Pizza-Stuffed Challah and Other Delights: Catching Up with Zach Engel of Galit

Not every restaurant has the structure or spirit to last generations. Some, like pop-ups, are engineered against this very idea. The ones that last are usually borne of a unique idea or have some quality that makes them a bedrock of the community they serve. Locally, Lula Café comes to mind, or Blackbird in the West Loop. My favorite example is Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ spot in Berkeley that established the local and sustainable movement that seems to be table stakes for any serious restaurant that launches today. Almost 50 years after its founding, it’s still relevant. Whenever I visit, I experience the simplest of vegetables in a way I almost never do. The glow of soft light, the craftsman-style environment that surrounds you, the conviviality and concern of the committed staff create an essence that feels like home.

It’s hard to predict what new restaurants in Chicago may, or will ever achieve something similar, but in the last year, chef Zach Engel and his partner Andrés Clavero have certainly made a claim to that idea with their Middle Eastern-skewing Lincoln Park restaurant, Galit. 

Galit, the flicker of its wood burning oven flame reflecting against green tile bathes you in a certain kind of comfort. The food, pillowy oven-fresh pita, velvety salatim spreads, and roast meats fill you with an ineffable completeness. Even in its current take-out form during the pandemic, Galit’s serving a dose of soul to those of us stuck at home. Having experienced this myself last week, I decided to catch up with the Beard-award winning Engel to see how things were going.

Photo credit: Sandy Noto

We’re in the middle of a revolution with the Black Lives Matter movement. I know you guys are doing some things to support the movement. Can you talk about that?

We’re donating 100 percent of profits from our sale of our za’atar and harissa. We also donated a percentage of restaurant sales to My Block, My Hood, My City. Next week we’re donating a percentage to the Surge Institute. We’ll change every week and donate proceeds to a different org. We’re consulting our employees on places where we can support people of color. The idea is to do one large donation every week, to do as much good. As a business we’re reviewing our hiring practices and core values to make sure they’re as inclusive as possible.

How has the pandemic impacted you?

We didn’t want to be open six days. When we are open, my days are very long. I want to make sure even during the pandemic our staff, which is mostly managers right now, still has a good work life balance. We gave our staff additional sick pay days. We found that unemployment was much better for them than their regular rate at sick pay. The staff Gofundme has done well, but that’s not gonna last forever. We want to make sure we support those who have struggled to get unemployment or for various reasons can’t, so they don’t go hungry. We are still paying everyone’s health care. I don’t want someone to feel they can’t go to grocery store because they have a $20,000 hospital bill. These people worked hard for us last year, so they should be taken care of.

Doing the takeout is making sure there’s a place for them to come back to. I would not say we’re flourishing. You’re at a standstill. But, we’re just trying to do what we can to help people who helped us be successful.

It’s kind of selfish, but one positive is that being able to get Galit at home is amazing. The food experience was probably 97% of what it’s like to eat dine in. The pita were still warm when we received them at home. I know you’re not set up for delivery and a lot of chefs at this level are worried about not being able to control delivery conditions, but I wonder if this is something that can continue, now, and even after the pandemic. Sometimes you just don’t want to go out.

Some people have pivoted, but not everybody. I thought if we can be safe, we’ll do it.  Not everyone has the same set of circumstances as we do. So far, ten weeks in, no one had been sick. We were lucky. We were busy Saturday before the shutdown, and had a huge inventory. When people started canceling on Sunday, other people started taking those spots. I don’t think everyone else was in that position which is terrible

I never ever ever wanted to do takeout. The experience is inside Galit, but then we though how are we gonna do that with takeout? We can’t put crispy falafel in a box, drenched in sauce. The sauce has to be in a cup on the side. We had to make concessions and it’s interesting. I have to sell French fries. We did the little salatim in the dining room, but now we sell large formats to go. We don’t cook carrots over charcoal, because we now have limited staff and we’re not gonna fire up the charcoal grill for limited orders. But, we still cook them in the wood fired oven and they’re delicious.  We had an “extra pita” button on the website, but we had to kill that. There’s no way our pastry chef can make thousands of pita to keep up with demand, so we had to limit that.

You’re from Orlando, did you live at Disney World?

Yes, we lived at the top of the Cinderella Castle and I used to take Space Mountain to school. No, downtown Orlando was like three blocks when I was a kid. There’s not much there. It’s large suburban sprawl. Disney is its own town with its own zip code. We had one pro sports team. My dad is still there. My mom is from Miami beach and she says, I can’t visit you in Chicago in January.

