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Lev Kitchen Opens in Ithaca

Owners to Take on a Sustainable and Immigrant-Friendly Approach

Lev Kitchen under construction on the Commons, located between resturants Simeon’s and Thompson and Bleecker

Ithaca, NY— If you’re walking down the Commons, you may come across a new light blue storefront. Located in the space where the former ramen restaurant Bol used to be, a new restaurant called Lev Kitchen opened today. This restaurant aims to bring a fresh cuisine to the area, combining elements specifically from foods from countries in the Middle East such as Israel, Lebanon and Syria.

However, Lev Kitchen isn’t just another new small restaurant in Ithaca’s downtown hub. Cornell alumni and owners Ben Plotke and his wife Yen have designed Lev Kitchen to exist under a business model that explores what it means to be a “sustainable” food operation, as well as an operation that is welcoming to all, including refugees and recent immigrants in the greater Ithaca area who may be looking for work.

“We want to be kind of a better employer, kind of running on a sustainable model,” Yen said. “So, we know that we’re a small player in this big restaurant industry and whatever changes and things that we do might be very minute, but what we want to do is be a voice and to show people that ‘hey, you can do this right.’”

Plotke was inspired to create such a restaurant from two specific experiences. First, his years spent working with refugees at a nonprofit called Sanctuary Kitchen in New Haven, Connecticut, where he grew up. The nonprofit works to help recently resettled refugees and immigrants obtain jobs and enter the culinary industry.

Second, Plotke was inspired by a culinary-focused Birthright trip to Israel. In Israel, Plotke tried a range of Israeli and Middle Eastern foods and tried Malawach for the first time at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem.

“Take those two things combined, that’s basically Lev Kitchen,” Plotke said. “It’s Malawach and we’re continuing to try to work with refugees and recently resettled individuals.”

Malawach can be best described as a crispy, flaky flatbread. Like many who try Malawach and go to the lively Mahane Yehuda market in Israel for the first time, Plotke wished something like it existed in the United States and here in Ithaca. 

“What’s interesting is Malawach is super popular in Israel, but it does not exist in the United States,” Plotke said. “It’s sold in grocery stores, in frozen markets in Israel, but it’s not really available in the United States.”

Now, Plotke will be making Malawach from scratch as it is set to be the centerpiece of the flavor at Lev Kitchen.

“There’s a little bit of added pressure because we’re bringing something to market that a lot of people are familiar with and they have very positive experiences with back in Israel when they had it, so now we have to make sure we don’t let them down when they have it here in Ithaca, New York,” Plotke said.

Lev Kitchen’s menu, with the majority of their dishes including Malawach

With the mission to employ refugees or recently settled individuals and immigrants, Lev Kitchen is specifically partnering with local immigration-focused organizations including Ithaca Welcomes Refugees (IWR), Catholic Charities of Tompkins/Tioga and Open Doors English, which provides English classes for recently resettled individuals and immigrants.

“We’ve met with all the organizations here that support refugees,” Plotke said. “They basically funnel us individuals who are interested in working with us.”

Plotke and Yen have also connected with the Tompkins Economic Development office. Through this office, there’s funding available for Lev Kitchen to do paid training for individuals for up to ten weeks.

“It’s basically training, on the job training, paid by Tompkins County,” Plotke said. “We can help them get up to speed on English, on culinary math, you know how you deal with scaling recipes up and down, even just learning what tablespoons and such and such are because the whole rest of the world uses the metric system and we use wonky measuring cups.”
Plotke said having such a resource available through Tompkins Economic Development will be especially beneficial in the long run.
“That’s a great resource because it allows us to bring in individuals, put them in a real training program and then on the other end have them be just as capable as any other employee basically that we have here,” Plotke said.
So far, Lev Kitchen has hired and is training one woman from Angola who came to the United States a few years ago. They have also hired a woman from Brazil, as a referral from Open Doors English. Back in Brazil, this individual was a trained psychologist with a secondary business degree in organizational behavior. Plotke said she hasn’t fully developed her English language skills and here in the U.S. system her degrees are considered obsolete.
“She’s in a tricky situation where she sort of has to start over,” Plotke said. “So, we hired her as well and we’re actually hoping to train her long term to be a real corporate team member because she’s really smart, she has the ability, she just needs some time to learn the language and get a little bit of an understanding of how American business operates.
Art at Lev Kitchen, including a painting of Shakshuka, a popular dish in Israel that traditionally consists of eggs in a sauce of tomatoes, olive oil, peppers, onion and garlic.
Casey Verderosa, Executive Director of Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, spoke on the reasoning behind IWR deciding to partner with Lev Kitchen.
“We found their approach to not only offer work but a model which will grant employees more autonomy in business decisions and maximize their compensation to be a really responsible and respectful way to approach hiring,” Verderosa said. “It’s good to be able to connect the people we serve with employers who will have their interests at heart.”
Paige Rich is the Program Coordinator of the Immigrant Services Program at Catholic Charities. Her role at Catholic Charities focuses on job development and case management and now she is working directly with Ben and Yen to refer immigrants and refugees for employment.
Rich said she is excited for what Lev Kitchen can bring to the Ithaca area.
“I just think that it’s a great concept and it’s something that would really fill a niche here in terms of cuisine and also the unique opportunities that they’re planning to provide for immigrants and for refugees in Ithaca,” Rich said. “I think that it really can fill a gap and it seems like they’re really trying to be a part of the community which is great.”
Rich also spoke on Ithaca’s position as a place that welcomes all with open arms.
“Sometimes people say ‘oh the restaurant market is saturated,’ but it’s really not. There’s always room for…it’s kind of like a parallel between immigration because you know there’s always room for more,” Rich said. “I think Ithaca can really benefit from more restaurants and more immigrants and more refugees.”
In terms of long-term goals Ben and Yen see for Lev Kitchen, the two hope to expand Lev Kitchen someday.
“We hope that this will eventually go into nationwide expansion because this is kind of like a pilot location to test out the model and see if it’s something people want and welcome,” Yen said.
Plotke emphasized Lev Kitchen’s mission to be more than just another restaurant in the food industry.
“I think you know there are a lot of restaurants that exist without purpose,” Plotke said. “We’re trying not to do that, we’re trying to have a reason to exist and I think that is going to attract a different set of candidates and people interested in working with us.”
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