Dennis Friedman (no relation to this author) was the chef at a barbecue joint when he and Ran Nussbacher cooked up the menu for Shouk, an entirely meat-free restaurant that opened in May. Nussbacher and Friedman would use the kitchen after hours to innovate.
“We started hacking around recipes in the back kitchen of Dennis’ barbecue restaurant, surrounded by mounds of brisket,” says Nussbacher.
But brisket didn’t stand a chance against the duo’s plant-based creations.
Warm pita loaded to the brim with roasted cauliflower, fresh tomato, scallions, tahini and jalapeño oil. Labane—that tangy, Middle Eastern yogurt—made from cashews. And an assortment of fresh vegetables combined with diverse flavors like pistachio pesto and spicy harissa.
“The desire was to take plant-based food and make it normal. Make it just good food,” says Nussbacher, “Plant-based food that wasn’t appealing because it was plant based, but appealing because it was flavorful and satiating.”
Nussbacher, who left his corporate job after ten years in the technology industry, is on a mission to change the way we eat. He recognized that our food choices have a tremendous impact on the world around us. It’s that reality that inspired him to create Shouk.
“I believe that food is the trifecta. Our food choices have direct influence not only on our own health, but the health of our planet and the lives of the animals that share it with us,” says Nussbacher.
His upbringing in Israel played a large role in his vision for the restaurant. Shouk, which is the Hebrew word for marketplace, is an attempt to bring a piece of the open-air markets of the Middle East to the DMV.
“It’s not just the food but the sensory experience, the shapes, the colors, the sights, the sounds, the warmth of the people, the haggling, the playfulness,” says Nussbacher. “My personal experience is in the markets in Israel, but the markets in Lebanon, Syria and Morocco are no different. They all share those same key elements. The concept is not Israeli per se; it’s broader than that.”
When you enter the store, to the left is a series of shelves filled with Middle Eastern specialty items. Nussbacher and Friedman call this area “the pantry.” You’ll find fair-trade couscous from the West Bank, alongside Israeli date syrup. “All of those products are small batch, many of them are handcrafted,” says Nussbacher. “And certainly doing our part to support small agriculture, certainly in Palestine, is a perfect fit for what we are.”
Nussbacher grew up in Israel surrounded by his mother and grandmother’s cooking and baking. While he considers himself a decent amateur cook, it’s his partnership with Friedman that helped manifest his culinary vision.
“[Dennis] is the kind of chef you never see in a fast-food type of environment. He’s trained under the most famous chefs in the world. He’s owned fine-dining restaurants,” says Nussbacher. “He’s the kind of chef you’d see in a five-star restaurant where you pay 100 dollars a plate. I got him involved in this two years back, and along the way our partnership clicked.”
Unlike many fast casual restaurants in DC, Shouk doesn’t ask you to decide what ingredients to put in your meal. Instead, the menu says, “Pick one. We’ll do the rest.” “We spent a year and a half developing the menu,” says Nussbacher. “We’re very proud of all the dishes. People come in who are used to quick food being customizable. We ask people to trust us, and they never regret it.”
If Friedman and Nussbacher aren’t satisfied with something on the menu, they work on it until it’s “amazing.” Or they replace it with something else. They never pick favorites.
While Nussbacher was developing the concept for Shouk in DC, Israel, meanwhile, has earned a reputation as one of the most vegan-friendly countries in the world. Nussbacher is not surprised.
On the one hand, he sees an underlying connection with Judaism and meat-free eating. “I do think there’s a connection on some level. Compassion is built into the religion,” he says. On the other, plant-based food is a major part of daily life in Israel. “In the culture I come from, plants, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds are much more integrated into our nutrition. They’re as hearty and satiating as anything else. For me it was a very short trip to come back to my upbringing in Israel, to see the opportunity in that food.”
Nussbacher notices similar eating trends in the United States. He says people are replacing industrial and processed products with natural ingredients. “You definitely see that trend here and in Israel,” he says. “We are all seeking to go back to that place of health and real [ingredients] when it comes to food.”
“The future is what we make it. It’s being molded by what we’re doing here,” Nussbacher says. “Do I think everyone is going to go vegan? No. Do I think people are going to rebalance their diets and purchasing decisions? This is already happening. We’re just making it sexier and more fun.” His hope is that the vision and culinary innovations behind Shouk will make veganism accessible to the everyman.
“The lion’s share of people who come in here don’t come in here because it’s a plant-based menu. Many of them don’t know it is. Some realize it, some don’t. But they never miss [meat]. And that’s the whole point.”