You’ve cooked in New Orleans, California, and your wife’s family is from Philly. There were plenty of cities that didn’t have the kind of food you wanted to cook. How did you settle on Chicago as the place you were going to put down roots as a family?

We always wanted to move to a big city. New York seemed out of reach financially. Meredith and I grew up middle class, so we didn’t have financial backing to live in Manhattan. She’s a teacher by trade. We wanted to be close to family, but not too close. California was not feasible either.

You chose to put Galit in Lincoln Park. Except for say Alinea or a few exceptions, traditionally new fine dining restaurants have moved North and West and South in the city, because the common wisdom is the rent per square foot in Lincoln Park and Lakeview is really high. How did you guys settle there?

We looked at the West Loop. It didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t feel like we really fit in to it. I’m a lame vanilla dad, so I didn’t know about being downtown or a hot neighborhood. Someone told me, or my understanding was that Lincoln Park was real expensive. But, walking around, researching the demographics, Lincoln Park fit what we were gonna do in terms of a high end but approachable restaurant. You focus on cooking and you get good, but over the last few years, the challenge of ownership has been what’s more interesting to me.  Setting a menu and delivering it is a given. The location in some ways was a real estate play. Lakeview and Roscoe village are very close. There is a lot of disposable income. The families are not moving to suburbs, but also not trying to be trendy. There are a lot of strollers. These families are gonna be here for 10-20 years. It’s obvious when you say it, but I don’t want to open a restaurant just to close it in a few years. You have some other places nearby too, like Boka, and back when we opened, Entente.

I read that the alley next to the restaurant is where the gangster John Dillinger died. Is that true or just a fun story?

It is the alley. We’re by the Biograph theatre, now Victory Gardens. There were a lot of Dillinger tchotchkes in the space. The crime tour buses used to pull up in front two times a day. We built the banquette a little higher than outer face of the window and we put out these fake army men on top. They looked like little gangsters. There’s a joke that there’s a ghost in the building, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but a lot of weird stuff happens.

Really?

Again, it sounds silly to say this aloud, but lights will randomly flicker, that kind of thing.

You often get grouped into the new Middle Eastern or Israeli food movement with Alon Shaya and Michael Solomonov of Zahav. You worked at both of those places. I know I fell into this trap when I reviewed you, talking about how being first is important, but I don’t know how important that is really. I read that you said to Shaya once something like, oh, man you’re gonna open up the Israeli restaurant before me. But, also you were there in the beginning and you were a partner in building it out. You guys are all different in your approach. Alon focuses on his roots. Michael is more Israeli, and you’re exploring the broader region including the Balkans.  Do you care about being first to do this, is it important?

When I was younger, I’d probably say things like this restaurant wouldn’t open up without me. But, that menu was Alon. Sometimes I’d challenge his idea. Sometimes I was wrong. One thing for sure is that restaurant gave us, the other chefs, the freedom to have a strong voice. I also worked at Zahav. I would never say our restaurant is Israeli, because it’s not. People think they have to have this Christopher Columbus first mentality, but none of us were the first to make hummus. 

I do have a unique voice. I have ridden on the coattails of my mentors as well. But, I cook differently. Some stuff is similar to Shaya, but for example we don’t have a lettuce-y salad on the menu.

I think I read that you said, everyone expects falafel and shakshuka. It’s kind of the “steak on a plate” of Middle Eastern, but after that you can do what you want. Did you ever feel like not even serving falafel because it was an expectation?

Is there an Italian restaurant without spaghetti and meatballs on the menu?  Even, Sarah [Grueneberg] at Monteverde has the ragu and meatballs. Every menu has to have something that appeals to the familiar like falafel, hummus, and pita. You gotta capture with the thing they think is comfortable and then blow them out of the water with the best example they’ve ever had. If I have a guest who has a less than stellar falafel after eating the dish six times, I need to rethink what we’re doing at the restaurant.

Let’s talk about a dish that isn’t as familiar, the Balkan stuffed cabbage. Maybe it’s because I’m Polish and we have a similar dish with tomato sauce and pork, not harissa and lamb, but it’s so delicious. Tell me about it.

That dish draws on a lot of stuff. It’s seasonal, similar to dolmas, and then with the stuffed cabbage and knowing there is a big Polish population in Chicago I thought it would resonate. It was an alternative to the heavy black pepper kebab. In some ways it’s comforting like an enchilada with the crèma and salsa.

