5 minutes with Simon Zalloua

18 August, 2020 by
Madeline Woolway

Merivale’s latest venture, Jimmy’s Falafel, opened in Sydney’s CBD on 20 March, three days before the nationwide shutdown.

“The third day was a write off because we could see lockdown coming,” head chef Simon Zalloua remembers.

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The venue closed for six weeks, before reopening for takeaway in mid-May and then for dine-in at 10pax.

“We’re not grateful that it happened but we’re grateful that we’ve been able to reopen and all our staff have been re-employed,” says Zalloua, who has lead the team through a number of transitions over the past four months. “It’s growing, which is great. And the takeaway element’s still there because there are people out on the streets.”

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While the venue has evolved to meet ever-changing conditions, the menu has held strong — a testament to its initial development.

“I didn’t feel it was fair if we went and made changes, because we’d only opened for two days,” says Zalloua.

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The 110-seat restaurant is split in two: the dine-in arm offers mezze and charcoal, as well as falafel, which is also the feature of Jimmy’s takeaway menu. The former was on hold for the initial phase of relaunch, but is now firmly back on the menu.

The challenge was establishing a reputation after a false start and with foot traffic in the CBD still lower than pre-pandemic. “We didn’t even get to do a press release, so getting some exposure through Merivale at Home has worked for us,” says Zalloua. “There are some really amazing places on there. There’s Bert’s, Totti’s, Fred’s, Felix and now Jimmy’s. It’s just a great opportunity to introduce [the brand]. Apart from Coogee rooftop, which does some Middle Eastern and Turkish flavours, there’s nothing across Merivale that has that flavour profile.”

The at-home menu took the team a month of testing to get right: Zalloua was looking for a way to translate the bold flavours and mezze concept into an offering that would work for home cooks.

“We were really making sure it was a reflection of what Jimmy’s is,” says Zalloua. “We want to make sure that we gave people the same offering with the least amount of cooking. So, the one product that needs to be cooked is the whole chicken, which has been marinated and pre-cooked — all diners are doing is 25 minutes finishing off.”

The whole chicken is infused with the same bold flavour of s Jimmy’s charcoal skewers — think lemon, garlic and herbs — and comes with accompaniments such as fresh herbs and hummus. But, it’s not available on the dine-in menu. Instead it’s a Merivale at Home exclusive, designed to stand in for the venue’s signature skewers. Zalloua says he played with transferring the charcoal skewers to an at-home environment.

“When I sent out boxes to be trialled, I packed skewers in there,” he says. “We just felt that people having to cook meat from raw was probably a bit of a stretch. We’ve had to tweak those flavour profiles of the skewered and charcoal meats, and combine them with a pre-cooked item, which is the chicken.”

Otherwise, it’s been relatively smooth sailing. “In regards to the hummus and baklava we offer, there are no preservatives in them, so we had to make sure the products would last for a good week from when they’re first made,” says Zalloua.

Meanwhile, the takeaway arm is going “gangbusters” too, says Zalloua: “We’re doing 300–400 pita pockets a day. We’ve been able to offer people that aren’t on JobKeeper jobs.”

Read more about the menu development process behind Merivale at Home in Hospitality’s August issue

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