Hospitality is simply in the blood for some – an undeniable inclination to make people feel welcome and comfortable in your home.
“We’re people’s people,” says Ben Haikin as he and his brothers Din and Bar gather round a table at Shenkin Kitchen in Enmore, dad Arie joining the party.
The three brothers are explaining the evolution of not only the Shenkin cafes but also the Kürtosh bakeries, which started trading in Randwick, Surry Hills and Crows Nest in 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively.
To avoid confusion and the inference that this is one big family empire, it’s necessary to untangle just who is involved with what. Brothers Din and Bar are currently the driving force behind Shenkin, which includes the original cafe in Erskineville, which they opened in 2007, the espresso bar in Newtown (July 2012) and most recently Shenkin Kitchen in Enmore (April 2013). You’ll find them both working the floor on a daily basis and moving between the three cafes, cranking out coffees and delivering flaky malawach pastry rounds with hummus, spiced coriander dip and boiled eggs, or fresh baked pita bread with labne and zingy za’atar spices to tables.
Ben and oldest brother Tom – along with pastry chef Jean-Marc Masset – are the team selling cake by the kilo at the Kürtosh bakery cafes in Randwick, Surry Hills and Crows Nest. They’re known for their opulent displays of slab cakes and the theatre of freshly baked cylindrical Hungarian kürtosh pastries, rolled before your eyes and cooked to order in a special oven in the front window.
Both the Shenkin cafes and the Kürtosh bakeries embody a dynamic combination of distinctive food, excellent coffee, warm, rustic interiors and inviting service that marks them as unique for different reasons. At Shenkin, dishes that have earned a reputation include the weekend special of jachnun (an Israeli bread and egg dish cooked overnight for 12 hours) and the smoky eggplant sabih pastry, filled with hummus and boiled egg. Each dish draws from the traditional flavours and techniques of the boys’ family heritage, and is delivered in spaces that flaunt warm wood, up-cycled materials and plenty in the way of nooks and crannies.
At Kürtosh, the feel is less eclectic, drawing on a sleek and roomy fit-out with raw brick, intricate blue patterned tiles, wood finishes and pastel plates. You’re likely to be drawn to the huge slabs of cake, like honey and nuts on sweet pastry or peanut butter and ganache slab, which are sold cut to the size you wish. But despite the individual characteristics of both venues, it’s clear that the gift for hospitality is an inherited Haikin gene.
“For as long as I can remember, there [have always been] kitchens everywhere,” says Din as Bar nods in agreement. “Kitchens and bakeries and the smell of cooking. I could never get away from it. I absorbed it.”
It’s hard to keep track of the conversation as the three Israeli-born brothers pick up the threads of one-another’s thoughts, adding their own comments along the way and creating a sense of camaraderie.
The family bakery still exists in Petah Tikva, almost right in the centre of Israel. “Our grandmother on dad’s side ran [it] with dad’s sister and dad’s brother for 46 years,” says Din. “They had pastries there that you remember your whole life.”
Clearly these are memories that inform the kitchens at both businesses, even today. “Dad worked there too,” adds Din. “But he started his own business at a young age, so he moved on. He had a big function centre in the forest. It held around 3000 people and it was pretty cool.” Dad began working in hospitality at the tender age of 13, according to the boys, and starting young is a trend that has continued in the family.
“We all started working with our parents at the function centre, doing the dishes and helping dad in whatever way we could.” Eventually they sold the function centre and the family moved to Australia, the brothers coming in stages, but never growing apart.
In 2007, they opened their original Sydney cafe, Sweetness, in Erskineville. “When we started, we had six hands and one month to build,” says Ben, noting that originally he and Bar were running the floor and dad was out the back working in the kitchen.
“Dad couldn’t read English at the time,” says Ben with grin. “And we didn’t have a computer system then so it was all hand dockets.” Luckily at least one of the staff could translate for Arie, taking orders in English and writing them down in Hebrew.
But it wasn’t until the family decided to make the most of their collective heritage – changing the cafe name and reworking the menu – that Shenkin was born. “Shenkin is a very hip area in Tel Aviv,” says Ben, who the brothers credit with choosing the new name. “It’s like Newtown in Sydney. There’s a big cafe culture there.”
Din jumps back in. “When we started doing shakshuka [eggs poached in rich tomato sauce] no one else did it. Now everyone does it, but still dad’s recipe is the best. No one can do it better,” he tells of their signature dish before continuing on with the family’s story. In time, Ben left Shenkin and joined oldest brother Tom along with pastry chef Jean-Marc Masset to open a completely different venture in the form of Kürtosh.
“Tom came to me and said: ‘We’re thinking about doing a patisserie, are you interested?’ And I was vey excited.” When they looked into the Hungarian street snack kürtoskalács (roughly translating as chimney cakes and often called kürtosh) things really began to take shape. “I saw the theatre of when they make it and it was just amazing. We ended up booking a trip to Hungary with Jean-Marc because we wanted the authentic experience before we jumped in. You can’t tell a story or serve something you don’t know really well.”
Enthusiasm shines in his eyes. “We went to this village 40 minutes outside of Budapest and it was amazing. We were lucky enough to meet an old Hungarian couple who showed us everything,” says Ben before pointing out that the idea of the fresh-made kürtosh worked well with their concept of selling cakes by the kilo. “It’s really old fashioned – no one else does it. So we got in contact with the guy that makes the kürtosh ovens and we thought we’d walk into a big factory, but it was his garage with his little dog running around.”
The Kürtosh team still uses the family recipe that they were gifted with on that trip, the only variation being the addition of Nutella if you order the chocolate version.
Indeed, having respect for one’s teachers is a huge part of the brothers’ philosophy and attitude. “When it comes to service and the whole procedure, I’ve seen it through my dad and grandma and looking at the people that have done it right,” says Din.
“When Ben and Bar and I started getting into coffee we were lucky to be hanging out with great baristas… We always looked to people who knew what they were doing.”
It’s this strong commitment to delivering the best possible experience as well as a rock solid work ethic that has seen both entities thrive in their own right. “I don’t do it for the money,” says Din with a grin. “No matter what, I would still get up every morning and go to work…I think it’s important for the owner to be present. And if you have a day off it feels like a year!” he jokes.
The family hospitality roots might reach back to the bakery overseas, but the brothers are continually looking forward, always planning ways to improve what they do at home in Sydney. And in amongst it all, there is still always time for a family dinner – the brothers are unanimous on that.
“We grew up very close to each other, always ups and downs,” says Bar before Ben adds: “Of course we thought we’d stay close…it’s all about family.” As you would expect, the boys are regulars at one another’s cafes, dropping in for a chat or a chance to see what’s new at each place.
“I go to Shenkin at least once a week,” smiles Ben. “There’s no other Israeli food that I’ll have and we get to see the family. There’s nothing like it.”
The same goes for Din and Bar, who drop into Kürtosh whenever they get the chance. And dad? “Yep, he’s still in the kitchen at Shenkin, every day,” says Ben.
129 Enmore Road, Enmore
(02) 9550 5511