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By Emma-Louise Boynton
t was 2003 and Itamar Srulovich was 25 and living in Tel Aviv with his partner Sarit Packer. They’d met while working as chefs in the same kitchen.
The couple didn’t have a penny to their names, but they were in love. So much so that Srulovich kept asking Packer if she’d marry him - undeterred by the resounding no he was met with each time. Packer wasn’t interested in marriage - what was the point?
“We were both left feeling lost and confused professionally and increasingly depressed personally. We were also skint..”
Professionally, Srulovich felt frustrated and lost, having just been forced to leave a job he’d enjoyed on bad terms.
“I was there for three years, but I had a massive row with the head chef who was a beautiful person, but also a psycho. And the owners too, they were beautiful people - hippies - but also incredibly difficult. In the end, it all just exploded and I was left trying to find my place in the world.”
Meanwhile, Packer had been attempting to set up a catering company with her business partner but had ended up starting a cookie factory instead, which they ran from an old, disused chicken coop on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
“The whole thing was really quite strange,” Srulovich says.
“The rent on the space was very cheap, but it had no insulation, so in the winter, when Tel Aviv becomes Baltic, the place was freezing. Come summer it was scorching.”
Packer worked on the business for just over a year and Srulovich helped, but things just went from bad to worse until eventually, the whole thing tanked.
“We were both left feeling lost and confused professionally and increasingly depressed personally. We were also skint. Neither of us felt like we had any purpose.”
So, one weekend they decided to pack their bags and visit Packer’s parents in Northern Israel. It was a chance to clear their heads and escape the choking grasp of a city that had become for them devoid of joy and lacking in opportunities.
On their first evening away the couple booked a table at Uri Buri, a seafood restaurant set in an ancient stone building overlooking the Acre harbor in Northern Israel.
“Our table fast became crammed with plates of cured prawns and chilli made with locally produced olive oil and sea salt, fresh snapper, home-cured sardines with bitter, wild mountain greens…”
“We were so broke,” Srulovich says, “and going to Uri Buri is a bit like going to the River Cafe or something, but we thought ‘fuck it’, we need something to cheer us up and Uri Buri is located in the most magical old town. It feels like stepping into a fairytale. Also, the owner, Uri Jeremias (since dubbed the town’s ‘unofficial mayor’) is so sweet and looks like Santa. He’s an incredible chef.
“While from the outside the restaurant doesn’t look that impressive, surrounded as it is by a disused car park, once you step inside into the main dining room it is beautiful, and the food is exceptional.
“Rather than ordering from a set menu,” Srulovich explains, “the waiters simply bring you dish after dish after dish, until eventually, you tell them to stop. It’s a little unnerving given how expensive the place is, but everything we tried was exquisite.
“And so our table fast became crammed with plates of cured prawns and chili made with locally produced olive oil and sea salt, fresh snapper, home-cured sardines they make with bitter, wild mountain greens, fried calamari, artichokes… Everything was simple and everything was perfect.”
The couple couldn’t afford to drink wine so they toasted glasses of tap water instead. Then something dawned on them.
“We looked down at the table and both just thought - we’re working these shitty jobs that we hate and we feel purposeless,” Srulovich explains. “And then here we are sitting in front of all this beautiful, glorious food... ‘What are we doing with our lives? Why are we living like this?
“We both realized at that moment that we had to do something drastic. We decided to move abroad.”
“Sat in front of all this beautiful, glorious food and we suddenly thought ‘what are we doing with our lives? Why are we living like this?”
With dishes of fresh seafood still piling up around them, Packer and Srulovich began to plot their great escape, to imagine their lives beyond the claustrophobic trappings of a place they’d grown tired of calling home.
“We resolved then and there that we’d let go of the lease on our flat and travel the world, cooking in cities right across Europe. The Athens Olympics was coming up, so we figured we could start by working in the kitchens there and then just see what happened. We needed to lift our anchors and just go.”
As a fresh plate of chili prawns was delivered to their table, Srulovich turned to Packer and said, “You know this means we’re going to have to get married?”.
“I didn’t have an EU passport,” he explains, “while she did”.
“Yes, I suppose we will,” Packer responded.
After dinner, the couple stepped out into the warm evening breeze and as they walked along the seafront they each felt, for the first time in a while…
“Hopeful. Joyful! Suddenly we had a plan. We had something to look forward to,” Srulovich grins.
Within two months they were married - at a small ceremony in Cyprus surrounded by family. Their parents thought they were mad - two young lovers rushing into something they didn’t understand, into a future they had little planned. They were undeterred.
A few months later, Packer and Srulovich moved to London, to a small flat in Clapham, they planned on renting out for two months or so before moving onto the next leg in their joint adventure.
“The couple couldn’t afford to drink wine so they toasted glasses of tap water instead. Then something dawned on them.”
They never left.
In 2012 they together set up Honey & Co, a small restaurant in Fitzrovia serving traditional Middle Eastern food using the best ingredients their kitchen can get its hands on. A deli, Honey & Spice, a grill house, several cookbooks, and a podcast followed.
Flick to the first recipe in their first cookbook, Honey & Co: Food from the Middle East, and you’ll find the recipe for Uri Buri’s chili prawns.
Chasing Smoke: Cooking Over Fire Around the Levant was published in May 2021 and is available here.
For Itamar Srulovich and partner and co-founder, Sarit Packer, the simple deliciousness of a fresh seafood supper on Jerusalem’s coast prompted them to pack up their lives and leave behind a life they no longer wanted.
By Emma-Louise Boynton