On a Saturday evening in downtown Los Angeles, as the somewhat surreal hush started to descend on Broadway following the weekend daytime hustle, diners gathered around an open kitchen at Umamicatessen, the flagship outpost of the reigning champ of nouveau burger chains.
For a few months this year, the counter at the rear of the retro-modern space housed a program dubbed “The Residency,” a rotation of guest chefs. Or, in current foodie lingo, pop-up dinners. On this night, Sharone Hakman, smiling and full of confidence, was running the show for a multicourse, grilled food-intensive meal dubbed BBQ Elevated. Neither a restaurant chef nor a member of the ranks of the many well-established catering machines in this town, Hakman falls somewhere in the range of food entrepreneur and media personality. He’s been a contestant on Fox’s “MasterChef” amateur cooking competition show and has parlayed this exposure into other TV appearances. Most notably, his barbecue sauces — the line is produced in Southern California — are stocked on the shelves in both niche specialty shops and major grocery stores in almost all 50 states. Hakman’s model-quality good looks and social ease certainly help bolster his brand, too.
Not exactly the course this former financial planner and yeshiva student had in mind, but at this point, the U.S.-born Hakman can’t imagine anything different. “I had my moments when I was wearing tefillin, and I had my moments when I was eating bacon cheeseburgers,” he recalls of straddling the Orthodox and mainstream secular worlds while growing up in L.A.’s Mid-City, where he still lives. Hakman’s grandparents are Holocaust survivors from Poland, and his parents are from Israel, where he spent every summer as a child.
While in the trenches of the financial world, which was “not my passion,” Hakman, 32, would “come home from work stressed out. I’d start cooking in the kitchen, and it started growing on me.” He sensed this particular skill set might be the beginning of something more serious than a hobby. So, in 2009, Hakman took a leave of absence from his job and made arrangements to spend several months in Israel, followed by a stint in Italy apprenticing in restaurant kitchens to develop his culinary skills. The pending arrival of his first child (he and his wife now have a 3 1/2-year-old and a 1-year-old) scrambled some of those plans, but Hakman nevertheless took the time off as an opportunity for a reboot.
After a month in Israel, Hakman officially resigned from his job at the beginning of 2010. He began to mine “an entrepreneurial spirit that I never tapped into” and got to work on business plans related to food, while reflecting on a continual source of inspiration — his grandmother.
“She was that bubbe who never left the kitchen,” he said. As for his favorite family traditions, “Shabbat was always special. There was something about my grandmother making the gefilte fish from scratch, and smelling the matzah ball soup, and feeling that comfort.” Comfort, he believes, is a quality too often missing from restaurant dining experiences in Los Angeles. “So many restaurants are cutting edge, but I never want to come back,” he said. “What’s that X-factor as to why? It all comes down to comfort. It’s what you want to come back to. That was the best lesson my grandmother taught me.”
Now, with TV gigs and a growing barbecue sauce empire to manage, Hakman also operates a catering service on the side, all while thinking about next steps and opportunities. His “MasterChef” performance helped convince him that leaving the safety of his corporate job was the right move, further proving to himself that “I have what it takes” to work professionally in food.
Hakman hasn’t set his sights on creating a restaurant yet, but says, “Pop-ups are a great way for me to have fun with what I want to do at that moment.” At his Umamicatessen diners, his twist on barbecue ranged from subtle touches to assertive textures and bold flavors. The meal progressed from a delicate salad combining watermelon, feta, grilled haloumi cheese, radish and Thai basil, building to a grand finale of a formidable, succulent beef rib that had been smoked for more than eight hours and paired with one of his signature Hak’s BBQ sauces. Dessert was his made-from-scratch riff on s’mores.
When it comes to Thanksgivukkah — the Chanukah/Thanksgiving overlap that has portmanteau fans all abuzz and which won’t occur again until the year 79811, Hakman has big plans for his L.A.-based family. If you’re looking for ways to combine meat from a large bird with fried carb-based casings, try Hakman’s turkey balls, rolled in Japanese-style Panko breadcrumbs and served with purple potatoes, shiitake mushrooms and Kiddush-wine jus. While latkes and mashed potatoes might duke it out for a place on the table or peacefully coexist, Hakman suggests another alternative — his roasted carrot puree recipe.
So what does Hakman most look forward to? “Safta’s sufganiyot,” he says of his grandmother’s jelly doughnuts. “She makes them from scratch and fries them à la minute. They are dangerous.”
Sounds like holiday temptation and reward of the best kind.
PANKO-CRUSTED TURKEY BALLS WITH PURPLE POTATOES, SHIITAKE MUSHROOMS AND KIDDUSH-WINE JUS
This is a great way to use your Thanksgivukkah leftovers for the next seven nights of Chanukah.
1 cup turkey drippings (refrigerate so the fat
separates and hardens, and then remove)
1 cup sweet Kiddush wine
Salt and pepper
1 pound shredded or pulled turkey (dark meat)
1 1/2 cups flour
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup Panko breadcrumbs
1 cup small shiitake mushrooms
4 to 5 purple potatoes, quartered
4 cups grapeseed oil for deep-frying
Rosemary sprigs (for garnish)
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Heat turkey drippings on low and allow to reduce by half. Do the same for the wine. Once both have reduced, combine the two liquids and allow to reduce by a quarter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Roll the pulled turkey meat into 3/4-inch. Place on a baking sheet and refrigerate for about an hour so they firm up and are easier to work with.
Coat the turkey balls with the flour, then the beaten egg, then the breadcrumbs. Place in refrigerator again until the coating adheres.
Toss mushrooms and potatoes in small amount of oil and season with salt and pepper. Bake in oven for 30 minutes or until tender.
Deep-fry turkey balls in oil heated to 350 F until golden brown. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Arrange turkey balls on a platter with mushrooms and potatoes. Drizzle with the wine jus and garnish with rosemary sprigs.
Makes 4 servings.
CARROT AND CHAMOMILE PURÉE
4 cups sliced carrots
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
1 cup broth
2 chamomile teabags
Preheat oven to 375 F.
Toss carrots in olive oil; add salt, pepper and sugar. Roast in preheated oven for about 30 minutes or until tender. Don’t allow carrots to brown too much.
Heat broth, add teabags, and simmer for at least an hour.
Transfer carrots and tea-infused broth into a food processor or blender. Process until mixture reaches an airy consistency. Adjust seasonings to taste.
Makes 4 servings.