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Shai Fargian, Yafo Kitchen and the Great Hummus Debate

Things that make you go Hmm

I’m much more confident writing about food than I am actually making it, but every once in a while, I get the urge to turn my kitchen — and my life — into the scene of an accident. I don’t normally mind a food challenge. I spent the first six months after moving back to the States from Southeast Asia, for example, learning to make a variety of sambals from scratch, how to temper rempah and even how to navigate the several-day-journey to a perfect beef rendang. In this case, homesickness begat a bit of bravery.

More often than not, though, I am too busy to beget anything more than a headache, and instead of trying out a new recipe, I fall back onto something reliable (reliably easy) and much more likely not to require every pot, pan and plastic prep bowl in my cabinets. Like hummus.

I’ve been making hummus on a semi-regular basis since I was in college, and it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing. It’s quick, the ingredients are cheap and a batch will last a week if you’re a normal person — or a couple of days if you’re me. My guilty pleasure is hummus on toasted sourdough bread. It’s an uncomplicated snack, and the crunch and flavor of the bread are just the right extra layers of pleasure needed to help you forget all the life choices you made that led to the bad day you’re currently having. You should try it.

While I’d been making hummus for years, I had yet to do it the 21st-century way — documenting each and every step with videos and colorful outtakes on Instagram. It was a Saturday in late July, and I was bored. I went all out with my Insta Stories that day, featuring each ingredient with a Scorsese-esque flair: the chickpeas, the tahini, the olive oil, lemon and salt. And last but not least, the cumin.

Wait, what? The cumin?! Yep. Until that point, I had never thought it was an issue. But that’s when the DMs started rolling in, the nicest of which was something along the lines of, “ARE YOU CRAZY?” I don’t know. Am I? As a food critic, I’ve been accused of worse. Was I doing something wrong?

So, I started a poll: “Does cumin go in hummus? Yes or No.” Then things started getting interesting. My followers are spread pretty broadly between my former home in Asia and here in the States where I live now. For the first few hours of the poll that night, when it was daytime in Asia, the poll was split 50/50, or slightly in favor of cumin, but by the next day when the poll finished, as more local votes were counted, the results were undeniably against cumin at 56%. I sought those cumin-deniers out.

Yongwon Hwang, a chef de partie at local restaurant Counter-, was one. He was once scolded by a chef in Australia over this issue. “I worked in a Middle Asian cuisine restaurant, and the chef-owner was from Malta. When I asked about putting cumin in hummus, he screamed, ‘NO!’”

Paul Kardous, a local Charlotte architect, was another who agreed with Hwang. “Real hummus should have chickpeas as the star and center of the dish, and cumin takes away from that and gives it a funk that doesn’t belong.”

hummus from Yafo Kitchen
Hummus with falafel from Yafo Kitchen. (Photo by Remy Thurston)

Not that all of Charlotte was against cumin. Some were neither passionately for nor against it, but appreciated its inclusion, like Amy Strasser, known to the masses as local Instagram food influencer cltfoodgirl. “I don’t like spicy ingredients,” she said, “but I love other seasonings in hummus like garlic or cumin because I think chickpeas alone with no flavor added can be bland.”

Rob Clement, self-proclaimed Head Mensch at local Jewish deli Meshugganah, was more emphatic. “Who the fuck started making food rules? Cumin is indigenous to Egypt, and hummus is right down the street.”

In one short 24-hour period, with no clear answer to be found, and with this food critic now the object of food critique, I had learned two lessons: One, if you want to be told you’re doing something wrong, then post it on social media. Two, if you want to turn into an anxious pile of nerves, then be sure to make it something you enjoy doing.

And that’s when, on a hunch, I slid into the DMs of Shai Fargian, executive chef at Yafo Kitchen.
“Can we talk on the phone?” he asked.

This was going to be a long conversation, during which I found myself breaking out into goosebumps and swearing not to spill his hummus secrets.

‘Food as geography’

Fargian loves hummus so much that his staff calls him “Chef Garbanzo.” He grew up in a small town north of Tel Aviv, where hummus was a way of life.

“Farmers used to eat it in the morning and then go to the farm,” he said.

The local restaurants there would serve hummus and nothing else, and it was all-you-can-eat. Customers would pay for their bowl and could top it off again and again.

“Every Saturday for lunch with my father’s family, that was our thing,” he said. “We’d go at 10 a.m. when they opened, and they closed around 1 or 2 when they ran out of hummus.”

“Hummus” in Hebrew and Arabic means “chickpea,” and it can refer to both the bean and the spread. Across Israel, the spread is made in small batches as orders come in, when the beans — after having been soaked for at least eight hours then boiled with a bit of baking soda for another three to four — are taken out and mixed with tahini. The similarities end there.

