Many customers at Mishmish are regulars, and come in twice a day. Many customers at Mishmish are regulars, and come in twice a day. Many customers at Mishmish are regulars, and come in twice a day. (Photo: Nicci Silva)

Meet the Food Network star who launched his own Mediterranean restaurant

‘Chopped’ champ Meny Vaknin brings robust flavor to his New Jersey eatery Mishmish.

After working his way up the restaurant ladder in New York City for 10 years, Meny Vaknin realized his dream of opening his own eatery in December 2014, the Mediterranean café Mishmish, in Montclair, New Jersey. Business has been booming for the Israeli chef, who became a Food Network celebrity as a result of his three appearances on “Chopped.” He conquered the "hot stuff" mystery basket last year to win the $10,000 prize and was invited to compete in the "Chopped Tournament of Champions," where he won a spot in the finals.

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“It’s tougher than I expected," he tells From The Grapevine. "The toughest thing is to come up with something that makes sense in the time frame that they give you and to do it well, because I’m a perfectionist,” says Vaknin, who had to contend with artichokes and curry sauce in one dessert basket.

Chef Meny Vaknin wants to open more restaurants in addition to his New Jersey flagship location.Chef Meny Vaknin wants to open more restaurants in addition to his New Jersey flagship location. (Photo: Nicci Silva)

The exposure, coupled with raves from the likes of The New York Times, increased interest and business for his “neighborhood joint.”

“We have a lot of regulars,” some who come in daily, says Vaknin, “But there are also new customers. We have an open kitchen and I face the dining room. People come over and say, ‘Hey, I saw you on "Chopped.”’ It’s nice.”

The son of Moroccan parents, Vaknin grew up in a small town in southern Israel, and learned to cook at his mother’s side from a young age. He had always planned to open a restaurant that would represent the Mediterranean dishes and flavors of his youth. “You can taste it in the seasoning. And I bring what I learned in school and from other chefs. I put something unique together, I think.”

Mishmish – which means apricot, a fruit represented in a homemade jam and a lamb tajine with dried apricot that’s on the winter menu – serves such popular signature dishes as lamb meatball shakshouka, smoked eggplant, fried cauliflower and Moroccan fish, an updated twist on his grandmother’s recipe.

This lamb meatball shakshouka dish is on the restaurants most popular.This lamb meatball shakshouka dish is one of the restaurant's most popular. (Photo: Nicci Silva)

“We have a big group of regulars already and they love their things, and if I changed it there would be a riot. So I keep the core of the menu the way it is and add to it with seasonality and local stuff to keep it interesting,” he says.

Vaknin arrived in New York at age 22 and opted to get hands-on experience for seven years before attending culinary school. He attended night classes while working six days a week. “It was one of the best times in my life. I met great people,” he says. He then landed a plum job working for renowned chef Daniel Boulud as part of the opening team at Boulud Sud in Manhattan.

After marrying and having his first child – daughter Maayan, now nearly 4 – Vaknin decided it was time to move to the suburbs for more space than a studio apartment provided. His wife, a TV producer, grew up near Montclair, which he calls “a great little town, close to her parents and close to the city.”

In the future, Vaknin hopes “to open little Mishmishes all over New Jersey, and open another restaurant with slightly different food to expand on my creativity.”

An entire section of the menu is devoted to seafood including mussels, octopus, and prawn.An entire section of the menu is devoted to seafood, including mussels, octopus, and prawn. (Photo: Nicci Silva)

He also envisions a restaurant in his hometown in Israel, “with an open kitchen, open flames.” His parents still live there, and he tries to go back every year or two. His son Leo is almost 2 now, and they’re due for a visit.

Vaknin has fond memories of growing up in Israel, “Being outside every day with my friends, playing soccer barefoot in the dirt.” But it’s the cooking that resonates most vividly. “I loved being in the kitchen. Food surrounded everything in the household, and the look, the smells, the flavors influenced me very much,” he says. “I put that into the food I serve.”

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