When Shay Lavi finished his service in the Israel Defense Forces, he didn’t know what to do with his life. Though his first love is cooking, he spent his time as an entrepreneur, owning a toy store and an appliance shop.
Now he is embracing his culinary chops: “My life, my love, is cooking.”
Lavi is making a name for himself in the Atlanta culinary community, winning praise for his Turkish kebabs and pitas at the first official Atlanta United tailgate. The half-Libyan, half-Turkish chef draws on his North African roots to create spicy dishes with ingredients such as cumin, tomato paste, couscous, turmeric and lamb.
He spoke with the AJT about Sephardic food, his Let’s Eat catering company and the makings of a traditional Libyan kitchen.
AJT: Where did you grow up in Israel?
Lavi: Or Yehuda. It’s a small town with a lot of farms and restaurants. It’s very old school, and people drive hours just to try the food. It’s known for its food. I grew up there and Turkey as well because I spent summers in Turkey, so my influence is very Turkish as well.
AJT: How much of an influence did Libya have on your life?
Lavi: My father is from Benghazi, and my grandmother on his side is by far one of the biggest influences I had on my life. We were very close. She taught me a lot of things about life and the way to look at people and things. My father is a tough dude, but he taught me a different side.
AJT: How has Libyan food influenced your cooking? Or has it?
Lavi: Of course it has. We don’t eat to live; we eat to enjoy. Food is very important to your soul and whatever drives you. When you wake up in the morning, you have a breakfast with bread that we just baked and dishes like tapas. I can do it from any fresh produce with spices and herbs, so it’s endless.
AJT: How did your grandmother influence your cooking?
Lavi: My grandma used to cook for almost 40 people — everything by hand with nothing written. It’s definitely a more ethnic way of cooking. It comes from your heart because a recipe is a guideline. When I tried to write my first cookbook, I went to my mother and asked her how, and I didn’t understand. Now, I don’t even need to taste it. I can smell it, and I know.
AJT: What kind of food do you serve for your catering business?
Lavi: I serve Turkish, Libyan, and sometimes Moroccan and Persian. I play with stuff. I connect to my culture through the food. I keep my grandma in my memory and my mother in my memory to make sure they shine. I want to educate people. I want them to understand the Mediterranean kitchen is not just falafel. What I do is I have several menus. I take the traditional stuff because it’s pretty old school, and I tweak it and play with a little bit. I try to keep the flavors clean.
AJT: So how do you prepare for Rosh Hashanah?
Lavi: Well, we get about three lambs and slaughter them, and that’s for both Rosh Hashanah and Passover. And afterward we eat lamb for about three months. But for Rosh Hashanah we have the traditional seder plate with dates, pomegranates, apples, string beans, pumpkin, beets and leeks. You say a blessing over everything for the things you wish to come and the things you don’t want … to end all curses.
AJT: Is that the entire meal?
Lavi: You buy the lamb way before and nourish it to fatten it up. And when it reaches a certain weight and age, you slaughter it. My dad used to do three lambs: One he would split with his brother and sister, and then two lambs would be ours. Couscous goes with everything; it’s like rice or spaghetti here. You eat it with stews and with a mix of herbs like tomato paste, cumin, spicy paprika, onion, fried garlic and tomato to open up the taste.
We also have a lot of salads like massierre, a pickle salad, and chirshi, a spicy carrot salad with preserved lemons. You mix it with half-cooked carrots and add a lot cumin, turmeric, caraway, salt and pepper, and then you mix it with tahini sauce and pumpkin. We also make ajja bill camun with the leftovers from schnitzel. We take the egg, flour, breading, and mix it with spices and then fry it. There is also tbeha, a Libyan stew with semolina patties with kukla, or lamb fat, and spices. You have it on every holiday, and every holiday has the same things.
AJT: What are some of the things found in a typical Libyan kitchen?
Lavi: We put cumin on everything. There’s paprika, nutmeg, cinnamon, onion powder and garlic used all the time, along with fresh garlic and onions. And semolina, but it’s a different version than what you use in the U.S. We stuff it and mix it with lamb fat and make kukla. We eat it every day. Oil is very traditional in the Libyan kitchen — a lot of oil. The olive oil is so dark you can’t see through the bottle. It’s dirty, thick and straight from the tree. … It’s incredible.
Most of the kitchen comes from being poor and making something out of nothing basically. That’s why you have a lot of head and legs, things normally people wouldn’t eat, but when you try it, it’s delicious.
AJT: What is your favorite Libyan dish?
Lavi: Aseeda. It’s a winter dish. It’s very spicy, and it has two components. The first component is semolina in water. It looks like pudding, and you serve it cold by putting it in the fridge. The second component is a tomato paste sauce and a salty, sun-dried fish. You take the plate of semolina and pour the warm sauce with fish on top.
AJT: What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between Sephardi and other Jewish traditions?
Lavi: We’re more cut to the chase: Pray, finish, eat, enjoy your food. With other cultures, it’s like “Let’s pray and sing and praise the Lord for hours.” The priorities are different. Everything is different. We want to get to the food; that’s how we celebrate.
Harriema (Spicy Fish Stew)
1 head crushed garlic
4 tablespoons high-quality olive oil, blended oil or grapeseed oil
2 cups water or 2½ cups fish stock
3 tablespoons tomato puree
3 tablespoons sweet red paprika
2 tablespoons spicy paprika
1 teaspoon ground caraway
1 teaspoon ground cumin
Salt to taste
6 pieces sea fish such as grouper, scaled and gutted
In a large, low pot, mix the garlic, oil, crushed, sweet paprika, sharp paprika and 2 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Reduce the flame to a minimum and cook for 15 minutes until the sauce is softened. From time to time, stir and make sure the sauce does not stick to the bottom of the pot. If the sauce is sticky, add about a quarter cup of water. After about 20 minutes, add the cumin and caraway and mix. Add the fish and place it in a pot in one layer. The sauce should cover the fish. If the water is lacking, carefully add more. Cook for 20 more minutes. Serve with a lot of lemons on the side.