ITHACA, NY -- Anyone walking the Commons as of late may have noticed a new addition to the Ithaca food scene: Lev Kitchen. The restaurant boasts Middle-Eastern inspired cuisine in a quick sit-down and grab-and-go style. Located at the former location of BōL, the space has been totally redesigned, enticing customers with its bright teal facade and the smell of lamb, roasted chicken and more.
Lev is owned by two Cornell alumni, Ben Plotke and Yen Wu, who got their masters of management in hospitality degrees from the school’s hotel administration program back in 2019. Plotke and Wu, who are married and have a young child, initially moved out to California upon graduation after securing jobs in the hotel industry. Everything changed, however, when both found themselves laid off during the pandemic. Realizing they wanted more control of their future, the two decided to move back to Ithaca and open a restaurant.
“We had time to reflect on whether or not we wanted to send out a bunch of applications again … and I think it was a point where we were just like ‘it's time to do this for ourselves and see if we can do our own concept,’” Plotke said. “We really saw this as an opportunity to come to a community that we're comfortable with and where we know where we can get support.”
Plotke had previous experience in the restaurant business, working for Sanctuary Kitchen, a non-profit based out of Connecticut that employs refugees in the restaurant industry. It was there, working alongside refugees, that Plotke learned the fundamentals of the Middle Eastern cuisine that inspired Lev Kitchen as it exists today.
At first glance, the menu may appear a bit daunting. With items like Haloumi Malawach, featuring apple saffron jam and toasted pistachios and Za’atar chicken served with a Kabocha Squash puree and Urfa aioli, Plotke admits there’s a bit of a learning curve for first-time customers. The base for most of the dishes, for example, is Malawach, a Yemeni flatbread, which Plotke describes as a crispy and flakey flatbread, as if “a croissant and pita were to have a baby.” Ultimately, Plotke said he thinks the distinctive menu will make Lev stand out and he remains optimistic about customers’ sense of adventure.
“It's funny because people truthfully have no idea what they're ordering … yet a lot of people are coming and sort of taking a leap of faith,” Plotke said. “What's great is that they have their first bite and you can see on their face that they love it and they're amazed, so that's been really good.”
The food isn’t the only unique aspect of Lev. Plotke and Wu have also partnered with local organizations such as Open Doors English and Ithaca Welcomes Refugees to employ refugees living in Ithaca in their restaurant. For Wu and Plotke the entire restaurant revolves around the idea of social sustainability.
“For us it goes back to reflecting on our experiences in the hospitality industry and recognizing that the industry has not necessarily been the best place to work in the last decade or so and us wanting to create a concept that actually prioritizes people,” Plotke said. “All these opportunities that we've found up here have been truly amazing and we're hoping to employ more individuals through those organizations as they refer them to us.”
Wu added that being laid off certainly gave the two of them a new perspective on the industry. “I think we realized that we were kind of disposable workers, in a sense,” she said. “We now have the chance to make a difference and not make the same mistakes that our past employers have made.”
Currently, Wu and Plotke have hired refugees from Cambodia and Angola and are actively looking for more refugees interested in working at Lev.
The other gap Plotke said he hopes to fill with the restaurant is a lack of grab-and-go food available in downtown ithaca. He said his inspiration comes from visiting the Machane Yahuda market in Jerusalem in 2016.
“In talking with employees who work down here… they have like a 45-minute break so they don't have time to go on their lunch break to sit down,” he said. “There's very few food options actually for people here in the middle of the week if you’re just looking for a quick lunch, so we're definitely hoping to fill that void.”
Since opening at the end of March, Wu said business has been good so far, albeit very dependent on Ithaca weather. When the sun is shining they add outdoor seating in hopes of attracting more customers.
“That atmosphere that we really want to create is people out on the patio enjoying themselves,” Plotke said. “Once we're cranking food out, you know you can smell the food as you're walking past us and people sort of float their way in.”
As for future plans, the couple hopes to expand into catering and sell packaged products of their food at places like the Ithaca Farmers Market. Right now, however, Plotke said he’s just caught up in the rush of owning a new restaurant.
“I don't sleep much any more, but for now that's fine,” he said. “I like the excitement.”