Lifestyle: Ima Cuisine

An interview with the inspirational women behind downtown Middle Eastern restaurant Ima Cuisine.

Tell me a bit about the both of you and Ima Cuisine. 

Yael: Ima Cuisine is a Middle Eastern restaurant on Fort St that specialises in Jewish Diaspora food and Palestinian home cooking.

Avigail: She runs the show really, I’m just the boss’ daughter! But I’ve been working there since I was 14. I’m 23 now and I miraculously still love my job? Our food and our culture means a lot to me, I love to help share it with others. We also both take part in activism - mostly fighting for basic rights for Palestinians back home.

When did you start Ima Cuisine and how did the idea come about?

Yael: In 2003 I opened the City Lunchbox on Shortland Street. It was just a breakfast and lunch place at the time. I started doing dinners in 2005 and I changed the name to Ima Cuisine. Ima means mother in Hebrew; the food is meant to reflect the nourishment and joy you get from a mother and her cooking. I’ve always cooked for people. I would make 3 course French dinners at the age of 14. When I was a student in England I realised that good food, made with care, makes you happy in the same way that the bad food from the student canteen made me depressed. I realised then I had the ability to change people’s day, making them happy, by serving them food.

International Women’s Day is coming up, why is this significant to both you and your mum?

Avigail: Well Ima Cuisine is a matriarchy! It’s a business started by a first generation immigrant woman. International Women’s Day should be about radical change and radical kindness and love, and I think this is a core tenet to the restaurant and its philosophy.

We’ve noticed that most trending restaurants these days are owned and run by men. What are your thoughts on this? 

Yael: It’s ten times as hard to run a restaurant as a woman. When I started out and I brought this special food to Auckland; if I was a man, I would have been approached by an investor years ago. Because I am a woman, no one came near me.

Avigail: Mum’s been an institution in this city for almost 20 years now. She’s had to do it all by herself, and that’s been particularly hard and particularly hard to watch growing up.

Have you had to face any barriers as a woman in the restaurant business?

Yael: There’s barriers all the time. Business is hard for everyone but for women it’s exponentially harder. I feel like when a young guy starts a restaurant like this, it’s like immediately there is a spotlight on him, there’s interest. I feel like I’ve been clawing, climbing a steep mountain with my fingernails just to get where I am today. And people come up to me and say “Oh! Look how well you’re doing!” and I think “Jesus… You have no idea of the uphill fight it’s been. How long it’s taken… the sacrifices I’ve made… The money I’ve lost.”

Avigail: People are completely ignorant of just how much hard work goes into making and serving food. We make everything fresh from scratch onsite; we bake all the bread and pastries for breakfast and lunch, we cure meat, we roll and stuff kibbeh [spiced lamb meatballs in a wheat shell]. And then there’s my end of the job - being out there and making sure customers have the best experience possible. It’s hugely physical, you’re always thinking on your feet and it involves a tonne of emotional labour. But a lot of the people that come in just see a “dumb waitress” and treat you accordingly. This is mostly because hospitality is so under-valued and underpaid in our economy despite all that it contributes. But of course gender comes into that too.

Going back to lighter questions, what are the top three “must-haves” when you go to Ima Cuisine? 

Yael: The brik [A North African fried pastry] to start, the Lebanese slow-cooked lamb with all the sides for mains, and the Knafeh [a fried Arabic cheese pastry] for dessert. And then there’s another two menus [breakfast and lunch] that you have to try as well.

Avigail: I mean we have a burger and the steak sandwich on our lunch menu, but if you’re going for that first before the Malawach [Yemenite fry-bread] or the Shakshuka [North African baked eggs] then maybe you’re missing the point.

We saw that you’ve also published a recipe book, that’s really impressive. How did that come about?

Yael: We’ve been feeling it out for years with Random House. I first approached them four years ago and they said then that I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t “big enough,” wasn’t “known enough.” To be honest, if I was a man the recipe book would have been easier to make too.

Can you share a memorable or weird experience you’ve had at the restaurant? 

Yael: Gordon Ramsey came in four years ago and I didn’t even know he was in the country! He loved the food and he tweeted about it too! Our selfie that we shared together was taken up by the New Zealand Herald and it was the biggest PR for us ever! People talked about it for years.

Avigail: I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that txt from mum. I was so nervous he had gone in full Kitchen Nightmares style and sworn at her, but apparently he is completely lovely.

Lastly, is there a simple recipe you’d like to share with our Craccum fans?

Introduced by North African Jews, Shakshuka is now a breakfast staple in cafes and homes all over Israel, although it’s just as good for lunch and dinner. The leftover sauce keeps very well for a few days in the fridge, which means you can make extra or make it in advance, and just heat the sauce and crack in your eggs when you’re ready to eat. The name means “mish-mash” or “mix-up”, and the combination of the sauce and eggs is delicious. I encourage you to use a good soft bread to swipe around your pan, to get every last bit. Serves four.