Yotam Dolev shares his rich heritage and the journey to bring about Hamsa, a modern Israeli restaurant in Houston.
much like that of his home country of Israel, chef Yotam Dolev’s personal lineage is a blend of many cultures. Born in New York, Dolev was raised in Modi’in, a town set between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Many of his family members arrived in Israel after being deported from other countries; his great-grandmother was originally from Uzbekistan, while one of his grandmothers was from Spain but was deported to Turkey before landing in Israel.
Growing up, Dolev was exposed to much of this history through the foods his family ate, like sutlach, a Turkish sweet rice pudding, and burmas, a style of baklava filled with spinach and served with sour yogurt on the side. He also remembers learning about the flavors of Morocco and North Africa.
His maternal grandfather, meanwhile, taught him about work ethic, waking him up early on weekend mornings to pick up the oranges and lemons that dropped from the family’s citrus trees. “When we finished, he would make us falafel and pita, and then tell us to go organize the garage,” Dolev recalls. Afterward, there would be huge pots of rice cooking in the kitchen. “He was happy making food for everyone,” says Dolev.
Dolev served in the Israeli military before coming back to the US, where he landed in Houston. The idea was to earn some money so he could travel through South America. Instead, he started working at Doris Metropolitan, a butchery and steakhouse. He’d worked at a restaurant and a coffee shop during his teen years; at Doris, he quickly found his footing and worked his way up to sous chef. “I decided to let go of the trip and invest myself here,” he says.
In 2022, the Sof Hospitality team, which has opened two other locations of Doris Metropolitan as well as Badolina Bakery and Cafe, set out to open Hamsa, an ode to Israeli cuisine. (Everyone on Sof ’s executive team has lived in Israel.) “The menu, we say, is modern Israeli cuisine, but you can’t really define what that is because it’s a whole mixture of cultures,” Dolev says. “We have dishes from Africa, from Europe, from South America, Germany, Tunisia. Every Jewish culture brought their own flavors to Israel, so that is what I’m bringing to the menu. All of that is pretty much the same story of my life.”
Before the opening, Dolev traveled back home for a research trip. “The food scene in Tel Aviv changes on a yearly basis. People come from outside of Israel— tourists, new chefs, different restaurants,” he says. “It’s always changing.” Dolev spent a month eating and staging at restaurants around the city, exploring the markets and restaurants and traveling to Jerusalem. When he came back, he worked with the Sof team to produce some of the same dishes he’d eaten on that trip, as well as ones he remembered from his childhood. His aim was to create a menu that “copied and pasted you” right to Tel Aviv. Often, he called his mother or grandmother for tips on getting things just right.
It’s not just the dishes of Israel that Dolev serves up—it’s the entire culture of eating. “In Israel, we love to share food. When we go to restaurants with friends and family, we never each get our own individual dish. We have a phrase for it, like, let’s go open a table. We sit down, a few friends ordering 10 dishes, 15 dishes, let’s try them all.” To bring that to life, Dolev offers “Yalla Yalla,” a chef ’s table experience at Hamsa. It starts with a few gifts from the kitchen, like their famed off-menu za’atar bread served with dips, then smoky baladi eggplant that’s been roasted and charred, then mixed with tahini and spices; there might be falafel and pita and skewers from the charcoal grill (Dolev loves the king oyster mushroom), followed by lamb spareribs.
When Dolev was growing up, meat was a special occasion, so he’s always been drawn to vegetables because, he says, “a ribeye is just a ribeye. But a beet root? You can make 100 different things with that—raw, cooked, pickled, fried.” That’s especially true when working with a wood-burning oven, which is on display in the kitchen at Hamsa. Even anchored in the meat-loving land of Texas, Dolev is committed to the vegetable-focused dishes he grew up eating.
“The key, to me, is that there is food on the table at all times,” he says. “The idea is to show that we have this feast right now and there’s plenty of food for everyone.”
Must-Try Recipes From Hamsa
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- by Erin Byers Murray