Subject to Change is a series about the anarchitecture of New York City foodscapes and the makers that are designing new ways of working.
As of Wednesday, April 28, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has announced the end of New York City’s dining curfew as soon as next month. New Yorkers can now return to bumping knees at the bar, and even opt for residential catering. There is a massive recommuning on the brink: a long awaited summer of eating, drinking, and convening. The propulsion of collective responsibility from imaginative efforts of the mutual aid sector borne out of the onset of COVID-19 has a moment to expand beyond crisis in the spotlight of this summer’s sanguine stage. The impetus of these efforts and the alternative food world conceived alongside it are carried forth by its excited devotees. In the past year the city’s food scene has become diversely speckled with a number of new food projects that challenge restaurant conventions and it’s antiquated labor culture. Projects such as Lev, a site-specific culinary experience most recognizable by dream-like platters of hummus, lush pours of bright-green fresh-pressed olive oil, and extemporaneous fire cooking, speaks to the divestment from restaurants, and investment in fluid food space making.
Lev, meaning heart in Hebrew, is a duo comprising Chefs Loren Abramovich and Daniel Soskolne. The pair first met cooking in Tel Aviv at HaSalon, the renowned restaurant of Eyal Shani known for its extravagant open kitchen and interactive assemblage of fresh produce. At HaSalon, an intimate restaurant open a mere 2 nights a week, mounds of meat, fish, fresh fruits, herbs and vegetables are presented at the center of the salon between chefs and diners. A kindred visual and embodied practice of abundance is carried by Lev. Similarly, Lev often displays large, copious, and colorful table arrangements of market produce and sourced preserves. Loren and Daniel’s fine-cooking experience in Tel Aviv coupled with their combined experiences studying within and around the French Riviera leads them to a cuisine they describe as “food from the end of the Mediterranean sea.” At Lev, their offerings of flatbreads, salads, charred vegetables, pickles, chickpeas, and legumes are greatly influenced by the food of Israel (read as: occupied Palestine) where they are from, the surrounding countries of Egypt, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, and the myriad of migrant food traditions brought to the state.
The space Lev has created here in New York City innovates classical culinary training within a modulating space of consideration. Through the duration of their practice, people, space, and energy shape and inspire what is created. A dynamic and different concept emerges and guides each meal. All foods are made start to finish on location wherever they may be.
Lev has collaborated with many beloved food makers and spaces including Honey’s, Winona’s, and a friend of theirs, the artist, Laila Gohar. While a significant portion of their practice is private, it is vital to Loren and Daniel that they share their food and community with sidewalk patrons, friends, and foodies. Lev together with Honey’s and a number of community makers came together for a socially distanced, outdoor holiday market where Daniel and Loren made a fire and warm offerings for those who braved the cold to share gifts. Previously, Lev has donated 100% of proceeds for a mutual aid fundraiser to the Herbal Mutual Aid Network, which provides free herbal medicine to Black people seeking support during the pandemic. Lev’s participation in community engagements around the city spans many modes. When lockdown restrictions were more severe during the summer and fall of 2020, they crafted carefully curated boxes of their homemade foods and delivered them to friends and clients around town. When it comes to hospitality, Lev is driven by a sought understanding of their audience and what will “touch them the most,” says Daniel.
Daniel and Loren’s uncanny resourcefulness centers around fire, something they can create in any given outdoor space by a simple assembly of wood, kindling, airflow, and often a saj1.
According to Daniel, Lev’s practice and evolution is similar to that of the act of tending to a fire, “We grew to understand that this is a dynamic thing.”
Fire is a part of Lev’s DNA, and the core production of most things they offer within their selection of shared foods. In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s meditation on the progression of the human relationship with fire as a technology, “Fire Worship,” he praises fire as an “indispensable element of human life.” He posits fire as the grand central space for congregation where orality and simplicity are conjured, and in Lev’s case, where social communion and creation are made possible.
- A convex metal griddle used over a fire for cooking flatbreads, meats, and vegetables.
“I see the fire and it’s healing me,” says Loren, as I join them in their backyard for grilled lamb kebab over a fire he has fashioned with cinder blocks and found bricks.
During a meal I was invited to share with Lev, they had sourced a quarter of a lamb from a Bangladeshi 99 cent shop and butchery on Fulton Street and firewood from a bodega in the neighborhood. In their backyard I sipped a coffee, shared with me by Alicia Mersy, a multidisciplinary artist herself, and an integral part of the Lev family, as lamb was deboned and passed through a hand cranked grinder with an abundance of fresh parsley and cilantro. Over the course of three hours I toggled between sharing kitchen memories and rocking Alicia and Loren’s beautiful baby. After molding lamb onto large skewers and baking fresh flatbread on the saj, Loren and Daniel assembled lamb kebab wrapped in fresh pita with a salad of charred tomatoes, onion, herbs and tahini for lunch.
- 2. Sourced from Har Bracha made in Mount Gerizm, Nablus.
“It’s telepathy,” remarks Loren on working with Daniel for so many years, “In the kitchen, it’s a harmony I don’t think I have experienced in any other place.”
Loren notes that building a menu collaboratively is no easy task, and it takes a lot of trust and practice between cooks. During their time at HaSalon, a new menu was created daily from scratch by looking at what ingredients were available or even the amount of fish the local fisherman had that day.
“We would come in at 10am, look at everything in front of us, and build a menu from scratch,” Loren explained of the routine implemented at HaSalon, “You’re on your toes, you’re never bored, you’re alive!”
Lev is currently looking for a space to house their practice. Ideally, it will be nothing like a restaurant. Instead, Daniel and Loren hope to facilitate a modulating space that will encompass Lev’s essence of fluid flexibility and dynamism.
“I don’t believe in making food and hoping people will come. We want to make a space that we can change very easily into many different things,”said Daniel on his intention for the future of brick and mortar.
For Loren, space is a tool, something to be employed and shaped according to need, “We can make parties, any kind of kitchen workshop, anything that can be helpful for the people around us.”
The pair hopes to infuse their space with the same energy they have brought to their place-based practice, says Loren, “Hospitality and being able to tell someone ‘Welcome, I have a place for you,’ and offer something nice for someone passing by on the street is important.”
Lev’s practice is a remarkable resistance against many pervasive food norms that are often exclusionary, ones that extract resources and rush sacred nourishment. This project is a reminder of the ways participation in efforts toward community care have evolved during an ongoing global pandemic. In this present moment, we have been invited New York City’s cooking talent to engage critically with what community food spaces can be and to envision the creation of livable and enjoyable structures that center life. Initiatives such as Lev, demand careful consideration and refuse the hierarchical and imperialistic confines of culinary ethnography. Liberated from these parameters, we can dream up simple, ever-shifting space around food and the many ways to share it.