Voices of Jerusalem: Shining chef

Loren Minsky speaks to Zakai Hooja, 28, the talented and softly spoken chef and part owner of trendy Jacko’s Street meat restaurant.

Zakai Hooja (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zakai Hooja
(photo credit: Courtesy)
“I started to be aware of food during the army,” says Zakai Hooja, chef and part owner of the new kosher chef restaurant Jacko’s Street by Mahane Yehuda Market. Zakai had a friend who worked in the army’s kitchen, which gave him the opportunity to be around the food and experience the dynamics of running a kitchen.
Growing up Zakai had plans to help his father, who owns a fish store in Mahane Yehuda market. However, Zakai’s father only allowed him to help out in the store a few hours here and there, insisting that running a fish store is strenuous work.  Eventually, Zakai conceded that his father was not going to give in and he decided to study to be a chef instead.
After studying for a year at Hadassah College in Jerusalem, he fell more in love with food. He began his training with award-winning chef Shalom Kadosh at the Sheraton Hotel restaurant for a month and then completed his stage at Canela restaurant, initially as a chef for half a year until he was promoted to Sous Chef (second in command).
This was followed by stints at some of Jerusalem’s top dining establishments. He worked for a year at Café Kadosh, where he met two young chefs who he’s worked with ever since. He then worked at Angelica Fine Grill for a year and a half before moving on to the popular bistro Lara.
All the while, Zakai and two of his good friends Rafi Revivo and Yotam Nisim chatted about a combined dream to open a restaurant together. Rafi and Yotam both have lots of experience in Jerusalem's nightlife scene and have also managed a number of cafes.
Last year, Zakai left Lara on a full-time basis and planned on accepting the position of Sous Chef at a top hotel in the Dead Sea. That was until his friends called him up this February with the news that they’d found a great space for a restaurant, previously a warehouse. His friends convinced him to take a look and within two minutes Zakai made the decision to go ahead and turn their dream into a reality.
The space needed a lot of work; there wasn’t even walls or electricity to start. Together with a famous architect, Zakai’s partners got stuck in creating a unique space with a street theme, with big windows that look onto charming movie-like Hashikma Street. Jacko's Street boasts an open kitchen, where you get to watch the chefs prepare the food. The restaurants warehouse-style brick walls are filled with old street signs and patrons get to choose between sitting at booths, high bar stools, spacious sofas in the gallery or at one of five places at the bar, the best seats in the house, where you get to choose what you’re in the mood to eat and watch it being prepared before your eyes.
The restaurant opened up shop last month. So far, Zakai is loving the experience of running his own kitchen. “I am so proud when I see the place full and watch people eating and enjoying,” says Zakai. “I work double as hard with double the pressure but it’s amazing.”
Zakai describes the fare as light chef cuisine. The menu consists of a wide variety of dishes such as a salmon ceviche with cucumber, black sesame seeds, shallot vinaigrette and a melon wasabi sauce; risotto with celery, chard, lemon and green garlic; and smoked duck sautéed in caramelized onions and mushrooms on top of focaccia bread with a citrus salad. Jacko's Street also offers a broad wine list, cocktail and alcoholic beverages menu.
Zakai is Kurdish in descent and comes from a close-knit family of five. His younger sister works in the front end of the restaurant, together with Rafi and Yotam, and his mother cooks on Fridays, when the restaurant offers a special Shabbat menu with Kurdish dishes like stuffed peppers. Eventually Zakai’s father gave in and Zakai’s younger brother now works together with his father in the fish stall “It was just a matter of time,” says Zakai, who is happy with the way things have turned out for all. One of the two deliver fish to the restaurant on a daily basis.
“Working together in some way is great,” says Zakai. “We have fun but we also know how to give each other space and keep a healthy distance. My sister and I may fight during service time when the rush is on, but we have a good understanding and afterwards there is complete peace. The same goes for all of the chefs that work together in the kitchen.”
Zakai grew up in the neighborhood of Armon Hanatziv in Jerusalem. He has a particular love for the city and would not consider living elsewhere. Though in the past he received offers to work in top restaurants in Tel Aviv, he would never dream of working there nor working in a non-kosher restaurant. “I come from a traditional family, and keep kosher,” remarks Zakai.
He also loves the restaurant’s location. “How can one not love Mahane Yehuda market, especially the people?” The chefs get their produce on a daily basis from the market; there is simply no need for storing produce. 
“One of my most exciting moments so far is when my parents came into the restaurant for their first meal, about two weeks after the launch,” says Zakai. “They sat at a table near to the kitchen, not saying a word, simply taking it all in and enjoying. I could feel their pride.”
One of the best parts about Zakai’s role is interacting with the lucky few customers who get to sit at the bar and order food not on the menu. “It’s fun and breaks routine,” says Zakai.
“Every day we prepare something different depending on what the customer enjoys and what produce is available in the market.”
Zakai works in the restaurant on a daily basis from 9am until 1 or 2am, but takes a well-deserved break on Shabbat when the restaurant is closed. “The hardest part of what I’m doing is the long hours and lack of personal time,” shares Zakai. “The staff can manage without me but we’re a team and ideally work well together with all of us present.”
Zakai gets to see his friends when they pop into the restaurant. To unwind, he likes to watch movies, especially before he falls asleep. He is also passionate about music and loves listening to music of all genres. “What would I be in another lifetime? I’d do something with music, perhaps play the violin. It could be something I’ll look to learn in this lifetime.”
For now, Zakai has no plans for the future apart from making the restaurant a success. He’d like to travel and broaden his culinary horizons, but admits it would be challenging from a kosher perspective as “you need to taste when you cook”. He hopes to get married and have children, but trusts that the timing is part of “G-d’s plan”.
“I’m simply so happy that the restaurant is open,” says Zakai. “I like that our menu feels just co-incidentally kosher. We attract the same clientele as nearby restaurant Machneyuda – but proudly with all kosher ingredients.”
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