By Jordana Comiter
Chef Zachary Engel skipped culinary school and still won a James Beard Award. Nearly four years ago, he and his business partner, Andrés Clavero, opened Galit in Lincoln Park. Last year, the Middle Eastern restaurant earned a Michelin star, and in January, it celebrated its 1,000th dinner party.
Now, the 34-year-old chef and owner reflects on his journey from his childhood in Cincinnati, Ohio to recent awards.
This interview has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
How did you get into cooking?
I cooked a lot as a teenager because my dad, (a rabbi), worked a lot, and my mom doesn’t enjoy cooking. When I got to Tulane, I cooked at the Hillel and did kosher dinners twice a week while my friends washed dishes for me. I got put in touch with Alon Shaya, (an Israeli-American celebrity chef in New Orleans), and interviewed for my first restaurant job. I was a senior at Tulane with a full course load doing 60-plus hours a week. I started as a pastry assistant making dough and shaping cookies, then started making the pastas. I would stick around after my morning shifts and work the dinner stations and learn from people off the clock without anyone knowing.
I never went to culinary school, so on-the-job training was my biggest source of teaching. I got my bachelor’s degree in business management from Tulane, so I look at cooking in busy, fine-dining restaurants as my extended master’s degree — working for specific people, getting the right amount of mentorship and direct contact with them on a regular basis, cooking what they’re telling me to and figuring out how they are managing their kitchens.
What was the first dish you remember being proud of?
Chicken parm. I evolved in the way I cooked it. When I was 11 or 12, I would get frozen chicken tenders and put my sauce and cheese on and melt it. Then I was like, “How do I do that better?” and “How do I do more of the process?” I started to figure out how to cut, bread and fry chicken; do my own pasta sauce; and do a mix of cheeses. Everything was an experiment, checking variables to get the best final dish. It was the first time I saw it as a thing I was good at and liked to do.
What inspired Galit?
I always wanted to do some sort of Middle Eastern food because I connected with it through traveling to Israel as a kid. We focus on making our service fine dining but casual — like a dinner party. How the space looks is an amalgam of mine and Andrés’ tastes, trying to be nice and elegant, but also classic and timeless. We use a charcoal grill because I wanted wood fire to touch most of the dishes. When we opened, it was more casual with a la carte dining. Then we went through COVID, and now it’s become a fine-dining destination with a four-course “choose your own adventure” menu. We get to do things that we wouldn’t have been able to pull off when we first got here. People needed time to trust the restaurant.
How does your team source ingredients and supplies?
We focus on sustainability and being responsible to the local economies. About 75% of our produce comes from local farmers, producers and local purveyors. We compost and recycle religiously. Just because it’s an expensive, beautiful ingredient, like a fish from Japan, doesn’t mean that I want to be responsible for the carbon footprint attached to it. We buy local fish as much as we can during the season from the Great Lakes. We buy all of our protein, dairy and eggs locally. I work on preservation techniques like pickling, fermenting and dehydrating.
How did your time working and traveling in Israel contribute to the authenticity of Galit?
Living there and experiencing the culture there played a big role in it. But I don’t like the word authentic because I try to be respectful that other people may perceive us as not Middle Eastern enough, or inauthentic because it’s not what they grew up with. I am a Jewish American, but I don’t have family that lives in the Middle East. Andrés is a quarter Palestinian. We don’t call it Israeli, we don’t call it Palestinian, and our wine list reflects that. Our thing is less political and more about the experience. Breaking bread with people should be a joyous occasion no matter the circumstances.
What are Galit’s most popular dishes?
Bubbe’s Brisket Hummus, falafel, carrots and pastrami.
Do you have personal favorites?
Our pastry chef, Mary, makes a crispy phyllo pie for dessert. It’s phyllo soaked in milk, cream and butter. Then, it’s baked so it gets crispy but keeps its creamy, custardy inside. It has whipped cream, walnuts and apples braised in brandy. I also like the falafel, even though it’s been on forever. I’m like, “That’s a perfect dish, no need to change it.”
What is the secret to Galit’s specialty pita?
We use 20% freshly milled flour from a local farm. That’s something that Alon (Shaya) turned me on to. It adds a different texture, provides more nutrients and has healthy fats in it from the seeds; it’s alive and has bacteria in the wheat that when it’s browned up it exists in there like probiotics. It adds flavor and texture to the dough. Once we make the dough, we let it sit for 48 hours in the cooler, letting it slowly start to build and ferment. Of course, the wood fire and salt too.
If you could eat one food for the rest of your life every day, what would it be?
White rice and soy sauce. I love rice, and I love cooking it. I could live off of those two things. It’s not the healthiest thing, but I wouldn’t die. If I had chocolate cake every day, I’d probably die.
What does the future look like for Galit?
We are focused on continuing to cook the best foods we can and be creative with ingredients. Getting our wine program to shine is equally important because there are two elements to the meal. This isn’t a pairing restaurant by any means, and it was never intended to be. It’s more intended to be a “Here’s a bottle of wine for the first part of the meal, enjoy it … another one hits the table for the second part of the meal.” They are from the Middle East and not sold by the glass pretty much anywhere else in the country. Some are higher-end reds from the Middle East that are inaccessible unless you buy the $180-$200 bottle.
Congratulations on receiving a Michelin star last year. What was that like?
Bizarre. Truly unexpected but wonderful. I still don’t really believe it sometimes. When I got the call, I was like, “No way, this isn’t real.” They said, “Yes, this is real.”
It’s not about ego. It’s about being acknowledged for doing what you want to do on your own terms. We’re a nontraditional pick for them, and it’s nice to be recognized without having to do what everyone else does.
Jordana Comiter is a magazine graduate student at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @Jordanacomiter.