It’s also emblematic of your voice, right? Like you’re extending the idea of the Middle East to the Balkan.

In some way, yes. I define my voice in different ways. I love bold flavors, a simple carrot done really well. I like to be driven by what’s available, which in the Midwest is fairly limited. I find constraints make things better. New Orleans seasons were limited too. I like to create a new version, but connect that version to the narratives of the original cuisine it came from

Speaking of carrots, you’ve talked about how important your time working with Jesse Mallgren at Madrona Manor in Sonoma was. You had access to a garden where you could just grab whatever you needed. You always hear about chefs who have to kill an animal have a greater respect. Does being close to the garden and the growing process have a similar impact?

The hotel had a two acre garden. You definitely regard the vegetables in a different way. As a restaurant owner so much is built on momentum and the relationships I have with farmers. We tell them, we’ll buy all of it, carrots, beets, whatever is mature at that time. That’s the only way to develop the relationship so they will partner and maybe grow stuff you need. We have one guy who’s growing some weird stuff, and he planted fields just for us. Hopefully we’re busy, but I’ll figure out how to make it work. Working with Jesse, we’d use stuff grown for flower arrangements at the hotel, like unused rose bushes that Pepe the gardener told us we could use. You see them, pick them, dry them, and we’d flavor dashi with the rose petals, or put them raw on ocean trout. Sometimes you let an ingredient that’s ten feet away speak to you. Sometimes it’s the travel that inspires you. I love the Levinsky Market in Tel Aviv. There’s this place that does peperoncini in garlic brine and stuffs them with goat cheese. It’s such a delicious snack. When I got home, we did them at the restaurant. I had to tell the cooks to stop eating all of them.

Right you did the version with Aleppo pepper at Shaya. That was a big thing.

People went crazy.

Speaking of crazy, I think I saw a while back your pastry sous chef Mary Eder-McClure did pizza-stuffed challah. Please make that a thing!

Mary often takes the leftover dough from braided loaves and grabs whatever is around to stuff them for family meal. I come in with the prep cooks in the morning, and we always know Thursday is stuffed challah day. It would be pretty fun to do. It’s amazing, a not crappy Hot Pocket.

You also have a dedicated pastry chef, something disappearing from restaurants these days. Is that because you started your career as a pastry assistant at Domenica in New Orleans?

I do not have the bandwidth as restauranteur, owner, and chef to handle pastry. 40% of the job is making pita dough. Mary has an incredible understanding and brings a lot to the table. I’d rather have oversight and let managers and chefs grow on their own. That’s how I flourished under Alon. I started my career in pastry, but I’m not that good at it. It’s not my expertise.

It makes a difference. Last week when I ordered the phyllo pie and the sesame halva cookie, they were standouts. I remember the krembo (chocolate covered marshmallow cookie) when I dined in. Also, I’ve eaten at Zahav, Safta, Saba, and Shaya, and maybe my memory fails me, but I don’t think it does, your pita is the best of all those spots. Last week when I was eating it, I almost felt like you could bake a Neapolitan pizza on it.

Thank you. We set up the space for a 48 hour fermentation, using fresh milled flour – I got that from Shaya-and a higher hydration level. I like my dough wetter. I like the pitas to be fluffier.  Midwesterners like things a little more doughy. If the pocket is too thin, it doesn’t invoke the same nostalgic memories.

Do you have any sense of why we’re experiencing this neo-Middle Eastern high-end movement in America now?  I have this theory I call the deli dilemma, that second generation Jewish kids were told not to go into the deli business or subsidiary food businesses like the ones they grew up in. They were told to be doctors or lawyers, so we lost of generation of would-be restaurateurs focusing on that type of cuisine. I don’t know if that’s right.

All I can say is chefs are traveling a lot more, living different lifestyles and checking out all kinds of settings. I think people are traveling more and getting exposed to more stuff. We’re getting better as a society to try new things. Diets also change. People are trying to avoid certain ingredients or be healthier.

I like what you said early about not wanting to close, to almost make the restaurant a thing that outlasts you. Every time I go to Chez Panisse, I’m blown away that this restaurant is 50 years old and still at the top of its game. We don’t have a lot of restaurants like that in America.

