History, tradition and mystery unfold during a trip to the Rai restaurant and distillery.
Husband & wife culinary duo celebrate traditional and innovative local cuisine at Majda.
A focaccia bread made with grapes and regional herbs.
The journey to Majda begins long before the food arrives at the table. There are no road signs leading to the restaurant in the small village of Ein Rafa, several kilometers west of Jerusalem, and the best way to get to the blue house at the top of the hill is to follow the winding road while trusting your instincts. And make no mistake, this is intentional; situated well off the beaten track, open only on weekends and with a limited number of available tables, it is impossible to stumble upon it or simply pop by for a small bite. It is a destination one arrives at with clear intent.
In the Spring of 2011 Michal and Yakub turned the ground floor of their house into a restaurant they named Majda. Michal Baranes is Jewish of Moroccan and Tripolitan descent, originally from the seaside town of Netanya, and Yakub Barhom is Muslim, a member of the Barhom family that makes up the majority of the village’s population. Since the opening day their daily routine revolves around the restaurant; Yakub built the house and the restaurant, they cultivated an herb garden and recently planted a vineyard next to the house with several varieties of long forgotten heirloom grape varieties from which Yakub intends to turn into wine. They do all the cooking as well as the gardening, gathering, sourcing of the ingredients and even the ironing. Majda is the couple’s labor of love or their ‘very demanding lover’ as they refer to her fondly.
You opened Majda in 2011. What would you say is the most significant difference between year one and year eight?
Michal: When we started out I was the one doing all the cooking and Yakub was in charge of all things front of house, including building the restaurant. But in the last three years Yakub and I are in charge of all of the cooking together with the assistance of my aunt, who helps with the service preparations. We are the heart of Majda. It’s just us behind all the pots and pans. This also goes in hand with what the customers want, which is to see us cooking their food. We are constantly striving to create, cook and serve the best dishes we possibly can and that is the most important thing for us. It is also the best way for us to connect with our guests. This evolution made so much sense; it’s as if though all the pieces in the puzzle of the last eight years fell into place and everything came together. It’s not easy but it’s worth it.
Yakub: The kitchen isn’t my natural habitat. I need to be outdoors, in nature and around people, not confined between four walls, so this is definitely a change for me. I am also discovering new kinds of aches and pains I didn’t know existed as a result.
Do you feel the current state of things is permanent?
Michal: This is what works best for us, for Majda and for our customers. We are not looking to expand and hire more staff and the only people we can imagine ever taking over the kitchen in place of us are our children. The day we decide to exit the kitchen would be the day Majda closes its doors.
Where do you draw the inspiration for the dishes on the menu?
Michal: First and foremost, the traditional Arabic home cooking I learnt from Yakub’s mother and sisters. This is the food they cook on a daily basis as well as for special occasions. It is a cuisine that relies heavily on the seasons and the local terroir’s wild greens. I also draw inspiration from my mother and my Moroccan grandmother’s home cooking. The magic happens when we bring these two culinary worlds together – this is where things get interesting and creative for us. I am very traditional with my cooking but Yakub, a recent newbie in the kitchen, is free from any culinary chains so he can come up with crazy combinations I would never dare to think of. Its where tradition meets innovation.
Yakub: Our best recipes are all the result of happy accidents, like our poppy seed Knafeh.
Where do you source your ingredients from?
Michal: We try to source most of our vegetables from Kaima farm, a sustainable organic farm in the nearby village of Beit Zait that also operates as an educational center for teenagers coming from difficult backgrounds. We like to work with small independent producers and whenever possible we incorporate available seasonal produce grown in the village.
Yakub: We were the first to open a restaurant in the village but several more have opened since.
We are all working together with the farmers in the village, trying to encourage them to commit to farming all year round so that they can become our main suppliers. This way they will have an incentive to keep farming and preserve this tradition. Wherever possible we try to support our local community. Everyone wins this way: the produce is local, cheaper and tastes better and any surplus we can offer for sale outside the restaurant.
What is the story you are trying to tell through your food?
Michal: Since day one my passion was to introduce people to both the village of Ein Rafa and to the brilliance of Arabic cuisine.
Yakub: Israeli Jews don’t encounter Israeli Arabs often and when they come here, they get a chance to meet, talk and perhaps even let go of any prejudice or misconceptions.
Michal: It’s very important to me that our guests are respectful. People often forget that the minute they step out of their car they are in our home; this is my garden, these are my plants, and as guests in my house they are about to experience something new, encounter a culture different to theirs and so this should be a time to observe and absorb. It is usually the moment that the food arrives at the table that something clicks with the customers and they get it. Food has this power.
When did you realize that you had succeeded in creating the restaurant of your dreams?
Michal: The beginning was tough. Even after much coverage in the foreign press and with tourists from all over the world wowed by their experiences, it took a long time before we felt understood and accepted on our home turf. It’s only in the last year that I can wholeheartedly say that I am really happy with the way things are and that people are beginning to understand what we’re doing here. Majda has come of age, matured and is now in its prime. It took us eight years of constant and relentless fine-tuning but we now know what we need to do and how to do it best. And it works. Every year we cut the number of available tables in the restaurant. We want our food, the service and the total experience of coming here to be as distilled and precise as possible and that you cannot achieve on a large scale.
Do you have additional goals and aspirations for Majda?
Yakub: I recently started studying Oenology and I’m experimenting with winemaking. We planted a vineyard next to the restaurant so hopefully one day we will also be making our own wine in our very own winery. Michal is passionate about gardening and these days we also offer her potted plants for sale.
What accomplishment are you proud of the most?
Michal: Our wait staff are all from the village and they’ve been with us for seven years, almost since the beginning. We are so in tune that these days, during service, we understand each other just by looking at each other. When they started out they were insecure and challenging kids and today they are all in higher education. I really want to see them leave this place, live their best lives and succeed in their chosen professions. I know they will all do well. But this also means we’ll need to train a new generation of kids.
Yakub: It’s a very tightly run shop with a handful of staff and since we’re the only ones in the kitchen there are no days off. So we try not to bite off more than we can handle and we have to make sure we don’t burn out.
Michal: Another thing I’m very proud of is that by opening our doors and the restaurant eight years ago, we paved the way for others in the village, showing them that they can do it too.
Yakub: Until not long ago everyone had heard of Abu Gosh but no one knew of Ein Rafa. This is no longer the case.
Michal: We knew it was only a matter of time and now the village is well on the way to becoming a culinary destination. There is talk about opening more food locales as others in the village see the potential and want to take part. The current supply of restaurants isn’t meeting the demand and I’d say there’s room for at least five more restaurants in the village.
Yakub: We want to incorporate the entire village into the experience and are constantly thinking of different ways to transform it into a quaint travel destination.
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