Avi Shemtov opened the Chubby Chickpea in Canton eight years ago, specializing in kosher Middle Eastern cuisine. He later took the restaurant on the road, turning it into a popular food truck that still makes the rounds. This month, he’ll host a brunch series at the Dorchester Brewing Co. every Sunday with lamb belly hash, challah French toast, and his signature shakshuka (eggs poached in spicy tomato sauce). And on Jan. 28, he’ll appear at the South End’s Wink & Nod for a one-night pop-up feast highlighting what he calls “modern, progressive Israeli food.”
What’s the first restaurant you ever ate at in Boston? Pho Pasteur, when it was in Allston. My dad came over from Israel in his early 20s and opened restaurants in the Boston area. One was in Allston, a hole in the wall place right on Brighton Avenue. That area was near and dear to his heart. From age 5 to high school, every two Sundays, we’d go in from Sharon and eat at Pho Pasteur, before Vietnamese food was cool. He’d try to find where to buy sriracha, when it was just this bottle with a rooster on it.
What’s one thing you’d like to fix about the restaurant industry here? I like the Boston restaurant scene. But I think the scene is too “new”-centric; I think that whatever is new and exciting gets a lot of attention. From a food perspective, it de-incentivizes being good at what you do and incentivizes constantly changing what you do.
How has the restaurant landscape changed since you arrived in Boston? Chickpea opened eight years ago. Since that time, it’s crazy how much has changed. I’m biased since I started by owning a food truck. I think street food and food trucks have driven this really progressive food scene. Eight years ago, you would have looked at the scene and said it’s weird, Boston doesn’t have much ethnic food. Now, every place that’s hot is very much, at least in their ethos, trying to be ethnic.
What other restaurants do you visit? My favorite in the world is Sweet Basil. And Juniper. I’m a big Dave Becker fan. I love the Smoke Shop, I love Little Donkey, and I would say I’m a fan of some really dive-y places, like the Avenue. It’s a real dive at the corner of Harvard and Commonwealth avenues.
What’s your earliest food memory that made you think: “I want to work in restaurants”? My mom was a social worker, My dad owned restaurants. I have a twin. My sister and I were always in the basement of whatever restaurant my dad owned, with a couch and a TV, because my parents worked like 80 hours per week. It was just — that was what life was. My dad is a pure immigrant. [He] always used to tell me, “You always want to work for yourself. You always want to be the guy writing the check, not the guy waiting for the check.” I always assumed this is what growing up was.
What’s the worst restaurant experience you’ve ever had? During the 2007 American League Championship [Series], I went to Boston Beer Works at Fenway with my then-girlfriend, now my wife. I never send food back. I just don’t do that. We waited for an hour and a half for a table, understandably. The place was packed, and we spent almost $100 at the bar. We ordered burgers. My burger came, and there was a hair on it. My girlfriend shamed me into sending it back. My girlfriend’s burger was straight-up bloody. I eat steak blue, but I will not eat a burger bloody. The third burger came, and it’s a totally different burger, a plain burger. A manager came out, got down on one knee, eye to eye with me, and asked if I could cut it for him. I started yelling at him in front of the crowded restaurant.
How could Boston become a better food city? It could be a cooler food scene if Boston people wouldn’t try to be like other people who cook in Boston. You look at the scene, at Instagram, and it’s not hard to find out why some other place is doing something that some other place is doing. It was Asian fusion five or six years ago. Now it’s becoming Middle Eastern and Israeli food. I think there’s a real value in trying to be the guy or girl who’s trying to do the next thing.
Name three adjectives for Boston diners. Hungry, inquisitive, and fierce. The thing about Boston diners is, they love you or they hate you. They let you know.
What’s the most overdone trend right now? I would love to not see shakshuka on everybody’s menu. It’s such a weird thing for people to be running with. I’m self-serving in saying that. But where does this make sense? What part of [your restaurant] is this?
What are you reading? I just ordered the “Fire and Fury” book about [Donald] Trump! And I just read “Playing for Keeps,” about the economic side of Michael Jordan’s career.
How’s your commute? I’m always on the road. I drive five different vehicles at any one point, because of catering vans, my food truck, my beer truck, and my personal vehicle. I live in Sharon.
What’s the one food you never want to eat again? Liver, when it’s by itself. I despise it. I want to like it.
What kind of restaurant is Boston missing right now? We’ve got great pizza, we’ve got great Italian, we’ve got great barbecue now — we have great Asian food of all kinds, great Middle Eastern food. Do we have great Indian food? Maybe we’re missing great Indian food.
‘Eight years ago, you would have . . . said . . . Boston doesn’t have much ethnic food. Now, every place that’s hot is . . . at least in their ethos, trying to be ethnic.’
What’s your most missed Boston restaurant? I miss the Rattlesnake. I used to go and sit on the roof deck in the late afternoon, early evening. I wish it were still open.
Who was your most memorable customer? I had a customer who changed the course of my career. I measure myself on this. We were kosher at the time, then gave it up. And there are these customers who grab you and make you theirs. In some weird ways, they don’t like you, but they’re coming to you because it’s all they have. It’s really hard.
My son was like less than a year old, the rabbi who supervised my food truck was late, my generator wouldn’t start. It’s like 15 degrees. I was late. This guy is standing in the cold. I knew him from him having complained before.
He looks me in the face and says, “You have to learn to be on time.”
I tried to explain my morning. He didn’t care, and we had a sort of friendly but sort of not friendly conversation. Then he posted an open letter he’d written to me on this negative blog. He’s always blogging negative things.
At the time, it made me angry. I felt he’d attacked me. I was aggressive back. We had this back and forth.
[Today], I’m just as stressed as I always was, but I know it’s not that the customer isn’t always right — but they always have the right. You have to own up to the fact that you let them down. You made them a promise, but you failed to live up to it. [They] pay my bills. They’re my boss. We’re not equal. I gave that up by stepping onto the other side of the counter. This customer taught me that.
If you had to eat your last meal in Boston, what would it be? Juniper in Wellesley. I would order everything.Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com.