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Nouveau Middle East Food Goes West

Kramer and her business partner ate at Haj Kalil, an Arab restaurant in Jaffa, Israel. / Photo courtesy of Sara Kramer

Sara Kramer is not the first busy New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast. But she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar, Middle Eastern herbs, in her suitcase.

Until February of this year, Kramer, 28, was the executive chef at Glasserie, a celebrated Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant in Brooklyn that she co-founded. Now, she and her business partner (and former Glasserie sous chef) Sarah Hymanson, plan to open two new restaurants in Los Angeles — a downtown falafel and sandwich shop first, and later, an upscale-but-approachable shared plates eatery that will draw on flavors and ingredients from the same region.

Kramer’s restaurants are part of the burgeoning New Middle Eastern food movement, which has introduced ingredients like labneh cheese and pomegranate molasses to home cooks’ pantries, and vaulted chefs like Philadelphia’s Michael Solomonov (who owns the restaurant Zahav) and London’s Yotam Ottolenghi (co-author of the best-selling 2012 cookbook “Jerusalem”) into superstardom. In Los Angeles, Kramer’s work is preceded by chef Micah Wexler, whose modern Mediterranean restaurant, Mezze, was a hit with critics and diners until it closed in 2012.

On the face of it Kramer’s decision to uproot her life might seem spontaneous. Raised in Manhattan, she has deep personal and professional ties to the city. Furthermore, she started Glasserie just one year ago.

In an interview with Grub Street last February, she hinted that creative differences with Glasserie co-founder Sara Conklin were proving insurmountable. Relocating to California offers Kramer a chance to cook on her own terms. (The fact that her boyfriend is originally from Los Angeles sweetens the deal.)

In addition, Los Angeles’s sultry climate and its proximity to abundant produce year-round make it a better fit for her Mediterranean-focused vision. “We are interested in getting food straight from the source,” she said. “And the variety of produce at the farmers markets in California far surpasses what you find in New York.” From its date farms to its perfect tomatoes, “it just makes sense to make this kind of food here,” she said of her new home.

Kramer’s mix of raw talent, humility (despite her successes, she maintains an, “I’m just lucky to be doing what I love” demeanor), and family heritage has served her well in the kitchen. She grew up with a Peruvian-Israeli mother and an Ashkenazi father from the Bronx, and in her childhood her family’s pantry was filled with cans of Israeli pickles and other Middle Eastern staples from her mother’s youth. When her grandmother visited, Kramer would join her in the kitchen to make cheese bourekas and rolled spinach puff pastries. “She would make tons and freeze them, so we had them for months after she left,” Kramer said.

Despite her long relationship with cooking, her early professional aspirations leaned toward musical theater. “In middle school and high school, I was always involved in some performance or another,” she said. After graduating, she starred in a touring production of the Broadway show “Mamma Mia!”

A few years later, she found her way back to the kitchen. “The intensity and performance aspects of cooking feel very similar to theater,” she said. She attended The Natural Gourmet Institute in Manhattan before scoring a coveted job at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, an innovative farm-to-table restaurant just north of New York City. After that she worked as a chef and butcher in Brooklyn, and lived for a year in rural Spain, where she cooked at the Michelin-starred restaurant Els Casals.

When she co-opened Glasserie in 2013, she looked for opportunities to incorporate her family’s Middle Eastern dishes — like malawach, a buttery Yemenite flatbread — onto the menu. “This particular project was very personal to me,” she said of Glasserie in the interview with Grub Street, explaining that “it was a concept I’ve wanted to work toward for a long time.” Now, in Los Angeles, she will have the chance to explore this even further.

Photo courtesy of Sara Kramer

Before moving to the West Coast, Kramer and Hymanson traveled to Israel and Turkey this summer to, as Kramer put it, “eat our way around the countries.” For research, of course. Despite her family’s connections there, Kramer did not travel to Israel regularly as a child. “I was always too busy with theater for my own good,” she said. So she relished the recent opportunity to visit family — like her great uncle in Netanya, whose cooking is the stuff of family legend — and try new-to-them dishes at upscale and hole-in-the-wall restaurants across the country.

She and Hymanson sampled cabbage rolls flavored with baharat seasoning, and flatbread stuffed with greens, at an Arabic food stand. They slurped Yemenite beef soup accented with a lemony fenugreek sauce in Hadera, toured spice farms and boutique wineries, and browsed the maze of stalls at the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv and at Machne Yehuda in Jerusalem. “We had lists and lists of recommended places to make our way through,” she said. While researching for their new sandwich shop, they visited many (“nearly too many!” Kramer said) of the country’s best falafel and hummus spots.

Kramer left with bags of spices, like the turmeric-heavy blend hawaij, in her bag. “I also bought a pair of jagged-edge cookie tweezers for making ma’amoul [Arabic date cookies],” she said. “Those are really fun.”

Most important, however, she came back with ideas. Both of her restaurants are still in formation, but Kramer is clear on her goals: “We want to push these flavors forward and incorporate them into an American cuisine to create something unique, creative and totally approachable,” she said. “That is how I love to eat, and I think other people will, too.”

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