Let's Eat

The Israeli king of the kitchen who is taking over a new domain

Meet Oren King, the head chef at new London restaurant Lilienblum


Israeli chef Oren King fusses over us like a Jewish mother.

“I just want to check that you tasted everything,” he says, peering down at the huge board he’d presented us with 20 minutes earlier.

On it sit the remains of all six desserts from the menu.

We’d done our gluttonous best — especially easy with the super-light Basque cheesecake; creamy, rose-scented malabi and darkly delicious scoop of chocolate mousse.

Anything remaining is purely because we’re veering into Mr Creosote territory after the Middle Eastern feast we’d been served at new restaurant, Lilienblum.

In another booba moment, our chef asks for our favourite. We can’t decide. He shares that for him, the malabi holds special significance: “It was summer in Tel Aviv and about a million degrees. I was eight or nine and in the car with my parents. An old man was walking along the traffic queue with a Styrofoam box filled with cups of malabi. My mum bought me a little pot and it was the best ever. This recipe takes me straight back there — like the ratatouille transports the restaurant critic in the [Disney] film Ratatouille!”

After 12 years cooking in the UK, King — with his infectious passion for food — is delighted to be heading up the latest London restaurant from the Eyal Shani brand.

He wasn’t always a foodie. “I didn’t cook at all until after my mid—20's; before then I couldn’t even make cornflakes.”

At that stage of his life he'd assumed he'd head towards one of the more traditional careers:

“I was destined to be a lawyer or accountant — one of the Jewish professions — but realised it wasn’t for me. I have ADHD so I would have been miserable.”

After a year in Australia (still not having picked up a pan) an epicurean epiphany saw him return to Israel to enrol in culinary school only to leave a month later, when he was offered work in Tel Aviv restaurant Goocha.

It was a baptism of fire. “The chef literally slammed 40 sea bass in front me and said, ‘You want to learn how to fillet fish? Practise every day until you’re perfect.”’
Six months later, in 2012, he bought a one-way ticket to the UK — his father’s British nationality giving him a UK passport.

London’s kitchens were a target particularly Heston Blumenthal’s: “I was inspired by watching him on television — I had a dream of working in one of his restaurants.” But with no UK restaurants on his CV, his first application failed.

He struggled to find any employment. Six weeks later — on the verge of giving up — he was introduced to Michelin-starred chef/restaurateur Ollie Dabbous and secured work at his eponymous restaurant. “Ollie Dabbous is one of the chefs who has shaped who I am today.”

From there he moved to Roka, working for Damon Griffith — another chef he cites as someone “who shaped me as I am” — before leaving to help open Levantine-inspired dining room The Barbary — with the team from The Palomar.

Not for long. Within a month — third time lucky — he’d struck gold with a job at Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. He felt it was worth sliding down the kitchen hierarchy to commis chef for the invaluable experience.

At Blumenthal’s restaurant, he found himself in a kitchen making double Michelin-starred food for large numbers.

“It was an amazing experience, I realised I didn’t want to do fine dining because there is very little soul and no input for the chef. They have to follow recipes to the letter — it needs to be foolproof.” He also realised he needed the freedom to create a menu based on the quality of that day’s ingredients.

“Today, for instance, we didn’t have great aubergine for the sabiche so I had to take it off the menu; but this is what makes [the food] great. We really put the emphasis on fantastic produce.”

Sourcing the best vegetables and fruits since opening in a gloomy May has been challenging. Something that’s summed up in the menu’s prose — which includes “tomatoes from far away land” and “…a sauce of six desert tomatoes”.

“Good tomatoes are hard to get here, and it’s been a weird season — nothing got enough sunshine.

“The UK is a desert for finding tomatoes but there will be some coming from the Isle of Wight soon.”

Whether or not they’d clocked up air miles, the tomatoes we’d eaten were excellent — needing little more than olive oil and seasoning to explode with flavour.

Even in a bright and shiny city setting — a stumble from Old Street station — there’s a Sabra-style chill vibe. With brown paper-covered tables and vegetable table centres, it has the trademark Shani feel.

The opening menu is also trademark Shani, but as a franchise is “inspired by” rather than cooked by the legendary Israeli chef.

The Israeli icon was here to set the wheels in motion — how was it working with him.
“He’s fun to work with — he’s a philosopher as well as a chef and an intriguing human. Just watching him work inspires you to create a great menu.”

King will bring his own creations to the party, but certain Shani dishes will be staples — King tells me the focaccia is a fixture, as is hummus and there will always be aubergine. We also welcomed a spectacular roasted branzino that I last tasted at Malka — one of Shani’s Tel Aviv restaurants.

“I will stay under the ‘language’ of Eyal Shani but have to be at liberty to make tweaks and adjustments according to produce or what customer feed back.”

Expect to see him emerge from his kitchen to serve dishes such as the whole roast branzino fish, in a roasting tin straight from the oven. All part of his mission to create a warm environment — “I want you to feel like a guest not a customer in my home, my kitchen.”

And to that end, he has started baking challah each Friday, a piece of which he hands to each guest while wishing them Shabbat Shalom. “It’s just a nice gesture to welcome them.”

Lilienblum is at 80 City Rd, London EC1Y 2BJ. Instagram: @Lilienblum

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