Bay Area born and raised Chef Mona Leena Michael opened her first brick-and-mortar restaurant, Lulu, earlier this year in Berkeley, California. Having previous culinary experiences that include being a part of Roka Akor’s opening team; Serpentine’s Chef de Cuisine; and most recently as the Executive Chef of Dyafa in Oakland, Lulu is her first foray as owner and chef.
Featuring Palestinian cuisine with a fresh, modern California twist, Lulu is a warm and welcoming, bright restaurant with exposed brick walls and white interiors contrasted with vibrantly painted fig patterns, tea lights, and lush greenery.
As a first-generation Palestinian and born-and-raised Californian, the menu is both an ode to her upbringing and heritage, as well as, a means of paying homage to the diversity that this area is known for.
“The inspiration comes from my culinary experiences—my upbringing as a Palestinian-American, born and raised in the Bay Area, and my upbringing in the San Francisco restaurant industry,” says Chef and Owner, Mona Leena Michael. “While some may demonize the culture around restaurants—hard work and rigid chefs, I flourished, and pushed my way up through the ranks.”
Originally born out of Chef Leena’s popular pop-up The Mana’eesh Lady, Lulu offers some of her favorite Palestinian dips, breads and dishes with visually appealing presentation. It’s quickly become a hot spot for its impressive mezze brunch which features vibrant statement brunch boards for two.
The seasonal brunch boards include a mix of house-baked breads, dips, spreads, and shareable items that include: Za’atar Fried Eggs, Fried Halloumi, Labneh, Baba Ganoush, Shakshuka, Za’atar Mana’eesh, seasonal fruit, and more. The a la carte offerings are equally noteworthy and include Leena’s take on a traditional Palestinian dessert, Knafeh, served as a pancake with shredded phyllo, sweet cheese, orange blossom syrup and pistachios.
We chatted with Chef and Owner, Mona Leena Michael, on her transition from pop-up to brick-and-mortar; initial challenges; inspiration and more. Here’s what she had to say.
Talk about the inspiration for Lulu as a Palestinian-meets-California restaurant concept.
I’ve worked with many different cuisines throughout the last decade. Being able to take my favorite things—be it ingredients or techniques, from other cuisines and cultures—and figuring out how to meld them delicately and intentionally with traditional Palestinian foods, is not only challenging but fun.
It’s so rewarding in the end when you taste something that you conceptualized and it’s absolutely delicious.
I see California and “California cuisine” beyond the “farm-to-table” approach most take. I use the label “California cuisine” to exemplify the melting pot that is California, with its rich tapestry of various cultures and cultural foods that I have been exposed to and learned about throughout my life.
How has the transition from running your pop-up to opening this restaurant been? What are some of the challenges, if any, you came across?
Well, running my pop up was really an accident, and before that, I had only worked in restaurants. I was a part of the opening team for two massive restaurant projects in the city, both Roka Akor and Bartlett Hall. Legalizing my pop up after my neighbor reported my literal one-hour-a-week neighborhood bake sale was an experience in itself—especially during the pandemic. There is no document that has all the answers or the list of things you need to accomplish.
When you call departments and ask for help, you never get the full story or all the details you need to get your show on the road! Thankfully, we eventually got it done. For me, running the pop up was more exhausting than working in a restaurant. Hauling cambros and ingredients and coolers and propane tanks etc., back and forth, prepping all morning to cook all day to clean all night. You have to be super careful with labor and time spent in your commissary kitchen, as you can quickly rack up crazy rental bills and go into the negatives.
That being said, I feel much more at home in a restaurant setting. Each has their own stressors, but having your own space where you set the tone of the day, the space, and the menu, is what I have found works best for me. The challenges of opening a restaurant during a pandemic were serious. From contractor and labor shortages, to table shortages, to raw material shortages, to trying to navigate a whole other city (Berkeley) and how to get up and running properly, it certainly was a whirlwind.
I often had to make decisions to spend more money to get what I wanted in a timely manner or, the alternative, delay opening another month. Beyond that, again, trying to work with a city and their many departments, when the offices are closed due to a pandemic, was not easy and could be exhausting and frustrating.
How did your previous roles working at Roka Akor, Serpentine’s and Dyafa prepare you for running your business?
I have to say that my collective experiences at all of the restaurants at which I worked helped to prepare me, each in their own way. Jardiniere taught me fundamentals, and is what I consider my “bootcamp.” Roka Akor introduced me to a whole new approach to food, but also taught me how to set boundaries for myself. Working at Serpentine and Foxtail catering, I would say, helped me the most to understand how a business really works.
The numbers, the ebbs and flows, how to hold employees accountable and keep an organized and tight kitchen. As for Dyafa—it taught me to be confident in the things I know, and taught me that I was, in fact, ready to open my own business after overhauling the kitchen to function as I know a kitchen can and should.
What stands out on the menu and what are some of your favorite items? The mezze brunch boards are so unique, where did that concept come from?
The mezze boards came from a few different things. First, after taking over Dyafa, I received many comments from guests who were often irritated by the fact that there was no way to try “all the dips without spending a ton of money.” Arab guests in particular were outraged at paying 12-14 dollars for something they could potentially make at home for a fraction of the cost. Those comments really hit home.
I myself am a “snacker.” I always want a lot of little things to snack on. When I eat at a restaurant, I only go out to eat with people I know will be down to throw down and share a bunch of different plates. I really believe that is the best way to eat, and get the full picture of what a restaurant has to offer. It’s the way I was raised to eat, to share communally a spread of food, and I wanted to bring that experience to people that it may seem foreign to!
As for my favorite things on the menu… that’s a tough one. I wrote and developed all the recipes myself, so they’re all my favorite! We purposefully have a small menu for breakfast, lunch and brunch, because every dish serves a purpose, was made with intention, and is exquisite in its own way. If I had to pick one thing, I’d have to say the knafeh pancake is my favorite—but only because I have a serious sweet tooth!
Where do you source your ingredients from? Everything is so fresh!
Our spices come from Villa Jerada, an incredible Moroccan company that has some of the freshest and most fragrant spices I have ever experienced. I highly recommend them. Our za’atar comes from Al’Ard, a Palestinian company. Our olive oil comes from Harvest Peace, a company that supports Palestinian families in the olive-orchard game in Palestine. Unfortunately (and fortunately) I got the last few jugs of last year’s harvest and this year with all the attacks on Palestinian families and the state of Palestine, Harvest Peace was unable to continue operations, so we will have to wait for next season.
We partnered with CreamCo Meats for our protein, though proteins are very limited on our menu. And as for our produce, we source as much as possible from local farms. We just got three cases of pineapple quince from Free Spirit Farms last week to make our own delicious membrillo to pair with our halloumi sandwich, and I can’t wait to
share it! The early girl shak shouka you tasted was made from Early Girl tomatoes from Dirty Girl Produce (hands down, the best tomatoes on the market in my opinion). We also have an extremely small kitchen, so virtually everything you eat the day that you come in was received and cooked that morning. We start prepping at 4am to make sure our guests get the best quality, and freshest food! It’s great to hear you noticed!
How has the reception been? Anything in the works going forward?
We are just so grateful for the support that we have gotten over the last couple of months. I never imagined that we’d book up every weekend! I’m genuinely floored, and just so thankful for all of it. In the works is a dinner series. I can’t share any details yet, because it is still in the very beginning conceptualization process, but night time hours will be coming soon.
Check out my personal experience dining at Lulu on my Instagram, @cheycheyfromthebay.