My dream has always been to open a restaurant. When I was little, I pictured the dining room of my imaginary restaurant to be very academic, a little dusty and enchanted, like an Ivy League library or a place where somebody distinguished might wear a "smoking jacket." I was hoping for a backyard with a treehouse, where customers take their food from baskets lifted on a rope and pulley. When I pictured the dishes this dream place would serve, I'm sorry to say there was more style than substance: ideally, the food would look like woodland fairy offerings, studded with tiny robins’ eggs and edible moss and blossoms, and it would appear into and vanish out of thin air, like the feasts at Hogwarts. Plus there would be Pad Thai and cheese pizza and dried mangoes, because those were my favorites. My cooking experiments at the time had a tendency to go very wrong and alarm anyone within smelling (or heaven forbid, tasting) range. But that didn't really bother me. The most important thing I knew was that the food would have to be magic, unlike anything the shocked and amazed customers had ever tasted or even knew how to describe.
In the years since, I've become a much, much better cook and a slightly more realistic adult. But in essentials, my dream hasn’t changed— The house I grew up in sits only eight blocks away from the house where we are currently building my restaurant, Malka. The word “Malka” means “Queen” in Hebrew. It was part of my given Hebrew name Yehudit Malka (Judith the Queen), and it was the name of my favorite and most glorious dog. Malka the dog was high-spirited and mischievous, shiny black fur, huge brown eyes, always sniffing out snacks or fearlessly and resourcefully making snacks out of odd pieces of furniture or socks. We found her at the humane society when I was seven, and she remained my knuckle-headed companion until I left for college. The restaurant is named after her and also after me as a little girl and all the far-reaching, majestic dreams I had then that I hold onto with affection even now.
In 2012, in my early twenties, I opened Carte Blanche. Carte Blanche was a food cart in an Airstream trailer on Hawthorne in Southeast Portland. It was a success.
For five years, we steadily grew in popularity. The cart became so busy that we had lines of customers everyday and a long string of orders that meant a consistent two-hour wait for food from open to close.
Our menus at Carte Blanche changed with the seasons, and they changed with the lessons and ideas and techniques I learned over years of growing as a cook. I never stop learning in the kitchen; I will always feel like a student, which is part of the reason I love this. And there is so much pleasure in making and eating delicious food. But the real reason to keep cooking is people.
The idea that food brings people together and gives us common ground isn't a new one, but the truth in it has become the focus of my whole life. Carte Blanche was a very strong example of community for me. People came to us every day with their good moods and bad moods and opinions and appetites and garden tomatoes and aunties and little ones. They chose to spend time with us. And most of the time, they loved it, and so did I. The cart was my education, occasionally a school of hard knocks, but it taught me that I have something to offer. Or even better, we -- my team, my family and I, have something to offer, and cooking for all of you is our reason to keep moving forward.
The Restaurant (in more tangible terms)
Malka will be a small restaurant in a house between 45th and 46th and Division, right across from The Woodsman Tavern and Stumptown Coffee in Southeast Portland. We will have about 30 seats indoors and eventually 20+ seats outdoors in the back patio garden.
The food will be an extension of everything good at Carte Blanche: colorful, bright, bold, complex, often tropical flavors with lots of fruits and vegetables and fresh herbs. Plus there will be plenty of comfort (aka melted cheese) and crazy sandwiches, crunchy things, sweet, snack-like things, and everything always prepared and meant to be enjoyed in the spirit of fun.
True to my younger self, I want the food and the space to feel somewhat apart from the usual rhythm and routine of life in Portland. It should be as if you are eating dishes from a vacation spot in a mythical place, like the planet the Little Prince lives on or the kitchen in Howl's Moving Castle. The food is chaotic and unexpected, but above all, it's delicious.
As with the cart, the menu will change with the seasons, and our most popular things like rice bowls, curries, corn on the cob with tom kha reduction, red mole chilaquiles, sake and berbere mac and cheese, fried chicken and eggplant sandwiches, cookies, and crispy rice salads will be in heavy rotation.
But! There will be new things too. Unconstrained by that tiny food cart kitchen, we have more opportunities to stretch our wings and get creative. In the time between the cart and the restaurant, my team and I did a series of pop-up events to test out new recipes -- things like braised brisket with pomegranate molasses and achiote, chicken matzo ball khao soi, butterfly pea-chickpea fritters with herbal green curry, sticky fried nam prik pao pork ribs with raw coconut cream, and chili lime-glazed fish tacos with dill, pineapple, mint, turmeric butter, and sesame-corn tortillas. The best of those recipe tests will likely find their way onto the opening menu. We are also very excited about working with local farms to source sustainable proteins and as much local/organic produce as possible.