Yafo Kitchen Shai Fargian
Shai Fargian, executive chef at Yafo Kitchen. (Photo by Remy Thurston)

“I like looking at food as geography,” Fargian said. “Hummus in Israel is like barbecue in the South. Like in the east Carolinas, barbecue sauce is more liquid and tastes more like vinegar, but the farther west you go, it gets sweeter and thicker. In Memphis, it’s half brown sugar.”

In Israel, the geographic differences come down to temperature. At Fargian’s childhood hummus restaurant, the spread was served hot. But he told of a specific restaurant in Yafo, an interfaith city that exists as part of Tel Aviv, that is well known to have the best hummus in Israel, and there it is served cold.

“What the fuck was that? It was cold!” he said. “And it’s only two hours away from where I grew up.”

Hummus is so much a way of life in Israel that everyone has an opinion, including Fargian’s American wife, whom he met in Tel Aviv.

“My father is Iranian and fled the regime. My mother is from Portland, Maine, and her parents were both Holocaust survivors, so she wanted to be in Israel,” he explained of his own roots. “She moved there to teach English and met my father. It kind of runs in the genes, meeting our American wives in Israel.”

Fargian knew she just might be the one when they started talking about hummus.

“She had her hummus place,” he said, “and she thought it was better than mine.”

They left Israel together when his wife received a full scholarship to UNC business school, living first in Chapel Hill then moving to New York when his wife began a career in banking that eventually allowed them to settle in Charlotte. Along the way, he didn’t know what to cook.

His background in Israel leaned toward fine dining, where he cooked French-Middle Eastern fusion that saw things like foie gras baklava and liver pâté with eggplant marmalade.

While in New York, he continued working in fine-dining kitchens, but cooking new and even avant-garde American cuisines that were well outside his comfort zone and cultural frame of reference.

“I decided to cook Mediterranean food,” he said.

The birth of Yafo Kitchen

Back in Charlotte, Fargian connected with local restaurateur Frank Scibelli, and the two began working on the fast-casual concept that became Yafo Kitchen.

“I used to be embarrassed by that label: ‘fast-casual.’ I go from fine dining, and now I’m serving hummus and falafel?” Fargian said. “I’m bringing a fine-dining level of attention to the food here, though, even if it is fast-casual. It took me a year to get there and be proud.”

The duo’s research included a trip back to New York, where they ate at all the Mediterranean restaurants in three days. That’s 11 restaurants a day.

The purpose of the trip was to figure out what about the food he knew so well had been changed for the American palate to make it as popular here as it is back home.

“I love chicken hearts, for example,” Fargian said. “But no one here is going to come to a fast-casual restaurant to order chicken hearts.”

Another difference he called out: “The American palate likes more acid, so we add more lemon juice to the hummus at Yafo than I would like, but that’s the only concession I made in the recipe.”

A growing popularity

It’s really hard to make good hummus, and at Yafo Kitchen, they go through 25 gallons of it between three locations every day.

Fargian would serve it at room temperature if he could, but it’s always served cold due to health code regulations.

The preparation of each batch takes two days and it all hinges on how the chickpeas are cooked. It is important to break down the skins of the beans, hence the long soak and the long boil, as the skins are what make hummus chunky.

“If you don’t get the chickpeas right, you’re not going to have good hummus,” he said. “Cooking chickpeas is chef prep because if you fuck it up, it’s over.”

Quality ingredients — organic chickpeas from California and organic tahini from Israel — also help.

You know the chickpeas are soft when you smush them with your fingers and there’s no grain. You know the chickpeas are ready when you throw one at the wall and it spreads out like a paintball. The goal, in Fargian’s view, is “baby-butt-smooth hummus.”

And for the record, he does like cumin in his hummus. He confirmed that they even use cumin at Yafo Kitchen, but I’ve been sworn to secrecy on just how much.

The popularity of hummus in Charlotte and in the States (“Sabra had its own Super Bowl ad! Hummus is a legitimate football snack!”) has allowed Chef Fargian to expand the menu at all Yafo Kitchen locations.

“We even have chicken schnitzel now,” he said. “Chicken schnitzel and hummus is the most Israeli thing you can eat.”

Yafo Kitchen
The author’s dish of chicken schnitzel with hummus from Yafo Kitchen. (Photo by Timothy DePeugh)

Do you have plans to get back to a more upscale dining concept, I asked?

“Sure, when I don’t have to be in the restaurant washing dishes at 10 p.m. on a Thursday, because that’s where our industry is at right now,” Fargian said.

In the meantime, I stop by Yafo Kitchen on East Boulevard and order the most Israeli thing I could eat. The schnitzel is crisp, seasoned and satisfying, and the Yemenite red schug condiment Fargian recommended I have with it is wicked and fiery.

That hummus, though, predictably put my experiment to shame. Despite what social media had told me, or in spite of it — neither of which offers any respite for the life of an anxious foodie – I realize I had been doing it wrong all along.


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