How Israeli Chef Shai Lavi Is Connecting People Through Food

Shai Lavi is an Israeli immigrant and the founder/chef of The Third Space in Atlanta. His culinary concept offers diners a place to nourish their soul through food and community. Lavi wanted to re-create the family dining experience from his home in Israel that never felt “lonely” or solitary and ate farm-to-table ingredients. Strangers sit at a long table and talk to each other, and there are no set menus or limited portions.

Lavi hosts advocacy events almost every week and offers assistance and counseling to culinary industry professionals through various organizations including, The Giving Kitchen and The Cooks Collective. In this edition of Voices In Food, Lavi shares how, since the war in Israel began, he has been focusing his efforts in bringing comfort through food to those affected physically and emotionally, including himself.

When my wife and I moved from Israel to the United States, we felt very disconnected. To understand the dining scene and meet new people in the industry, I ate at the hottest and best restaurants in Atlanta, but always felt that there was a missed connection to the food that I was eating. It lacked a personal touch that I was used to. I realized that most restaurants were run like mini corporations where cooks only cared about keeping up with the flow of the kitchen to churn out dishes and often had no clue of where their products were coming from. Butchers had never raised an animal and didn’t have deep compassion for the life they were serving. Chefs who had never stepped on a farm lacked intention when it came to food waste. We spoke a common language but didn’t share the same passion as cooks.

“At first, I did not feel like coming into work and lost hope. I was angry and sad. But then I found healing by connecting with people over food.”

– Shai Lavi

The definition of community I grew up with did not exist here as much. Back home in Or Yehuda, Israel, I had a relationship with my butcher since childhood. I stood in line at 4 a.m. to get the first stock of fish. My mother had a list of micro sources and she would have me drive for two hours to go pick up eggs in exchange for sweaters she knit. My father and I would nourish the lambs on the farm that we consumed at feasts. And it’s not just me, everyone in Israel understands and lives this way, to various degrees.

When I left, I realized how much I missed it.

So I created a culinary business structure based on the philosophy of home and comfort. My wife Karen and I formed a relationship with Atlanta Harvest and together we grew our own crops, raised our cattle and created the daily menu only an hour before dinner service based on what we had freshly available. We didn’t want to be driven by revenue, but rather by needing to create a safe space for people to eat and connect among themselves and to food as it is supposed to be. It’s not an easy task to go old school. Today, you can get everything through a purveyor. But I felt that my pursuing these ways will inspire other individuals to do the same. And it will become an ongoing relationship of codependency and transparency within all aspects of the food cycle.

This way of dining is also a way for me to extend my family and give back to my community. I enjoy having people around us as it lifts my heart and mood. Having a true friend means the world to me! I come from a culture of giving and hospitality, not a “me first” attitude. While growing up, my parents always insisted that we look towards others to see what we can do to help them. We were encouraged to become a part of the solution instead of creating negative situations.

That’s what I continue to do here in Atlanta. At my kitchen, everyone is welcome with open arms any time of the day. On weekends, I open all night long for restaurant workers to come eat a nourishing meal at whatever price they can afford to pay. If someone needs work, food or counseling, I am available 24/7.

I want to surround myself with a circle of individuals who create a positive space, not as a religious preaching, but as a way for everyone to succeed, love and respect. When I feel someone is off, I invite them to have coffee and a conversation. Whether they need structure or financial, emotional or career assistance, I try to help. Sometimes even talking or a hug goes a long way. We go through a lot in the culinary world and it is important to have a support system, for someone to have your back. A few months ago, founder Laurie Watkins, four chefs and I hosted the first fundraiser for The Cooks Collective at The Third Space to help provide mental support in the culinary world. Chances are, if you call the counseling hotline, you will be connected to me as an adviser for support.

“It is the acts of giving and creating those spaces of safety and security that kept me going. The busier I am, the more it helps me endure.”

– Shai Lavi

Ironically, I myself need the same counseling as much as the people I speak to. I am still heartbroken by the outbreak of war in Israel. Many of my good friends were murdered but people I know denied that it even happened. I have attended several virtual funerals and have watched gruesome videos of my friends under attack. Malicious folks did things to my car. Guests canceled reservations. Individuals called me names and assaulted me for my voice and for being me — an Israeli Jewish American. I was already hurting, but now people who have never been in that part of the world had a lot to say about me and my birthplace. It was scary, but we are tough people, we can handle it. I try not to dwell on that and I won’t tolerate any sort of violence. At first, I did not feel like coming into work and lost hope. I was angry and sad. But then I found healing by connecting with people over food. Calls with chefs, conversations over dinners, collaborative pop-ups, and my restaurant concept that encourages meeting people has kept me sane. I started looking into opportunities to continue my life on the same path without losing my mind. It is the acts of giving and creating those spaces of safety and security that kept me going. The busier I am, the more it helps me endure.

Cooking for the Sharaka nonprofit delegation dinner hosted by the Consulate General of Israel in Atlanta and hearing voices of reason from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco and Bahrain gave me much needed hope. One of the incredible stories I heard was of a Muslim blogger who talked about how he lived guided by hate for Israeli people, but he started questioning what he knew and researching more. He eventually even learned Hebrew, and came to know and respect Jewish religion, while practicing his own. These are tough conversations but we need to have them to pursue peace from all sides.

I am also involved with an initiative by the Israeli-American Council that is hosting 13 families who are here on a physical and mental break from the war in Israel. We are providing food baskets from the farm, space to work or volunteer to release tension, and just being a good friend to people we don’t know.

Food is a common vessel that connects us all. By honoring cuisines, we have important conversations, friendships evolve and partnerships form. Cooking for others helps me pour out my emotions. I speak better through my platters. I don’t consider building a community as a product, but a consequence of my work. It allows me to reach for more help while uplifting others and seeing them transform.

My father is Libyan, my mother is Turkish, I am Israeli — but what’s the difference? People are all the same. I believe that we all can do so much better and evolve as humans. We should take the time to learn about each other’s beliefs and cultures, and bring each other up. We need to love and care, not judge or hate. The horrors need to stop. Let’s spread more kindness and appreciation for one another. And what better way to do that than through food?

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