When Yaniv Cohen is in the kitchen, every day is Mother’s Day. And Grandmother’s Day.
The handsome Israeli-American with the unearthly, nearly transparent eyes and the love for full-fat labneh learned almost everything he knows about cooking from family.
He gives credit where credit is due: “The masters of cooking were my mom and my two grandmoms, and my aunts too,” Cohen says.
“We had a big family and every Thursday was like a war room, cooking for Shabbat. It was like a big catered event. It’s not as if we served a main dish and a side dish. We had six to eight different starters to create a vegetarian mezze platter, and went from there. The number of dishes that came out of our small kitchen was amazing, for so many years. That,” he says, “was the training.”
The origin story of The Spice Detective is also about family; the inspiration for Cohen’s catchy brand came from the birth of his daughter eight years ago. In true Miami Modern Family style,
Cohen is raising his daughter with a married female couple: her moms. “My daughter’s two moms didn’t grow up with these spices, so it was very important to me that my daughter develop a taste for the cuisine that I grew up with,” he says.
“What was profound was that her moms actually said to me, ‘This is too important and too interesting to keep it just within our family. You need to create a platform so people can be exposed to this.’”
Cohen took their advice to heart: In 2014, he launched The Spice Detective blog; a YouTube channel followed. Then came pop-up dinners, private cooking classes — and his other baby, Jaffa Café in the Design District’s St. Roch Café.
The concept has proved so popular that Jaffa moved to a larger space in the market. “It has wraparound seating, so it’s more like a restaurant than a booth,” Cohen says. “It’s the only space with its own seating.” A second Miami location seems in the cards.
“Part of what I do is take classics and add an Israel/Mediterranean twist to it,” he says. “Instead of using cilantro, we’ll use mint.”
Some of his go-to spices are sumac, cumin, turmeric, and cinnamon — and Cohen’s number one is za’atar, a mix of ground dried thyme and other herbs. “Once my followers hear about za’atar on Instagram, they are like, ‘My whole palate has changed. I use it on everything.’”
Meanwhile, Cohen’s digitally savvy brand is readying for a more tangible channel: the summer publication of My Spiced Kitchen: A Middle Eastern Cookbook.
“Some are old favorites from my grandma and mom, and others are new creations,” he explains. “It has 50 chapters, with each chapter dedicated to one spice — I write about the origin of the spice, the flavors, the properties and how to use them.” But for the present, only Miamians can see Cohen in the flesh.
And perhaps more than one Cohen. “You know what my mom said to me? ‘I cannot wait to come and cook with you for Jaffa.’”
And then Yaniv’s green eyes light up, even more than usual.