If London has Ottolenghi; Paris, Miznon; and Jerusalem, Machneyuda, then Vienna has NENI. Founded in March 2009 by the indefatigable Haya Molcho and her sons, NENI has become the go-to restaurant in Vienna for eclectic Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine. With NENI, the Molchos also became pioneers, introducing the kaleidoscopic Israeli palette to an Austrian audience while transforming Vienna’s historic but slightly staid Naschmarkt from a traditional market into a gastronomic hotspot.
In a city marked by its Turkish-owned kebab stands, NENI has broadened the definition of Levantine food in Vienna beyond that which can be handheld, stuffed inside a pita. Haya has taken the classics and turned up the volume. For example, NENI is famous for its “hamshuka,” hummus that contains a fragrant mound of warmly spiced ground beef and lamb, served with pita. Also beloved is the Jerusalem plate, a mishmash of grilled chicken scented with Oriental spices and fresh herbs, drizzled with tahini and accompanied by house-made hummus and a pita.
“Israeli food is the world kitchen,” Haya told me—an amalgam of the scents and spices of historic Palestine with the flavors and techniques brought by immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean basin. “My parents come from Bucharest. I grew up with sarma, cabbage filled with meat and rice, [seasoned with] just salt and pepper. Today, I am opening up this dish, creating my own. I take the cabbage and burn it a little bit. Then I take lamb and Oriental spices—baharat, ras el hanout—and make like a cake,” layering the cabbage, meat, tomatoes, and rice cooked in lamb stock. “This is Israel. This mixture is Israel.”
“Of our hummus, I can be very proud,” Haya continued. “I think our hummus is really a good hummus. I’m not saying that because I’m arrogant. I’ve tried a lot of hummus.” She thinks that high-quality tahini makes the difference. “Tahini is expensive. You can cheat with tahini—mix it a little bit. We are using the best, most expensive tahini—and a lot of it. It’s like gold.”
NENI am Naschmarkt is the capital of the Molcho family’s culinary empire. Here, tables and chairs beneath cream-colored awnings spill out of the restaurant’s central building, painted in the Naschmarkt’s iconic shade of green. Its enormous square windows eliminate the boundary between interior and exterior. But NENI is expanding. In addition to Tel Aviv Beach—a laidback open-air venue by the Danube Canal that is open during the summer—and a new spot in Munich, opening this month at the 25hours Hotel, they have restaurants in Berlin, Hamburg, and Zürich, each one offering a different concept. NENI has a tie-in with a supermarket chain to sell products like hummus, baba ganoush, and tabbouleh to take home. Haya is also the author of several cookbooks published since 2010, most recently last year’s Haya’s Kitchen: Regional Products, Oriental Recipes. Naturally, she also runs a cooking school.
In other words, NENI is the brand and Haya the first lady of new Israeli cooking in Vienna. In Austria’s capital, “she is a household name,” Severin Corti, food editor and chief restaurant critic for Der Standard told me. There was Middle Eastern food in the city before NENI, to be sure, “but the way Haya did it, the style that she presented, was new. She knew how to make these things stylish and she certainly brought some fresh recipes and dishes. The Israeli touch was not something that was available until she brought it to Vienna.”
Born in Tel Aviv in 1955, Haya spent a good deal of her childhood in Germany, studying psychology in Bremen. In 1978, she married the Israeli mime artist Samy Molcho, settling with him in Vienna. The first seven years of their marriage saw them traveling the world together as Samy toured, which is where Haya’s food journey began. While abroad, Haya “saw that cooking, spices, markets, and food connect you to the local people and give you meaning,” her son, Nuriel, explained. This culinary exploration “gave me more respect for other cultures and other food,” Haya added.
Samy and Haya returned to Vienna, where she raised her four sons, but “I always knew that when the [youngest] would turn 13, I would do my own thing. I didn’t want to be a mother who gave everything to their children and left them with a bad conscience, [wondering] what do we do with the mother now?” First, she started a catering business, which gained a reputation in Vienna not only for delicious food but beautiful, elaborate decorations. Then, after a stroke of luck when someone offered Haya a pitch in the Naschmarkt, came NENI, whose look and taste are a product of Haya and her sons’ vision.
The Molchos have not experienced any problems as Israeli restaurateurs in Vienna. They thought about changing the name of Tel Aviv Beach at one point but decided any fears Haya had were not a good enough reason to erase the place’s identity. Rather, Haya’s greater obstacle was being a female entrepreneur in the male-dominated Naschmarkt. The male stallholders were jealous, suspicious. “Maybe they were afraid I would take their customers away,” she said. Now those same traders thank her for bringing clients to what was, back in 2009, the dead end of the Naschmarkt. “A woman had to come here to tell them how things could be better here.”
NENI is named for Haya’s four sons: Nuriel, Elior, Nadiv, and Ilan. It started as and remains a family affair. “Without any idea of how to run a restaurant, we said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’ It was very naïve, actually,” Nuriel said. “My mother was in the kitchen, and we did staffing, the bar, the finances. We all rotated and mixed.” Today, it’s more structured: Nuriel is responsible for marketing and public relations, Elior handles the bureaucratic and legal work, and Ilan does the finances and is in charge of the production of NENI’s supermarket products. (The fourth brother, Nadiv, is an actor and stand-up comedian.)
“One thing that is super-important is that it’s not a young generation stepping into another generation’s work,” Nuriel said when I asked about the dynamics of working a family business. “We started the whole thing from the ground up together, and there has been a mutual respect from day one. We are all equal partners.” Had they all been cooks, “it would have been a catastrophe,” Haya added, but with their clearly delineated roles, “it’s a good thing to work with family. It’s not just Haya telling people what’s what. It’s everybody together.”
It will be a busy 2018. After opening their place in Munich this month, they will open new restaurants are in Paris, Amsterdam, and the Spanish island of Majorca. Next September, the whole family is publishing, in German and English, Tel Aviv by NENI, a mélange of NENI ideas, essays on food, and recipes from Tel Aviv based on interviews with 20 different chefs there. (They continue to seek an American publisher.)
“Everyday we are worried,” Haya said about the age-old problem of having restaurants in countries where either she or her boys cannot be there all the time. These passion projects take them all over Europe, but when they are all in Vienna, you will find them here at NENI am Naschmarkt, where it all started. “Every day, I love to come to NENI,” Haya concluded, when I asked which part of her empire brings her the greatest pleasure. “I love my cooks. I love making new dishes. I love it. This is the thing I am living for. I love to cook.”
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
Liam Hoare is a freelance writer based in Vienna, where he is the Europe Editor for Moment and a frequent contributor to Tablet.