Michael Rantissi’s Kepos Street Kitchen
Magic memories of a food-filled childhood in Tel Aviv continue to shape the life of Sydney chef and author Michael Rantissi.
Tastes like home
Tastes like home
Meet Michael Rantissi who grew up in Tel Aviv and how he brought his family cooking and food philosophy to Kepos Street Kitchen in Redfern, Sydney. Watch him explore the flavours of Middle Eastern cooking and how he made his Mum’s favourite breakfast come to life in the Australian food scene.
Not every young chef has the confidence – or the skills – to successfully hop between London, New York, Tokyo and Paris while honing their craft. But for Israeli-born restaurateur Michael Rantissi, who began his culinary career aged 13, absorbing diverse flavours and perspectives is what Michael knows food is all about.
“My neighbourhood in Tel Aviv was mixed: we had Jewish families and Muslim families and Christian families, and everyone had their own festivals and different styles of food,” he says. “Being exposed to all that as a child was mind-blowing.”
The diverse enclave was tight-knit and, from an early age, Rantissi and his four siblings moved freely through the streets and alleyways, socialising with other kids and snacking on street food.“It was an open-house neighbourhood,” he says. “If the kid you were playing with, you were around his house, you would just be invited to stay for food. That was just pretty normal.”
Rantissi would feast on all sorts of freshly prepared Middle Eastern specialities, including two local favourites: sugar-filled pancakes and kataifi pastries. Sharing big meals with his own family and others was a thrill.
“For me, food is everything,” he says. “Every occasion that we had at home was surrounded by food. It was Mum cooking. It was Grandma coming to help. It was neighbours bringing food, or us sending food to them.”
Today, Rantissi approaches his culinary endeavours in Australia with the same laid-back, communal attitude, wanting his guests to feel at home when they come to dine with him.
Kepos Street Kitchen, the flagship diner he opened in inner Sydney a decade ago with his partner Kristy Frawley, is resolutely casual. Diners chat happily across tables and children are welcome.
Yet the venue has been hatted in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Food Guide since 2013 and continues to draw serious accolades. The menu is full of humble, affordable dishes that Rantissi elevates with exceptionally fresh produce and precise techniques.
Mum’s Favourite Brekkie is a perfect example: it’s a sumptuous array of street-food staples including falafels, pickled cucumbers, soft-boiled eggs, hummus and labneh, to be eaten however you see fit.
Why the name? “My mum would dispatch us all on a Saturday morning to source the stuff for a beautiful breakfast,” Rantissi recalls.
His five siblings would each visit a different street-food stall to fetch falafel, pitta, vegetables and dips. “We didn’t need bacon for breakfast,” he says. “It was simple food in its most delicious format.”
When he was 13, Rantissi’s father offered to buy him a pair of sneakers. Rantissi wanted a big-name brand but was told the shoes were out of the family’s budget. So, Rantissi began knocking on local restaurant doors looking for work. “I was rejected by so many different people, but a little French restaurant just around the corner said yes,” he says.
After graduating high school, Rantissi worked in busy London restaurants, studied at leading cooking schools in New York and Paris, and finally found himself in Australia.
“I came to Sydney really by total mistake,” he says. “I came here just to visit a friend. I never intended to live here.”
But Rantissi was charmed by the multicultural city. “There is something very magical about living in Australia,” he says. “You feel connected from the moment you land, because everyone is different.”
Meeting his wife Kristy Frawley sealed the deal. Soon, the pair began dreaming of opening an eatery.
“I’d had enough of fine dining and working all these crazy hours,” Rantissi says. “I wanted something very simple: food that was related to me.”
Rantissi was struck by Sydney’s early-rising culture and saw the city’s cafe scene developing. He sensed an opportunity to introduce Israeli breakfast to Aussies.
“In Sydney, we love being up early,” he says. “We exercise. We love catching up. We love eating breakfast. It’s a new food culture, and it’s unique to Sydney.”
At first, he says, diners weren’t sure about eating falafel for breakfast. But the quality of what was on offer won them over.
His Israeli-style lunch dishes quickly became talked-about, too: the signature rainbow trout, wood-fired with a capsicum and walnut spread called muhammara, is an enduring favourite of food bloggers.
In recent years, Rantissi and Frawley have authored two books, and plans are afoot for more eateries, however, the pair want to keep it simple. Rantissi says he’s happiest preparing and serving the food himself. He thinks no other job could be more rewarding when he sees the smiles and joy from his patrons faces.
“Cooking has this beautiful soul about it that not many industries do,” he says. “For me, eating is about more than staying alive. It’s joy.”