The Long Form Hang With The Queen Of Yafo, Shani Ahiel
Mitte- Shani Ahiel is a tiny person, with an enormous, beguiling and charming personality and all of those qualities are present in vivid color in her restaurant, Yafo. Yafo is a two year old joint that defies standard categorization, if anything it can be called an eat-and-hang. When you walk in to Yafo you are immediately struck by it’s energy, because it doesn’t feel like a restaurant, it feels like a house party where everyone is on the list and you never know what is going to happen. And Shani is in the middle of it all. A sort of circus ring master, she masterfully slips in and out of managing the circus acts, fending off lions, corralling elephants onto beach balls and the like, and suddenly slipping into the role of a good-timer, sitting among the audience, enjoying the show that she is actually responsible for choreographing. She is, without a doubt, the mighty Queen of Yafo, and the striking black locks of curled hair flowing atop her head could be even be considered her crown.
Shani opened Yafo a few years ago a just off of Rosenthaler Platz with her partners and slowly but surely it developed a cult following. It can’t really be called a restaurant, and it can’t really be called a bar or a lounge, or maybe it could be called all of those things at once. It is a new concept and yet it has a familiar feeling. It is with out a doubt something Berlin yearns for. With Yafo it is as though Shani has identified what it means to produce “the long form hang.” The food is simple and awesome with a distinct mediterranean flavor spectrum but you couldn’t call it Israeli per se. Yafo is like Shani, special, charming and full of a contagious energy that makes you want to hang out and talk a while, which is exactly what Mr. Eatler was lucky enough to do and took the opportunity to ask some probing questions about Shani and Yafo.
So, what’s the story?
The usual story I tell. I used to work in production, and some service in Tel Aviv. The war began. I finished my studies…. I was awful at school. I could never just sit down… I handed in my final paper and with in a week my partner and I packed up and moved to Berlin.
How was your Berlin transition?
For the first three months here we were drunk. I was like ‘c’mon we’re gunna die, lets order another bottle.’ And for a long time it killed me that I there was nothing here with food, no bar with food. From my point of view, to go to a place… I don’t want to choose. I hate having to choose and I hate having to commit to dinner, or to cocktails. I wanted everything together. I only found places that were either or, either straightforward restaurants, or bars that have no food and usually no music. So, as I am who I am, I would happy to come to a place to have a drink, to eat, to keep drinking. Why do I have to move? You know, especially in the winter. In Tel Aviv it was hard for me to move from one place to another, so imagine how I felt in the Berlin winter.
We had a war about bringing hummus here or not.
Because we really didn’t want to be an Israeli place. Because the sea is the sea you know. I’m not a Jew, I’m not an Arab, I’m not a Yemenite, I’m not an Israeli, I am Shani. It’s difficult for me because I feel very attached to my culture, but I’m also very cautious. The sign in the entrance is in Arabic. The menu is in Arabic and English, and German, and Hebrew. I really didn’t want to fall into a type cast of “an Israeli place” because the idea was really not to create an Israeli cuisine based menu, but to use good products, which we import from Lebanon, olive oil, tahini, arak…
Then what was the goal?
It was really to make a revolution in Berlin. Our chef, who designed our menu is an amazing guy, who is crazy about what he does. He really makes the most amazing food I’ve ever eaten. So for me he really hit the bull’s-eye. I told him that I didn’t want anything fancy-shmancy, simple food, good source material. And I always said that I didn’t want to take that Tel Aviv energy of cuisine that takes itself too seriously. We’re not saving lives here, we’re here to host. We are working with human material, so the most important thing to me, that I always say in interviews, I don’t care if you fucked up, if you spilled something, or got the wrong order, but when someone comes in, you say hello, you smile. When a guest comes in they get a glass of water, some olives… I’m a person that likes to communicate, and have the basic positive feeling that we can work it out by communicating with each other.
Did you find any difficulty with the culture clash?
At first this was difficult with some of my neighbors because for them it’s about the rules. The ones that are written down. It drove me crazy that I would speak with a real live human being, in front of me and they would be completely closed off to anything that I was saying. Don’t misunderstand, the bulk of our neighbors are amazing and we love them and they love us. But there are a few that just don’t. We invited everyone to a dinner, some came, and some didn’t, but they just sit and talk with you like everything is okay, and then they go and call the police. The first time the police came here I was terrified, I thought, ‘oh my God, the police, there must be a bomb in the restaurant, what happened’ and the moment they told me they came because of the noise I was in shock. I thought, really, that’s why you came, because of the noise? I just didn’t understand this concept, calling the police because of noise, because after all, its not as if I’m managing Berghain here. You know, it’s just a restaurant, but we were the new guys, so I guess that’s why.
So what do you think brought you here?
I think that being here and opening this restaurant was a direct result of the war. Wanting to get out of Israel, and wanting to find myself. So for the first few months I was out of it, but then I was obsessed with finding myself and figuring it all out.
Was restauranteering always something you saw yourself doing?
In all of my wildest dreams I never thought I would end up owning a restaurant. But my partner wanted to open a club, so I thought that I would find some kind of day job. It never occurred to me that I could work for myself. But then all of a sudden we heard about this place through a friend. It was built by an acquaintance and they didn’t really figure out what to do with location. The bar was there, the kitchen was there, so I just knew it had to happen when I saw it.
And you’re happy with it?
I’m really happy with Yafo because I really found myself, because you know, I really didn’t find my self for the longest time. And in the end it makes perfect sense for me. The thing I hate more than anything else is function. I hate business lunches. I hate standard breakfasts. I don’t know what it is, it depresses me, and Germany is not particularly fond of flexibility, which is actually exactly why I opened Yafo. I said, I’ll show you that you can be flexible. There is not a sense functionality in Yafo in terms of rules. You can come in at midnight and I’ll go make the food myself if I have to. I’m like my Mom, I can’t not feed people when they ask for something to eat.
Keep showing us what it’s all about Shani. If you want Shani to show you what it’s all about you can hit up Yafo everyday, now also during lunch time and what the fuck, stay all night too, live a little flexibly. Look out, word on the street is that there will be a happy hour coming out soon.