Chef’s Table: Meet Sarit Packer of Honey & Co
By Mini Smith
When Sarit Packer moved to London from Israel, it was European food she was craving. Growing up mincing meat with her mother for spaghetti Bolognese and drizzling eggs over Chinese noodle soup, her introduction to the kitchen was far from one-dimensional. Twenty-two years later, it’s Middle Eastern that’s on the menu at her and husband Itamar Srulovich’s Honey & Co restaurant chain.
I’m sitting down with Sarit at their latest eatery, Honey and Smoke during a busy lunchtime service. Honey and Smoke is their largest space yet, and the third in the Honey and Co series and is dedicated to all things grilled. As plates of tahini-drenched aubergine and buttery lamb shawarma are sent out to hungry crowds, we get stuck into her culinary journey so far.
growing up cooking
Although she is the only professional chef in her family, Packer spent much of her childhood in the Galilee of Northern Israel surrounded by food. “I remember cooking from a really really young age. At four or five I was cooking with my mum in the kitchen and I always enjoyed it, then I started doing events for other people at 16. Plus, I always liked eating food so for me it worked out quite well. Something about being a glutton that maybe leads you into a kitchen later on!”
Patrons of the proudly Middle Eastern Honey & Co establishments might be surprised to find out that Israeli cuisine was not the food Packer grew up cooking herself.
“I would say we were very adventurous about Chinese food back then, it was quite a big thing and my sister had gone to a Chinese cookery class so we were trying out a lot of it. Quite a bit of Italian as well, making pizzas and pasta was really exciting. Israel has changed a lot, I think back then eating Israeli food would be something you did out of the house.
“Israel is all about food. It’s hard to explain, but it’s a completely food-evolving culture. Every holiday has its specific food and you cook different things for each. You don’t go out to drink because it’s not really that big, drinking. So you go out to eat at restaurants and the whole culture is set around that.”
Arriving in London at the age of 21, Packer earned her chef’s whites at the Apprentice, then a teaching restaurant near Tower Bridge owned by prolific restaurateur Sir Terence Conran. As she moved quickly up the ranks, she soon found herself in Chris Galvin’s Michelin-starred kitchen at Orrery where she stayed for two years before heading back to Israel.
“There was this weird thing where I went home and everyone there was treating me like some kind of head chef, even though I’d only done a short amount of time. Because in Israel, food wasn’t that big at the time and if you had even worked anywhere in a different country and went to college then you were huge.
So it very quickly progressed into jobs managing kitchens, even though the first ones I probably did quite poorly because I had no experience. But I got better at it.”
Before long Packer was ready to move back to London once more, this time accompanied by her newly-wed husband Itamar.
“We got married in Cyprus because Israel only does religious weddings and we didn’t want to get married in a religious way. We tried to elope, but our families chased us, which was very annoying. But that’s fine, they came! So we got married and moved away two months after. We’ve been here ever since.”
The couple began their London career together at the time-honoured seafood restaurant J Sheekey in Covent Garden, before moving onto the OXO Tower. It was a friend of theirs who offered Srulovich a job at Ottolenghi.
“After a few months he said to Yotam, ‘my wife is a pastry chef maybe you should meet her’. And so I keep following him into jobs really. He sets it all up nicely.”
Packer stayed running the Ottolenghi group’s pastry kitchens until taking the helm setting up his Soho institution Nopi in 2011 as executive chef.
Soon enough she and Srulovich began to set their sights on a place of their own and in 2012 Honey & Co was born, opening its doors to huge success - including a notably glowing review from food critic Jay Rayner. It wasn’t long before they opened a second space - Honey & Spice, a more intimate deli - in 2016 and just two months later, Honey & Smoke.
“We didn’t really know what to expect. We just wanted something small that the two of us could work in and it kind of snowballed a bit more than we thought. This place is a lot bigger, I think we didn’t really know what we were getting ourselves into. We’re two years in now so it’s kind of settled down. It took a nice crazy two years to try and understand the bigger premises.”
While Packer has an obvious appreciation for a wide range of cuisines, I ask what it was that brought her back to the food of her home country after so long living abroad?
“We came very much with the idea of cooking European food, that is why we left Israel. At the beginning we were so excited because the selection in London is amazing, so we had Indian and Japanese and we’d try and recreate some of it at home.
“But as time goes by and you start missing home, you start to get these cravings of ‘oh I want to cook the stuff I used to go out to eat’. That’s when all the local Middle Eastern food came back into our lives, because we missed those flavours.
“It’s a very strange thing, I’ve had this with a few people, not just from the Middle East. You kind of want to connect again. You want to go back and understand. It’s weird, we didn’t think when we came that we’d end up cooking Middle Eastern food.”
For Packer, a welcome and surprising reality of cooking in London is the abundance of Middle Eastern ingredients on the supermarket shelves. “All produce comes to London, so we can cook one day with pistachios from Iran, molasses from Iraq, rice from Egypt and tahini from Lebanon. So you actually get this amazing selection, rather than just being stuck to the one country you’re in.”
This wide-ranging selection is a testament to the UK’s obsession with the flavours of the Middle East, catapulted by the dawn of the Ottolenghi empire in the early 2000s. Packer has a good theory on the cuisine’s popularity: “I think the beauty of it helps. A lot of food that was eaten here for a long, long time was pretty brown. I love a good pie, but it’s not pretty. This food is always pretty, even if it’s just from tomatoes. Then if you throw in pomegranates and parsley and lemons and chillis it all just looks beautiful.”
So if not just some very aesthetic food shots for Instagram, what is it that she would like those visiting to take away from eating at her restaurants?
“It’s very corny, but the idea is that they understand that the food was prepared with attention and with love.”
As she dashes off to the kitchen to present us with a plate of the establishment’s famously creamy hummus, there’s no doubt that she is paying attention.