Honey, I’m home

Categories: Features

The Honey & Co couple on the twin pleasures of sweet food and good company

Words: Clare Finney

The critics adore them. Not just the critics—THE critics: Jay Rayner, Grace Dent, AA Gill, Nicholas Lander. By rights, then, the prospect of interviewing chefs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich in their accolade-laden Bloomsbury restaurant, Honey & Co, should feel slightly intimidating. It doesn’t at all.

For one thing, it’s hard to be scared of a couple who are known professionally as ‘the Honeys’ and whose marriage was forged in the kitchens of Israel. For another, not a single appearance in the press fails to mention the humour, comfort and warmth that both they and their dishes exude.

The couple’s second book, which they describe as “more of an extension of the first than a separate collection”, is The Baking Book: a simple concept that covers a gluttony of cakes, pastries, yeasted doughs and a single, shimmering jelly. “Gelatin, being mainly from pigs”—a forbidden food to Muslims and Jews—“is never used in the Middle East. But I love jelly,” Sarit grins.

A sweet treat
In fact, baking and desserts are generally not big in the Middle East. “It’s too hot in the afternoon for anything like afternoon tea, and cakes of the kind we know dry out too fast.” Something small like baklava, drenched in sugar syrup to preserve it, is enjoyed as a sweet treat if sugar is sought. If it’s tea and cake you’re after, runs the prevailing wisdom, stick to Europe.

The reasoning makes sense, but it also makes Sarit’s considerable reputation in the baking world hard to reconcile with her roots. She ran her own pastry business, worked at the Michelin-starred Orrery as a pastry chef, and held the post of executive pastry chef at Ottolenghi for years.

Now, Itamar proudly tells me, she is “one of the best pastry chefs in the living world”. “Shh, you are not very objective about it,” Sarit tuts fondly. “No really,” he interjects, “the sheer range of the baking we do here for such a small place is amazing.” So how does she do it, having grown up in a region with more deserts than desserts?

Eating tradition
The clue lies in Israel’s origins—and in Sarit’s own. “I grew up in an English household, really, with English food.” Her mum baked, so she did too and as time went on she began to pick up recipes. “It’s a big country of immigrants. Each family has a different eating tradition, so just by going to friends’ houses for dinner you’d find something totally different.”

“Israel is quite unique in the Middle East in that we had huge immigration from Europe, with the accompanying culinary traditions, including baking,” she continues. “Israel is cake mad. It’s the savoury stuff we do here in Warren Street that is Middle Eastern.”

There’s the odd exception, but the majority of the sweet offerings at Honey & Co and in their cookbook are Middle Eastern-inspired rather than authentically Levantine.

Great cake
The Fitzrovia bun is one such creation: cherries and pistachio nuts curled in the shape of the Chelsea bun and laced with mahlab, a Middle Eastern spice. “It’s not traditional,” Sarit starts modestly—but Itamar finishes the sentence proudly: “It is just a great cake.”

You won’t find it in the Middle East any more than you’ll find her loaf cakes or fruit crumbles, but that’s not the point here. Middle Eastern food is not one entity, Itamar explains. “There are flavour tones and ingredients that carry throughout the region, but to call a dish Middle Eastern is like calling something European: it varies hugely within countries.”

The Honeys aren’t fusion (“There are some things we would never have on the menu here because it doesn’t fit. Like miso, or roast pork,” says Sarit) but they will happily pick and mix the traditions within the region when it comes to their recipes.

Quiet confidence
These recipes appear fully polished: neatly bound within the covers of recipe books, newspapers and glossy food magazines. The menu too has an air of quiet confidence: these dishes know their own mind.

This is no small achievement. Such certainty is forged out of hours of recipe testing and debate that, if occasionally heated, is always productive: “We make far better food together than we do separately,” Itamar says. “We say exactly what we think and it balances the dishes out.”

It’s a brave couple who will tell each other when their cooking needs more seasoning, and the Honeys are certainly brave—but they are also deeply in sync. They finish each other’s sentences: tease, jest, then come earnestly together. “We are not trying to innovate,” says Sarit at one point. “We want tasty, approachable food you can eat, be happy with, and go on with your life.”

At home
“What we cook here is what we would cook at home,” Itamar chips in. Indeed, the very concept of ‘recipes’ is a fairly new one for the Honeys who, until they opened their restaurant, never wrote things down. “We only wrote recipes down when we took on staff and had to explain what to do.”

Both chefs are modest almost to the point of being dismissive about their restaurant, which Sarit describes as a “quality diner”. Simple, homely with plain white walls broken only by an array of jars (and cakes of course), it’s a far cry from the glitzy, Michelin-starred restaurants in whose league they are so often placed.

They set it up on a shoestring: second-hand furniture and Moroccan tiles sourced from a dealer whose warehouse had burnt down. “I worry it’s an anticlimax after people read all those reviews, but we’ve lots of regulars who come in every day for lunch.”

Comforting authenticity
More tellingly still, I spot several Middle Eastern diners, tucking hungrily into merguez sausage rolls and legbar eggs baked in a tomato sauce: proof, if proof were still needed, of the comforting authenticity of their food.

I wonder aloud why the cuisine of that part of the world has recently become so popular here—food trends come and go, but our love of labneh, passion for pomegranate and infatuation with falafel appear to be enduring.

“Eating fresh fruit and vegetables is more fashionable generally these days. The Middle East is about fruit and vegetables,” Sarit continues. “It should be like Italian or Chinese,” Itamar adds, “you don’t say ‘I’m cooking Chinese cuisine’ when you do a stir fry. In 10 years I hope it will be like that.” With recipes like those the Honeys write, it seems possible.

Good food
I ask whether the name Honey & Co stems from their use of honey and they laugh together. “It’s not a very interesting story. We just wanted something with a good food connotation that was sweet. It was sugar for a long time, then caramel, then honey,” Sarit explains, “but it felt a bit short. So we added ‘and Co’.”

Itamar turns to his wife. “Actually you know Sarit, I was talking to our web designer yesterday and she told me she had just recently understood the company’s name.” He chuckles as he goes on. “She said it means having something sweet enjoyed in good company! We’ve never thought of it. But she’s right—that is what it’s about. That can be our story.” Sounds perfect to me.