We are also building a beautiful little bar with a curated bar program, consisting of delicious, refreshing cocktails to pair with our food. Our bar manager Adam understands the food as well as anyone can, and he is a genius with cocktails. This bar is a big deal for the restaurant financially, plus it's fantastic fun. There will be rotating slushies (!), beer, wine, cider, bubbles, maybe even coconut-guava jello-shots if I can talk Adam into it.
The concept for interior and exterior decor is based mostly on my childhood imagination. There will be a garden with seating in the backyard, plants and lights and climbing vines everywhere. It will feel overgrown and romantic. The inside of the house will be cozy and colorful, like the food, with art deco wallpaper and Moroccan tile patterns. The style will nod to the 1920s, the era when the house was built. I want it to feel like a living room from a dream or an old movie, with good music and warm, glowing light. It will be beautiful, and a little bit unusual. I hope that people walking in will feel transported.
We will be open for lunch and dinner five days a week (at first), and once we've found our feet, we hope to launch a brunch program. With all the brave and gracious employees working at Malka, we will build a fun, inclusive work environment. We will provide a good living wage, equal distribution of tips, delicious family meals, and as much additional support as we possibly can.
The truth is, we cannot bring any of this into reality without first raising a lot more money. Our primary investors saved up to buy us this house and transform it into our restaurant. Construction is under way, progress is steady, and we are getting closer all the time.
But in order to open our doors at all, and then to keep them open, we need to furnish the dining room and patio, pay our staff as they prep for our opening week, stock the pantry and bar, buy our first round of fresh ingredients, and make sure everything is ready.
A restaurant needs a buffer, usually a few months' worth of operating costs in the bank, so that we can find our footing as a business, refine our systems, and adjust as necessary. In the first few months of being a freshly minted restaurant, without a reserve of capital, one piece of broken equipment or an unexpected snowstorm can paralyze and destroy the entire operation.
This is where Kickstarter comes in. We need as much support as we can possibly get, and every backer will help bring us closer to opening Malka, making the restaurant better and stronger in our early days.
I plan to build Malka into a place that can stay open for years and years. Maybe even generations. I imagine Malka in the future as a beloved fixture of the neighborhood where I grew up, serving food just blocks from the house where I was once a little kid dreaming about a magic restaurant.
We will feed the neighbors and travelers and our amazing regulars from Carte Blanche. We'll cook for students after school and people who need cheering up and people who need to try something different. Honestly, I'd cook for everybody if I could. I want to cook for you. I think we can give you an experience. We have something very special to offer, and it won't stop being special as time passes. If we work extremely hard and keep a spirit of generosity and fun in the house and in the food, Malka will be amazing.
These are just a few examples of some of the rewards we are offering. Please check out the rewards section for the full list.
Risks and challenges
Opening a restaurant is hard, and it's dangerous. We've already overcome lots of challenges (city permitting was a big one), and there will be many, many more, and they won't stop after we open.
Portland already has so many good restaurants. The Woodsman across the street and Kim Jong Grillin directly to our right are both amazing places to eat. I love eating at both spots and will keep loving it forever.
The competition is steep. But at the same time, the community of restaurants and chefs and owners here in town is staggeringly, unstoppably warm and supportive. There is a place for us here in town, and no one has made me feel that more deeply than other industry friends and chefs who are technically my "competition." Plus we are not in direct competition with our incredible neighbors, but rather we add to the draw of this small, quiet few blocks of Division.
We also have the advantage of a very loyal and numerous following from our days as Carte Blanche. I know I can count on these hundreds of wonderful regulars to come eat with us and forgive us our stumblings in the first few months as a restaurant.
Our biggest challenge, and my favorite, is the concept of efficiency. Basically, we need to run Malka as a tight ship with systems for everything. In a business with such small profit margins, efficiency and resourcefulness are important in every facet (prep time, food storage, dining room layout, shift responsibilities and multi-tasking, inventory and ordering, training, menu-planning, food-buying, scheduling, etc).
But the biggest trouble we had at the cart was we could not efficiently cook enough food all at once to feed all of our customers in a timely manner. This is getting pretty detatiled, but I'm gonna go for it:
It took six minutes to make one rice bowl at Carte Blanche; we had six burners, so we could only make six rice bowls at once (six every 6-10 minutes). But we would get twenty tickets at once, most of them with multiple entrees. Hence the reason our wait times piled up so quickly, and given the space restraints and the nature of our food, there was really nothing we could do about it. Plus, these dishes are very prep-heavy, and we only had the one kitchen, so we needed to close down part of the week to prep.
At Malka, we have designed and are building a much larger kitchen. We will be able to have some employees prepping things like sauces and crispy shallots while other employees are cooking on the line at the same time. The kitchen will have four stations (rather than two), which will allow us to put out 3-4 times the amount of food at once. We are in much better shape, and I can't wait to start cooking in this kitchen!Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
- (31 days)