Erez Nahum still feels energised by the beautiful Tel Aviv food markets that he visited during childhood.
He remembers “the smell of spices everywhere, colours everywhere”, and how loudly the vendors would shout – especially on Fridays, when everyone was shopping for Shabbat.
And the food? It was overwhelming – there were so many cooks and stallholders giving away samples of their food. You’d walk around, snacking on little serves of knafeh, falafel and baby-sized shawarma in pita bread.
“There was this guy who made special roasted nuts with date honey and spices,” Nahum says. “It was delicious.”
He opened the restaurant last April – a move that seemed impossible in so many ways. “My dream was to come and live here. I didn’t think it would be fulfilled,” he says.
Until 2015, he’d spent the majority of his life in Israel, where he was born. Even though he fell in love with Australia during a holiday nearly two decades ago, the idea of relocating here seemed like a fairytale.
But fate had a way of shaking up his plans.
Around seven years ago, while he was still living in Israel, his mother got sick. “I left everything to take care of her, it was a really hard year for me,” he says. “Then she passed away right after [I thought] it was going to be better. I think I was in the worst time of my life.”
Just as he was dealing with that, he got a job offer from someone opening a restaurant in Sydney. Moving halfway around the world, and completing his dream of living in Australia seemed the right thing to do.
Adjusting to the industry here, though, was not easy. “Hospitality really takes advantage of a lot of people,” he says.
Nahum describes himself as “a very persistent guy, very stubborn”, so none of this deterred him from his ultimate goal of opening his own restaurant.
When he gained his permanent residency in 2019, he knew it was finally possible to launch his eatery. “Now we can do it,” he told his wife Clara.
He has a distinct memory of travelling through Argentina, where his wife is from, and planning every aspect of Shaffa during that time – even the volume of the music he’d play.
“There’s a beautiful mountain there in Bariloche, we were walking there for hours,” he says. “We started talking literally about every detail possible. I’m a person who likes to imagine. So I imagined everything.”
But what he could not imagine was the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to restaurants shutting their dine-in capacity from 23 March, 2020, for Sydney’s first lockdown, which lasted two months. And even as restrictions loosened in mid-May that year, restaurants were only allowed to serve 10 diners, under social-distancing rules.
“People were freaking out,” he recalls.
That didn’t stop him from searching for restaurant sites in July 2020 – even as people questioned his sense of timing and he found himself inspecting these properties alone.
“All the real estate agents were calling me every day – I was their only client,” he says.
It was a shaky time for the hospitality industry, given the uncertainty that COVID-19 posed. But Nahum actually found himself in a highly advantageous position.
“I was offered properties for free – fully fitted restaurants,” he says. “I’m talking about new restaurants with marble, with glassware, with crockery, ready to go. The agent would tell me: “six months free rent – if you want more free rent, tell me whatever you need.’”
Yet Nahum held out.
“I found so many properties that I didn’t take,” he says. “I had so many fights with my wife, who said: ‘you have an opportunity here.’”
He knew he wanted to wait for something special – and he didn’t find the right space until he met architect Vince Squillace. “He took me to one of Sydney’s oldest buildings,” he says. It was a site shaped from sandstone and bricks that convicts had carved. It sat between a 150-year-old church and an inn with just as much history.
“Once you see this property, it’s exactly Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem. I’m in the alleys of Jerusalem – unbelievable,” he says. It was the perfect site for Shaffa.
At his restaurant, he has carefully recreated the vibrancy – and transparency – of the Tel Aviv food markets he grew up with.
“They can’t hide anything. They don’t have a back of house,” he says. “What you see is what you get.” That’s why Shaffa’s kitchen is completely open, and their vegetables are on display, just like a market. “You see everything.”
It means diners can ask about the produce nearby and staff can offer them a taste of the sumac or chickpea shoots that caught their eye. Or if they’re sitting at the chef’s bar, they might get to sample a sauce and asked for their opinion – just as Nahum did when walking around the market stalls in Tel Aviv.
Although the pandemic handed him a great real-estate deal, it also directed curveballs at Shaffa, too. There were the furniture delays, including a shipment of lamps that got stuck at the border. “You can’t open without lighting!” Nahum says, and resorted to alternatives as the proper shipment inched towards Surry Hills after a two-and-a-half month delay.
“We give abundance of food, because it’s part of the culture.” – Erez Nahum
Then there was the second Sydney lockdown, in late June, which caught everyone by surprise. “I was completely pale. It felt like the world fell on me. We had just opened,” he says.
What the NSW government originally forecast as a fortnight-long lockdown, scheduled to finish in mid-July, ended up blowing up into a 107-day ban on indoor restaurant dining that didn’t lift until 11 October.
“It took a couple of months to get the first help from the government,” he says. “We were almost crushed.”
His team got through lockdown by offering Shabbat boxes and special takeaway feasts for Rosh Hashanah.
While the menus changed every week, the mountainous serves did not – whether the boxes were filled with chicken tagines, chocolate babka, hummus, challah bread or couscous studded with cranberries and nuts.
“We give abundance of food, because it’s part of the culture,” he says.
It’s the same approach he takes with their Middle Eastern brunches each weekend, where tables are overloaded with salads, chicken shawarma skewers, laffa and pita breads, baklava, Moroccan tea and Turkish coffee. “It’s big every weekend,” he says.
Nahum is awaiting the licence for his rooftop, which allows diners to gaze at 360-degree views of the surrounding city.
In the meantime, there’s plenty to marvel at, from the 10-metre-high glass ceilings, which are mesmerising to watch as the rain cascades down, or the mosaic windows from the neighbouring church, which are a wonder when they’re spotlit.
“It’s unbelievably beautiful, you can see it within the walls of the restaurant. It’s super special,” he says. And even his childhood memories of Tel Aviv markets can’t compete with that.
Lee Tran Lam is a writer, podcaster, and editor of New Voices on Food, a Diversity In Food Media anthology showcasing under-represented Australian talent. Her work has been published in The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Gourmet Traveller, and SBS Food. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram. Follow Resy, too.