For centuries, people in the Middle East have been chasing the perfect hummus recipe by combining the same six ingredients: chickpeas, tahini, lemon, garlic, water, and salt. With something so simple, ratios are everything. But so too is the notion of place, as restaurateur Nick Wiseman learned when he accompanied Chef Ronen Tenne to Israel this summer.
“Food with an authentic beginning point is so important,” says Wiseman, who co-owns the fast-casual restaurant Little Sesame with both Tenne and his cousin David Wiseman. “There’s a connection to place. That’s why we wanted to go and explore.” While they ate six meals a day, carefully studying technique and ingredients, they also reverently took in “the feel and spirit behind it.” Wiseman was transfixed by the pulsating vibrancy that only faraway markets bring.
Such was the environment at Abu Hassan, a hummus shop near the Jaffa port in Tel Aviv that’s popular with Americans and dates back to 1959. Tenne imitates the bustling atmosphere at the restaurant with the intonation and speed of a livestock auctioneer. “You come and they drop the pitas and the pickles and the hummus on the plate yelling, ‘What do you want? What do you want?’”
At another hummus shop in Tel Aviv, Ozeri Brothers, the communal spirit left a lasting impression. “As a woman was running her stand, her regular customers were bussing the tables, chopping the parsley for her,” Wiseman explains. “There was this sense of community around each place. That was the most inspiring takeaway.”
Wiseman is just one local restaurateur to travel abroad to understand the surroundings of the country or countries that inform their menus. The Tiger Fork team hit Hong Kong before it opened. Rose Previte has shuttled her staff to Georgia to keep Compass Rose current, and she’s now with her team traveling through the regions of the world that will inspire her next restaurant, Maydan. And higher-ups for the restaurant group Fat Baby, Inc. traveled to Spain in May to keep Estadio fresh.
Wiseman’s voyage comes as he looks to grow Little Sesame—his lunch-only, fast-casual hummus restaurant below DGS Delicatessen in Dupont Circle. “The plan is to do more, and do more soon,” he says. “We’ll open our next store by the beginning of the year.” The second Little Sesame will be larger and will incorporate a choice between hummus bowls and stuffed pitas.
But the pilgrimage to Israel is only a small part of Little Sesame’s momentum-building phase for its next chapter. In March, Tenne moved to D.C. full time to help Wiseman.
Born in Haifa, Israel, Tenne didn’t find his niche in the kitchen until his mid-twenties. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces from age 18 to 21, he left for Los Angeles to earn money so he could travel throughout Central America. When he returned, he moved to Austin, Texas, where he manned a kiosk at the mall selling dead sea salts. “I was a horrible salesmen,” he says. “If there’s a product I don’t believe in, I can’t sell it.”
Tenne felt called to New York at age 24. Having always loved cooking, he enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education and soon found a job at the Big Apple’s venerable Gramercy Tavern. He eventually joined restaurateur Michael White’s Italian empire in New York, first at Alto, which had just earned two Michelin stars.
That’s when he met Wiseman, who was working the fish station at Alto in 2010. The duo bonded, and when the Little Sesame partnership between the two began in 2015, it was with a simple text message.“What do you think is a good tahini brand?” Wiseman wrote.
Tenne has been the consulting chef since Little Sesame opened in January 2016, traveling from New York whenever it was time for seasonal menu changes and recipe development. But now he lives in the District and is fully committed to the endeavor. “For me it feels great being in America and selling hummus,” he says.
Wiseman says the restaurant will be the team’s major focus for the foreseeable future. And by all calculations, it should be. “Hummus is on fire—it’s been growing 18 percent year over year for the last five years,” Wiseman says, citing research from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Combine its popularity with the prowess of the fast-casual sector, and perhaps Little Sesame could eventually punch with the same weight as CAVA, &pizza, and Sweetgreen.
“To me the power of the model is that it’s a disruptive force because you’re changing the way Americans eat,” Wiseman says. He points to diners’ intensifying desire for quick, healthy meals and thoughtfully sourced food that’s driving them away from more traditional fast food in droves. “We’re bringing the perspective of fine dining experience in kitchens, but we’re able to do that for $9 or $10,” Wiseman says. “There’s so much power in that.”
Little Sesame exclusively sources its chickpeas from Timeless Seeds in Montana, for example. Farmers there work to take back land that was used for commodity production and transform it into organic farmland. And the toppings that brighten each bowl of Little Sesame hummus predominantly come from Mid-Atlantic farms. A favorite right now features roasted eggplant, green schug, and pickled red cabbage.
The fact that hummus enables Wiseman and Tenne to feed D.C. high-quality food at reasonable prices is appropriate considering the spread’s history. In countries like Lebanon and Georgia, hummus was commonly offered as a side dish. “But there were some rough times around the ’60s in Israel where people didn’t have money for protein, so they started upgrading hummus to the main plate,” Tenne recounts. “Sometimes it’s only when you don’t have a choice that you become creative.”
Tenne says he immediately began tweaking Little Sesame’s hummus when he returned from Israel in June. “I really like that fluffy feel, when before I was chasing smoothness,” he explains. Wiseman too had been obsessed with achieving maximum creaminess, especially because grocery store hummus—all mealy and granular—lacks it.
Creaminess comes from the tahini (paste made from sesame seeds), which tends to weigh down hummus. To achieve the light, airy quality they were drawn to during their travels, Tenne reduced the tahini ratio in Little Sesame’s recipe.
His new formula features chickpeas that are boiled, then left to sit for a day, which makes the flavor more robust. Once the chickpeas start to cream up in the forceful food processor, Tenne introduces lemon juice and a mix of raw garlic and confit garlic cooked in olive oil. “America has a more sensitive palate,” he says. “Too much raw garlic goes too far. You need to be delicate.”
Don’t expect to see any bastardized beet or carrot hummus from this team, who mock the trend. Subtle tweaks are as far as Little Sesame will go. “The trip only deepened our commitment to keeping hummus as the sacred thing,” Wiseman says. “The purity around hummus. … It’s not something we’re creating. It’s how people have been eating forever.”
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