At Mokonuts, a tiny cafe tucked in a far-flung corner of the 11th arrondissement in Paris, Moko Hirayama bakes her chewy miso-sesame cookies three times a day. She swirls halvah into pecan cake, and mixes rye flour into the buttery crust of her caramel-imbued tarte Tatin. Omar Koreitem, her husband and partner in the restaurant, scents briny cockles with bergamot, slicks mackerel with preserved lemon, and roasts guinea fowl with cabbage and apples.
Then at 5 p.m., when most other ambitious restaurants of this caliber are gearing up for their busy dinner services, the couple locks up and heads home.
While this would be unusual in New York or Los Angeles, it’s radical in Paris. Although French restaurants are known to have often unreliable hours, dinner for any serious Parisian chef is practically a requirement.
Despite this — or maybe because of it — Mokonuts is always packed.
This, of course, is a testament to the exceptional quality of Ms. Hirayama and Mr. Koreitem’s cooking. A sophisticated, personal synthesis of French, Middle Eastern, American and Japanese flavors, their menu reflects the diversity of the chefs’ backgrounds. (Him: born in Lebanon, raised in Paris. Her: born in Japan, raised in San Francisco and New York.) Ingredients like sumac, tahini, rose water, za’atar, hibiscus and shiso wind seamlessly together, the dictates of flavor being the only restraint.
But it also points to the changing nature of the Paris restaurant scene. With its effusive layering of global influences, Mokonuts, which opened in 2015, is part of a new breed of Paris restaurants that in the last decade or so have played with French classics. Often casual and spare, these innovative restaurants have done away with prix fixe staidness without sacrificing an iota of artful technique.
The succinct, hyper-seasonal menu at Mokonuts, with its thoughtful natural wine list, reads like it’s for a fancy dinner. But the cafe is open only for breakfast and lunch. Every evening, Ms. Hirayama and Mr. Koreitem leave in time to go to make dinner for their young daughters (Mia, 7, and Aly, who’ll turn 5 on Thursday).
“We wanted to be the ones to pick them up from school every day, and put them to bed every night,” Ms. Hirayama said, Aly clinging tightly around her neck.
We were standing in my kitchen in Brooklyn, where Ms. Hirayama was about to show me the secrets of her rye tarte Tatin, once she coaxed Aly down from her arms with a bowl of sliced plums. Mr. Koreitem was already at the stove, blanching Tuscan kale leaves to blend into a sauce for pan-roasted cauliflower. Mia was at the table with a book.
After lunching at Mokonuts last summer, where I devoured white tuna crudo with chermoula and sorrel, and labneh cheesecake with nectarines and red currants, I asked the couple if they’d cook with me the next time they were in New York.
Blanching completed, Mr. Koreitem spooned the tender kale into the blender with toasted almonds and a nutty young pecorino cheese. He sampled the three olive oils in my pantry before deciding which to add. Then he squeezed in lemon, and puréed everything to a bright green pesto, tasting it constantly to adjust the oil, citrus and salt.
“I used to make this with Swiss chard,” he said, “but one day I couldn’t get it, so I tried cavolo nero, and it was just as good.”
Like many chefs of small Parisian restaurants, Mr. Koreitem changes the menu every day, responding to what he can get directly from his small group of farmer-purveyors. But, unlike many of his peers, he’s still apt to rework each dish, even when he can get the same ingredients two days in a row and sometimes in the middle of service, playing with new combinations of spices and condiments.
“I never stick with recipes,” he said as he seared cauliflower florets until charred on one side but barely golden on the other. “I like to cook by feel.”
Although this kind of spontaneous cooking is usually reserved for the savory side of the kitchen, at Mokonuts, Ms. Hirayama also likes to wing it.
Leaning over the counter, after cutting the fleshy cheeks off the apples, she arranged them in a skillet coated in butter and sugar, eyeballing the amounts.
“Baking is a lot more improvisational than people think,” she said as she crammed more and more fruit into the pan, snuggling everything together. “You can get away with a lot.”
This freer attitude was not something the couple picked up in any of the highly regimented bastions of haute cuisine where they trained, including Daniel in New York and Gordon Ramsay in London for Mr. Koreitem, and Ladurée and Senderens in Paris for Ms. Hirayama.
But both had other careers when they met in New York, before becoming chefs. Mr. Koreitem worked for the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, coordinating the use of Yankee Stadium. And Ms. Hirayama was an attorney who swapped the grueling hours of corporate law for the equally grueling ones of piping macarons.
“We didn’t do it the conventional way,” Ms. Hirayama said about the couple’s paths to their careers. “We still don’t.”
As Mr. Koreitem scattered feta, lemon zest and herbs over a plate of crisp-tender cauliflower florets and kale pesto, the scents of caramel, butter and reducing apple juices filled the air. It was time to flip the tarte Tatin.
The girls, wide-eyed and hungry, watched as their mother turned the skillet onto a platter. A glistening, golden pillow of syrupy apples fell into place over the flaky rye flour crust.
They dug in, but I paused to appreciate the unorthodoxy of the moment. Two doting parents who were also extraordinary chefs, with richly varied backgrounds and atypical paths, doing the most ordinary thing in the world — making dinner for their family.
Recipes: Pan-Roasted Cauliflower, Kale Pesto and Feta | Rye Tarte Tatin
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