From food truck to fine dining: How one Israeli chef is upping the ante
Known for his popular Chubby Chickpea food truck, Avi Shemtov is upping his culinary game with the launch of Simcha, an elegant Israeli restaurant in the Boston area.
Avi Shemtov has been serving Israeli street food from his Chubby Chickpea food truck since 2010. Now he’s ready to turn the corner with a brick-and-mortar fine dining establishment.
Shemtov is a first generation Israeli-American, and one of the earliest entries into the Boston food truck scene. He plans to launch Simcha, a gourmet Israeli restaurant, on March 5 in Sharon, a suburb of Boston. After testing out hundreds of dishes with pop-ups around the country over the last year, he believes he's finally perfected the menu. We caught up with Avi after serving his last Simcha preview, a pop-up shakshouka brunch at a popular tavern in Boston.
FTGV: How and when did you develop an interest in cooking?
Avi: My dad Yona was a chef who owned restaurants all around the Boston area. I basically grew up in those kitchens. Some of my earliest memories are playing games in his kitchen or the basement or stock room – and later on doing my homework in those places.
My mom Diane was also a really good cook. So at an early age I was helping her cook, especially for the family holidays. Food really is one of my earliest memories.
Where does your family originate from, and does that guide your cooking?
My dad’s parents moved to Israel from Turkey in the early 1950s. My dad was the youngest child in his family and as far as I know was the first member of the family born in Israel. He immigrated to America in the early 1970s and soon after met my mom, who is American.
My food has influences from many cultures and countries – Arabic, Persian, North African, Spanish, etc. But at its core, my dishes have a strong Turkish influence since that’s the food I grew up with.
You’ve been serving Israeli street food for years; what will people find at the new restaurant?
Simcha is the Hebrew word for “joy,” and also the name of my Turkish grandmother. At Simcha, diners will certainly taste the flavors of Turkey, but it’s more than that. The whole point of Simcha is to tell the global story of the Israeli people through my food.
The dishes we serve combine global and local influences; we’ll utilize New England meats, herbs and produce and create dishes like smoked pumpkin baba ganoush, which I think will be a classic Simcha dish: Turkish tradition meets New England ingredients.
Do you have someone you look up to in the culinary world?
Shaya is actually coming to Boston in the spring and we’ll be cooking at an event together. So I’m very excited about that opportunity to cook with someone I admire so much.
Here in the Boston area, I have a lot of friends and influences. But I think the most notable is Dave Becker, who owns three distinct restaurants around the region: Sweet Basil, Juniper and his newest, Balani. He’s also written some great cookbooks, too. Dave is one of the most talented chefs I know but probably flies a little but under the radar screen because his restaurants are in the suburbs and not in the middle of the city.
And, of course, my mom and dad taught me and inspired me more than anybody and still do today.
You’ve done pop-ups for a year now, and your food truck has been around for nearly a decade. What is the most exciting aspect – and the most challenging – of doing pop-up dining?
I started out as owner of the Chubby Chickpea food truck serving modern Israeli street food to the people of Boston in 2010, which was very early in the Boston food truck scene. And really, food trucks are nothing more than pop-ups at different locations. Pop-ups are exciting and challenging for a variety of reasons. They’re exciting because you get a chance to reinvent yourself or test out new ideas and concepts with every dinner, every event. You get instant feedback with little financial risk. And diners today love the unexpected part of the experience. It’s usually something they can’t get anywhere else.
The challenges are really with logistics: working with different kitchens and equipment and making sure everything is prepped properly remotely. We have the Chubby Chickpea commissary to handle a lot of the prep, if not all of it. And then it’s just working out the business arrangement with the host. Every deal is a little bit different. But for the most part they’re fun, exciting and a win for everybody involved, for us, for the host and most importantly for the consumer.
What's the most interesting or exciting ingredient you've worked with lately?
I’m really into black walnuts right now. They have a deep, naturally funky fermented nutty taste, almost like gorgonzola cheese. I love them. Right now I’m serving black walnuts on top of my sweet potato hummus.
What is your most popular dish?
Our homemade falafel is consistently our No. 1 seller on Chubby Chickpea. We serve it as a kind of stand-alone side dish with tahini, and also as a sandwich. The falafel sandwich is served on laffa bread that we make every day and comes with hummus, tahini, Israeli salad and pickles.
Shakshouka is easily the number one seller at our pop-up brunches. We serve a traditional shakshouka and a super-savory ‘nduja sausage shakshouka with goat cheese. At our Simcha dinner pop-ups, our rabbit schnitzel was super hot. We expect these will be our top dishes at Simcha.
Is cooking a business or a hobby for you?
Cooking for me is definitely a business, but more importantly a passion. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. I’d cook for free just because I love it. My crew is passionate and loves the hustle as much as I do.
But, of course, I do have a family to feed and employees to pay. So at the end of the day, it’s a business. But my business is my passion, so that’s something special and I consider myself lucky to do what I love every day.
Do you have any plans or dreams for the future?
Lots of plans and dreams, and lots of energy! Getting Simcha up and running and proving the concept is first and foremost on my mind. Meanwhile, Chubby Chickpea is still doing events, mostly catering events, around the region. When the warm weather returns, business for the food truck will pick back up. Chubby Chickpea had its best year ever last year, thanks to a really incredible team, and we expect it to be very busy again this year.
I also run a fleet of beer trucks under the Tapped Beer Truck brand. We call it Greater Boston’s first mobile craft beer bar. We can roll up to any location and instantly began pouring world-class craft beer. We began with one truck in 2017 and this year will introduce our fourth truck. Tapped will be found pouring beer at parties, festivals, concerts and private events all around Greater Boston.
Finally, my dreams for Simcha are to prove the concept here in Boston and then expand to other cities. I want to use my food to tell the global story of the Israeli people to consumers in many different cities. But first we have to prove it here in Sharon.
MORE FROM THE GRAPEVINE:
Related Topics: Chefs & Restaurants