Ever wonder what happened to that guy who was selling a tomato for $24? Not only has he survived the pandemic, but his business is growing as if it were in a hothouse full of hydroponic veggies.
Celebrity Chef Eyal Shani — who got roundly roasted by my colleague Steve Cuozzo in 2019 for charging $24 for a single tomato that wasn’t even that big — is poised to grow his global restaurant empire by a dozen locations since last year’s COVID-19 lockdowns began.
And yes, his stratospherically priced Hell’s Kitchen haunt, HaSalon is still charging $24 for a tomato — when it can get them, that is.
“In the end, that was the thing that brought most of our customers into the restaurant,” Shani told Side Dish. “You can’t believe what happened after the article was in the newspaper. It was so crowded. People wanted to know who was that crazy man who sold a tomato for $24.”
Shani sat down with Side Dish last week at Hudson Yards, where he and partner Shahar Segal are slated to officially open their sixth Big Apple venue — with unapologetic plans to call it Naked Tomato — on Wednesday. They’ll also be opening a seventh new concept eatery downtown, at 61 W. Eighth St., upping their total to 37 locations worldwide from 25 when lockdowns began in March 2020, Side Dish has learned.
Last week, Shani opened his fourth HaSalon in Miami with partners Major Food Group of Carbone fame. He is also expanding a chain of restaurants under the Miznon moniker, which means “cafeteria” in Hebrew. (Accordingly, Miznon prices aren’t as eye-watering as those at HaSalon, where wallet-conscious diners might choke on a $149 striped bass.) New York currently has four Miznon locations.
All of this is despite the fact that the pandemic forced the globe-trotting chef to slow down, fearing that he was bound to “lose everything” even as he sheltered in place in Israel.
“I stayed home for three months and found my family again,” Shani said. “I had time to be with my wife and daughter and my giant tortoise. I made breakfast, lunch and dinner. I bought the food, put it in the kitchen, cleaned, cooked and served, even arranging the plates. It was completely my own territory and it was one of the happiest periods in my life.”
While Shani’s restaurants were open in Israel after a three-month closure, the reopenings took longer in New York because of labor shortages.
“All of my chefs and waitresses got money from the state and made beautiful parties,” he said. “They didn’t want to return because they had money from the government. But when the government stopped paying, they all came back.”
There is still “a big problem” with the global supply chain, he added, but he makes do.
“There’s a lot of things we can’t get, but we work with small farms so we get the vegetables we need, and we are importing fish from Tokyo, Portugal and Italy,” he added.
As for the $24 tomato?
It’s still on the menu — when it’s available. It’s hydroponic, from upstate New York, and he buys them for $7 each at the Union Square farmer’s market.
“I’m putting myself into it, with salt and the best olive oil, and reaching a taste that is unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t find it in Italy or Israel. It is the best tomato I ever ate.”
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