Chef Shay Lavi’s food, which includes Turkish, Libyan, Moroccan, Persian, and Israeli accents, is as diverse as his heritage. Half-Libyan and half-Turkish, Lavi grew up in Israel in Or Yehuda, a city in the Tel Aviv district. His paternal grandmother, one of his most significant cooking mentors, often prepared meals for large groups, and that inclination for hospitality got under Lavi’s skin at a young age. “I grew up in a house where food was everything. There was always food, for better or worse, making people happier,” Lavi says.
When Lavi finished his service in the Israeli Navy, he decided to break from the family construction business and opened a kids’ toy store. But Lavi dreamed of becoming a chef. Everyone in his family advised against it, except his wife, Karen, who told him: “If all you want to do is cook, why don’t you just get rid of everything else that occupies you and just cook and be happy?”
Lavi sold everything and jumped into cooking professionally. “It was tough because everything I knew about cooking was wrong because whatever my grandma, my mom, and my aunts used to do is just wrong. I [wanted] to learn how to make it right. So I started concentrating on fine dining, buying books, learning, homeschooling myself, and then executing whatever I [wasn’t] learning at home in restaurants.”
While he was working in Tel Aviv restaurant kitchens, Karen got pregnant with their first child. “I decided [then] that I was not going to stay in Israel,” he says. “There’s too much for too little. I wanted a better life for us and better future for my kids to come.” Karen’s father convinced the couple to move to Atlanta, and after arriving, Lavi and his wife began eating at every restaurant they could to get the lay of the land. He landed a job at Ecco in Midtown, but adjusting to American kitchens proved difficult due to different service systems and a language barrier.
“Every time I got a ticket it took me a few seconds to just read it. It frustrated me so bad,” he explains. “And the way the [kitchen] line looks here is way different. Cooks don’t have the freedom to create, the freedom to speak up. It’s here’s your dish, here’s your square, build it the way you choose. Where’s the fun?”
Despite his frustrations, Lavi continued to land cooking jobs at restaurants such as Noble Fin and Wrecking Bar, where he met chef Terry Koval, whom he now calls one of his best friends. “The cooks [at Wrecking Bar] are amazing,” Lavi says. “They know how to handle food. If a cook has a problem with a dish, they’re going to tweak it. They’re going to work on it.”
While Lavi felt understood and free to improvise at Wrecking Bar, he still felt a calling to start his own enterprise. He says he’s just not a chef that’s meant to cook someone else’s food. Again, Karen provided a source of clarity and encouragement. “People will get it,” Lavi recalls her telling him, “Sometimes when you talk, you sound ridiculous, but it’s okay. Your plate talks. Talk through the plate.”
Starting his own catering company, Let’s Eat, allowed Lavi to connect back to what made him want to start cooking in the first place. “You don’t cook because you want to earn a lot of money,” he says. “You cook because you love it.”
Lavi’s grill setup, featured above at a pool party, is not the kind you see at most backyard Atlanta barbecues. He commissioned a welder to build the custom rectangle grated grill to fit his height. It’s capable of getting intensely hot, which was one of Lavi’s specifications. Lavi transports this grill wherever he cooks, and estimates he can serve 500 guests an entire meal of salads, main courses, and dessert.
Lavi grills a variety of meats on thick metal skewers, but he’s a vegetable fanboy, and most of his meals are only 30 percent protein. His events often have tables overflowing with platters of colorful salads, vegetable plates, hummus, hefty cubes of feta drizzled with olive oil, pickles, and mountains of grilled pita. “That’s the kind of food I want to cook today,” Lavi says. “It’s the kind of food that makes you feel cozy. It’s not really heavy. I want you to experience a lot of stuff, so instead of composing one dish, I’m composing a table.”
Lavi seems well on his way to securing a place in Atlanta’s culinary community. In addition to his catering business, he was hired by chef Ryan Smith and the Giving Kitchen to cook a surprise dinner for the entire Staplehouse crew, which he says was a fantastic experience. “Ryan loves the food I do. I just made a bunch of stuff for them that I would cook for my family,” he says. “Getting reactions from the best restaurant in Georgia? They’re pretty awesome.” Lavi also appeared at the tasting tents at this year’s Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, where he served slow-cooked lamb tucked into wedges of cloud-like pita bread.
What comes next is his biggest move yet: Lavi recently acquired a restaurant space in downtown Atlanta on Hurt Plaza near Georgia State University. At the upcoming Rozina Bakehouse & Coffee, which he named after his grandmother, he plans to serve Arabic, Turkish, Greek, and Italian pastries. A variety of tiny sandwiches such as confit shrimp with avocado aioli, baguette sandwiches, egg dishes, and seasonal salads will round out the menu, alongside juices and coffee. The cafe is set to open in about three months. Lavi says he will still cater offices around the cafe and plans to host special themed events and private in-home dinner parties where fire, meat, and vegetables will be solidly the spotlight.
Update 8/9/18: This story initially reported the name of Lavi’s new restaurant as Cafe Roza, which was his original name for the cafe. Since publication, the name has officially been changed to Rozina Bakehouse & Coffee.