Things became different when we had our daughter Margalit. You have a family to support. You can do the 9 to 5, or, you really have to go in on the restaurant. This has to survive for us to continue our growth as a family and have a place to work. Working for decades, I think that would be fantastic. I hope we’re here for a long time and it becomes an institution. I’m not saying we won’t do other projects, but they’ll support what we’re trying to do here. They’ll give people who work for us the opportunity to grow should they not want to do something else. Longevity is key. This is my livelihood.

I read you once saying you always had a plan B. You have a business degree at Tulane and while you never had to bail, you knew you always could. Any idea what you would do?

If money was no object, I’d probably move to Sonoma, grow grapes and make wine. Otherwise, I think, I don’t know. I would have figured it out quickly. I have a friend who stopped cooking and started working with food delivery companies and VC funded food companies, so maybe something around food. I have a family, so I’m not ashamed to sell out, but I’m glad I never had to do that.

I’m glad you mentioned wanting to be a winemaker, because I wanted to talk about the Galit wine list. You basically created the original list and you’re known for writing fun tasting notes like, “strawberry fields forever” which are more accessible than the usual nonsense like “this tastes like the essence of Chrysanthemum for 1972”. How did you come to that?

We hired a woman, Christine, who helps out a lot and administers the overall program. Now it’s often me asking, hey, I want to try a bottle from a particular distributor, and she calls them, and they also bring in 7 or 8 bottles I don’t want to try. As for focusing on wine, I want to be good to some extent at everything I do in my business.

I didn’t want the original list to focus on the Robert Parker 99 point nonsense. Wine should be part of the narrative of your food. Food and wine should work in tandem together. I love Bacchanal in New Orleans. The wine and music are amazing, but the food rounds out the experience.

If someone comes in an orders hummus and one glass of wine, I want the whole experience to provide an idea of what our restaurant is about.

My wife and I lived in Sonoma, and we were very attuned to that world. I don’t think poorly of sommeliers, but we often felt very condescended to and patronized when choosing a wine. We talk about wine to make it more accessible and less serious, otherwise it comes off as elitist if you don’t. We asked how do you democratize wine in restaurant sales? Some servers have formal cork training, and some guests need that too.

I thought the Jewish community would come to us in droves, which they are, but a large portion of customers are young women in their 30s who want good wine. I think it’s because they’re not forced to drink their mom’s oaky chardonnay and they don’t feel like we’re disrespecting them.

Your dad is a rabbi and worked odd and long hours, and you’ve talked about how you owe your career to the fact that you were forced to cook because your mom didn’t. I saw that one of your first dishes was experimenting with chicken parmigiana.  Was there like a crazy version you did?

Not crazy, but it evolved. I started with chicken tenders frozen from the bag, jarred Ragu, and mozzarella cheese, and thought, ok, cool. Now, I’m feeding myself. How do I do breaded  chicken, make a sauce from scratch? I was 10 years old. I had a pancake phase too. I made a lot of pancakes.

I’m intrigued that you offer “bubbe’s brisket” as part of your hummus. It would make sense if you had that as a nostalgic touchpoint, but you did all the cooking as a kid.

I guess everyone knows what Jewish brisket is or their grandma’s version. My maternal grandmother is British, so she cooks for sustenance with as little flavor as possible. She also cooks meat as well done as possible, because she believes there’s still mad cow disease out there. But, I understand the idea of what bubbe’s brisket is, and I knew I could do a delicious version of that with my own take that people can connect to.

It seemed like you knew you loved to cook at an early age, but then you studied business at Tulane. What was that about?

I actually didn’t come to terms with the idea of cooking until my freshman year. It never occurred that I could do it as a living. I have a twin sister, and she wanted to go to art school. I got into a lot of good colleges on the east coast, but I got a scholarship to Tulane. My parents couldn’t afford both schools so I went to Tulane so my sister could go to art school. I cooked at the Hillel part time. A director there recommended me to Alon Shaya. I didn’t intend to get this deep into the restaurant rabbithole.

Ha. So many people I interview in this business say that.

I love it. There are so many levels of complexity, so many small and large problems. At first you get better at cooking. Then you strive to get better every day in the business because complacency makes you ineffective. Managing has been a journey. No one likes the Insurance claims and minutia. It can be infuriating, but I do enjoy the struggle.

Earlier you said you want to be as good as you can be in every aspect of the business. In some ways you’re like a Renaissance man, and the restaurant business rewards that kind of person.

I wouldn’t say I’m a Renaissance man. Rather, most of us verge on sociopathy and obsessiveness.