind of recreate something very social.” That’s what makes Barry’s food special — the sense that he is trying to communicate to his customers something almost intangible.

Another way to put it is to say he’s cooking with love. That has to do partly with his past. Barry grew up in the centre of Israel about equidistant between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. His father’s Ashkenazi roots and mother’s Iraqi heritage, mixed central European, northern African and the Middle East, all of which translates in his food.

The name, Safta Cook is a nod to his mother — a major influence on his food — and whose nickname, he says, is ‘cooks’. “My daughter always says ‘Safta cooks’, and I also chose the name as my style of cooking is very homely. It’s my grandmother’s food with a modern twist.”

What distinguishes a Barry meal is the eclectic playfulness of his cooking, as well as the care — the handmade menu, the personal delivery — with which it’s presented. This is also healthy food at a time when the temptation — yielded to all too often by some of us — has been to fall back on pizzas and burgers. “You don’t want to go through an entire pandemic on pizzas,” Barry commiserates.

But really he has demonstrated the possibilities of food when it comes to community. Barry started to cook for the neighbours on his street and says it just kept on growing. Before the business, he admits, he barely knew anyone on his street. “Now when we’re walking down my street, I know all the neighbours,” he says, proudly. His is a very pandemic story — it is an example of how we might still reach one another while separated.

In six or seven months, his food was so popular he knew it had potential.

“There’s an amazing fishmonger in East Dulwich that had a kitchen. They were closed so I asked if I could use it.” He now prepares meals for Friday home delivery and operates the pop up stand outside the front of the shop at the weekend.

Although delivery is within a three mile radius of the shop, North West Londoners, catching wind of his food have been known to send Ubers.

“I sell an eclectic selection — dips, ceviche, sashimi, salads. It’s all very seasonal — a lot of greens at the moment — and a mixture of influences. Jewish, Mediterranean and Levantine as well as Greek, Cypriot, Turkish, Lebanese and Israeli. I sold a lot of ‘Jewish’ chicken soup over the winter months.”

Barry invites the world into his home through his food. “I love to take the menu into the Jewish tradition — but sometimes you’ll find a twist of Asian food, whatever interests me at the time. I try not to repeat myself, because people want the unknown.”

Which clearly was good for custom. “I have a lot of people I’ve literally fed for the whole year. I know many of their special preferences — some may like no chilli or more spices for example.”

A menu goes out each week via email list or on Instagram. The focus is very Israeli — concentrating on seasonal vegetable-based salads and dips designed to share, with a meat or fish optional ‘extra’. Winter dishes have included red lentil and tahini dip; Turkish sesame bread; Egyptian broad bean falafel with roasted pepper dip and raw hispi cabbage with dried apricots, salted almonds and fresh herb salad.

In the past year, we’ve learned that freedom and hope are deeply intertwined. In ordinary times, we feel optimistic about the time ahead, because it’s in our gift to make of it what we will. That’s what the pandemic has robbed us of: instead of the ramifications of freedom, we see only limits. Barry is in opposition to that.

Although Bertie restaurant was the No 1 Trip Advisor-rated restaurant in Tel Aviv, he has no plans to turn Safta Cook into a restaurant once the restrictions are lifted: “A restaurant is like a military regime,” he says.

The following weekend, I show up at Barry’s stand and purchase fish and a mix of salads and vegetables, then back home eat my best meal of the pandemic.


Christopher Jackson is news director of Finito World.

Instagram: Saftacook

Email Orr at

Find Orr at 151 Lordship Lane, East Dulwich, SE22 8DN


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