Meeting with Simona El-Harar from kitchen 151, the address to die for in the Saint-Boniface neighborhood

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kitchen 151 Simona El-Harar

Food and gastronomy This is an address that was created almost ten years ago, and which many Brussels residents still do not know. In the ultra-cosmopolitan neighborhood of Ixelles that connects Matonge with Saint-Boniface and Place de Londres, there is a small terrace that smells of the south. Old wooden tables and chairs are scattered along a stretch of pavement, decanters in the shape of flowers, fish or other original geometric shapes sit on the table, the glass doors are wide open and it is not uncommon to see a resident of the stuck neighborhood his head there to greet Simona. Simona El-Harrar is the chef of this little Brussels nugget that has everything to please. Arriving directly from Tel-Haviv, this food lover offers on the menu the best of what the Mediterranean has to offer, without distinction of borders between Morocco, Lebanon, Israel, Syria… Here, we taste a succulent street food, lamb in cinnamon Lollipops to die for with grilled aubergine and labneh to die for, tender mackerel ceviche with watermelon and feta that looks extremely simple yet impossible to copy. And if you still want to taste it, the chef has just published her second book, “El menjar al street: el cor de la cuina mediterranà” published by Racines. Meeting with this atypical, generous and unique chef. Your path is totally unusual, how did you end up in Brussels? Simona El-Harah: My mother and father were born in Morocco, and I was born in Israel. I started cooking when I was very young, I was my mother’s sous chef. From the age of four and a half, I prepared shakchouka and cooked on fire. I was particularly mature for my age. Also, cooking has always been something that made me grow up. It’s like the military service that I followed from the age of 18 to 20 like all Israelis, male or female, it makes you mature. Then I traveled to Thailand, where I took many cooking classes. Then I met Tim, my husband, who is an artist and whom I followed in Brussels. Here, I didn’t know anyone, let alone the kitchen. I went to the markets, looked at the vegetables and wondered what I would do to meet people. “You cook really well,” Tim told me. “Open a restaurant to meet people”. I opened kitchen 151 and it’s like opening a house, my house. Was Kitchen 151 your career breakthrough? I’ve actually thought about what I wanted to do all my life. Now I know that was it. The fusing plates, the rushes, the intense pace… that was mine. In Israel I worked as a personal assistant to a rich and famous woman, I had a good salary, a good job but I never felt fulfilled. I envisioned kitchen 151 as a place where you can walk, eat, watch while feeling at home. And I hope customers feel that atmosphere. This is the atmosphere of Morocco, where family and food play an important role. Like the tradition of Jewish holidays where food takes center stage, even more than the ritual or cultural aspect sometimes (laughs). Have you also just published a book dedicated to street food? I discovered many street food festivals in Brussels and Belgium. And I said to myself that hamburgers, fries, hot dogs, for me it’s not my street food. I find it very good! But it’s not the street food I knew in Tel Aviv where I lived all my youth. I wanted to write this book to show this tradition at home, which has a very long history that begins much earlier than restaurants elsewhere. In Israel you go to the market, eat out of your hands and share your plate with everyone. It has nothing to do with Instagram codes (laughs). How would you describe your kitchen? I like to cook what I eat. And I’m also a very nostalgic person, I like to appeal to my memory, to my childhood memories. My mother is my main inspiration of course, I owe her everything and I will never be able to rediscover the taste of the recipes she taught me. My kitchen is simply a story of family and culture. Every recipe in my latest book has a story. Mediterranean cuisine has become ultra trendy. How to recognize authentic cuisine from clichés? What I do is not the best Mediterranean cuisine, but it is the truth. I’m Israeli, but I cook all Mediterranean cuisine. It’s not just hummus or falafel, it’s vegetables selected with lots of love at half past six in the morning at the market and cut and served fresh at noon. It’s not about cooking under glass or dishes heated in the oven. This is freshness at its best. Also, if you eat Mediterranean, it is often said that you will live a beautiful and long life. There is no secret. Your favorite place to eat in Brussels? Maru. It’s such a decent Korean address with great food. The owner fully embodies “girl power” and we get along very well. We have exactly the same character, I love this girl. Why did you settle in the Saint-Boniface neighborhood? Because it reminds me a lot of the old town of Tel Aviv. I really feel at home here. There is such an abundance of cultures and artists. They also speak a lot of Arabic here, so I feel at home. What is your next project? I would like to publish a third book, but this time about fatty cooking, in all its forms, like the good fats of avocado for example. I would really like that.
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