With his benevolent gaze and gentle humour, chef Michael Rantissi is instantly that guy in a room you want to be friends with. The thoughtful and deliberate way he chooses his words has you hanging onto each one like a shining drop of water on a leaf tip; in a way, you feel as though you might be wiser by hanging out with him for just a little while.
Since Rantissi opened Kepos Street Kitchen in Sydney’s Surry Hills nearly seven years ago, he has kept Sydney diners in a Middle Eastern trance, elevating this ancient regional cuisine to new and modern heights.
When the restaurant opened, Australia in many ways still thought of Middle Eastern cuisine as greasy kebabs and desiccated hockey puck falafels. Thanks to chefs such as Rantissi, Somer Sivrioglu and the legendary Greg Malouf, it’s a rare café menu these days that doesn’t offer a sprinkle of dukkah, a side of labneh, or a shakshuka baked egg dish.
A modest Rantissis says he’s “very honoured that people perceive me to be among those who changed the way we see Middle Eastern food in Australia, but there are lots of pioneers, like Yotam Ottolenghi and Greg Malouf who paved the way and gave us all a platform to take the next step with our food.”
Opening the doors at Kepos Street, Rantissi was shocked at how quickly Sydney took to his take on the food of his childhood, which was spent in Israel. “We were so scared, which is why we chose such a small restaurant site. In that first week, we were amazed at how many people came through the door. My wife Kristy came to drop something off on day two and seeing the line of people out the door, she burst into tears,” he says with a smile.
Sending out his original menu to a brains trust of friends and hospitality peers before opening to gather feedback, “a lot of people were worried for us and advised us to make it a bit more Aussified, and safer. I thought a lot about it and in the end, I decided ‘No, I’m giving it my 100 per cent. And if that doesn’t work, then at least I know I did it without compromising’,” he says.
Why does he feel Middle Eastern cuisine styles have resonated so much with Australians?
“It’s quite remarkable how similar our climate is here [in Australia with many parts of the Middle East]. What works here is Asian food and Middle Eastern. Both are healthy, with lots of variety and plenty of vegetables hidden in the cuisine. They are both generous and deigned to share…this, in turn, creates conversation, more than when you eat individual dishes. It’s a spiritual thing. We live around food; birth, death, weddings, any human thing involves and is circulated around food. It’s what makes us human, eating together.”
In his decades as a classically French-trained chef and now as a proud flag bearer for the wonders of Middle Eastern food in Australia, among his many achievements, what is Rantissi most proud of?
“My first book, Falafel for Breakfast, was huge for me and it makes me very happy to know people are cooking those recipes at home and are now all part of the bigger picture that is Middle Eastern food. The title of the book is a homage to my mum, who when I told her I was opening Kepos Street, said to me ‘But who’s going to eat falafel for breakfast, Michael?’.”…Well Mrs Rantissi, as it turns out, pretty much every food-loving Australian.
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There was a food stand close to my childhood home that sold nothing but muhalbiyah, or milk pudding. We kids loved the sugar rush we’d get from the cheap and tacky syrup with its artificial colouring, while the adults had a version made with grenadine syrup.