ITHACA, N.Y.—A new joint is opening on Restaurant Row with a mission to create a sustainable business model that employs refugees and recent immigrants and focuses on sources local ingredients. Lev Kitchen plans on emphasizing local protein, produce and ciders while importing fine wines and spices crucial to the experience Lev’s founders are creating.

Inspired by years spent working with women from the Middle East, Ben Plotke and his wife, Yen, both of whom graduated from Cornell University’s hospitality administration and management program, decided to try to replicate the “sababa” atmosphere (sababa is a Hebrew catch-all for a chill, fun vibe) they experienced in communal markets in Jerusalem. In doing so, they want to combine the atmosphere with their sustainability beliefs and apply it in a restaurant of their own.

Lev Kitchen, located on the Commons in the former Bol space, will be working with Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, Open Doors English and Catholic Charities to get referrals for individuals who may be struggling to find a job because of language or cultural barriers, or credentials and degrees that aren’t as revered in the United States as they were in the country where they were attained.

Set up as a grab-and-go style restaurant, the busy market culture will shift to an atmospheric relaxing hang-out space at night as the restaurant’s garage doors open on the outdoor seating and the sun sets.

Table identifiers featuring beautiful places that inspired Ben and Yen’s restaurant. (Photo by Alyvia Covert)

Malawa, a flakey, crispy flatbread similar to what you would get if you crossed a croissant and a pita bread, is the basic menu concept — a laminated flatbread dough traditionally served with a hardboiled egg and tomato sauce, but Lev Kitchen sees it as the perfect way to serve any flavors.

“One of the other purposes we’re trying to explore with this concept, which is environmental exploration: What is a restaurant that is environmentally friendly?” Ben said. “I was concerned about what the future of the restaurant industry serves.”

Restaurant sustainability generally comes down to the menu, he explained. Usually, 60 to 75% of a restaurant’s operations are impacted directly by protein selections, meaning whether those are animal or plant-based options.

Ben isn’t convinced that everyone is suddenly going to decide that plant-based diets are the way to go, so rather than siding heavily on the carnivore or omnivore sides, he and Yen are aiming for a solid middle ground laid out by a pie chart from the EAT Lancet Report.

“They’re looking at how to healthily feed people and maintain the environment,” Ben said. “The majority of your plate should be vegetables, legumes, fruits, but there are animal proteins and some fish and some eggs. As much as possible, we are going to align our menu to this.”

Aligning the seven core sandwiches (five of which are vegetarian) on the menu to the plate model defined by EAT Lancet means including vegetables, whole grains, starchy vegetables, eggs, meat, dairy, legumes and nuts while still presenting a comforting menu that people crave and seek out.

Sustainability in part will include forming relationships with other programs around Ithaca like the School of Hotel Administration and agricultural programs at Ithaca College.

“Long-term, we hope to show people that a food service operator can do this [sustainably], can treat its people well and provide food that is craveable and keeps people coming back, the real goal is to create craveable vegetarian food that nobody even knows is vegetarian, it doesn’t cross their mind,” Ben said.

Lev Kitchen is planning to open at the end of February with regular hours Sunday through Wednesday of 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and 10 a.m. to midnight Thursday through Saturday. Additional menu exclusives will be offered during the late-night hours. In-house dining and to-go pickup will be available upon opening as well as a grab-and-go fridge display of salads and reheatable options.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...