In his Schöneberg restaurant, ballet dancer Yorai Feinberg has reinvented himself – as well as the best Hummus in Berlin.
Text: Nitay Feigenbaum, Photos: Alejandra Loreto
A rectangular, parlor-sized room. Sandstone-colored walls, steaming plates, flickering candles. Modern oriental-pop lays the bassline to the multicultural soundtrack of Schöneberg’s Feinberg’s. Add in loud peals of laughter, conversations in five different languages and the clinking of glasses filled with Arrak and wine.
Next to us there is a young German couple scanning through the menu, picking out a dessert. To our left, a huge family is chatting in Hebrew across three tables. Across from us, Yorai Feinberg, 35, founder and owner, tells us his story.
“Most people have this romantic dream of owning a restaurant or a bar,” he says as he crosses both arms behind his head. “But as soon as they open up, they’re in for a bad surprise: You won’t be succesful unless you’re willing to sacrifice a lot first. That’s why you need to have unconditional discipline.”
“You won’t be successful unless you are willing to sacrifice a lot first. That’s why you need to have unconditional discipline”
Yorai Feinberg speaks like a true veteran of the infamous Berlin restaurant scene. It’s hard to believe he’s only opened up four years ago, and that he had absolutely nothing to do with gastronomy before that. So, how come he already seems to be an expert now?
Born and raised in Jerusalem, Yorai decides to drop out of school at the age of 16 in order to pursue his big passion: “No, not cooking,” he laughs. “Ballet!” Ever since he was a little boy, Yorai has been dancing. Though, as the years pass, he feels less and less challenged in Jerusalem. His teachers recognize his talent and send him to London and Stuttgart to train with ballet legend Petr Antonovich Pestov.
But everyday life as a ballet student is challenging: Practice for ten hours a day, then go home to study German, English and even Russian, just to understand the dancing teachers. The little time that remains, Yorai uses to watch videos on technique and to continue practising on his own. Ballet turns from passion to obsession. “That’s what I mean when I say unconditional discipline. You stop looking sideways, you stop wondering: Would I rather do something else?”
“That’s what I mean when I say unconditional discipline. You stop looking sideways, you stop wondering: Would I rather do something else?”
Eight years of intensive training pay off in the end: The ballet academy is followed up by an impressive international career. Yorai dances at the Vienna Staatsballett, gets the title of official court jester in Stockholm, performs in Paris, Tokyo, Leipzig, London, Tel Aviv and San Diego. Still, his life doesn’t get any easier. “I never allowed myself any time off. No matter how hard it got or how tired I felt, I always thought: I’m just going to keep doing this until I reach my goal. It’s a fast way to success, but probably not the healthiest. Maybe I’d have had more fun, if I had done something else in those years,” he says with a hint of bitterness.
At some point, Yorai just can’t stand the ballet world with its intrigues and never ending routine anymore. Even though his career could hardly be doing better, he decides to quit dancing from one day to the next at the age of 29. Time to draw the line and start a new chapter.
Starting from scratch
Having never even graduated high-school, Yorai is now forced to reinvent himself. He decides to become a businessman and dives headfirst into the world of import/export. Once again, he won’t take any timeouts. Within the next two years he goes from being unemployed to managing a textile company in Nairobi. And still his new position doesn’t feel quite right either. “There’s too much corruption and crime in this city. That’s no way to live, only being able to leave the house if you have an armored car.”
In 2013, he sets his next challenge: Opening his own Jewish-Sephardic restaurant right in the heart of Berlin-Schöneberg. “Berlin is big, liberal, diverse,” Yorai says. “I wanted to try that.”
Once again, he starts from scratch, having a rather sober outlook on the future: “I was doomed to fail – all the requirements were there. I had close to no money, no experience in gastronomy and no family to back me up. I made every possible mistake you could think of,” he sighs. “But problems will always come up sooner or later. What’s most important is to quickly recognize your mistakes, and correct them even quicker.”
“Problems will always come up sooner or later. What’s most important is to quickly recognize your mistakes, and correct them even quicker”
And so he once again works relentlessly. He opens up early in the morning and closes late at night, spends the time in between cooking and cleaning, waiting tables and making plans for the coming weeks. “Every day I tried to get a bit more perfect, and my guests saw that,” he says somewhat proudly.
The restaurant does surprisingly well. After two weeks there already are regulars coming in daily. Three months later reservations fill up almost every evening.
The secret to Feinberg’s quick success
So, what’s the secret to this quick success? Hiring celebrity chefs? Sophisticated marketing strategies? Yorai raises an eyebrow. No, none of these. “You just need to have a close relationship with your guests. You are more than just a restaurant manager, you are their host.”
“You need to have a close relationship with your guests. You are more than just a restaurant manager, you are their host”
Yorai tells us about Feinberg’s first month. Depsite the constant stress, he takes the time to sit down and talk with every single one of his guests. He is curious, wants to get to know the people in his restaurant, what brought them here, how they liked the food, if the hummus could use some more salt or the falafel needs to be cooked longer. By the time his guests leave the restaurant, Yorai knows them by their first name. And in the following months, many keep coming back to check on the progress he’s making. “The people of the Kiez adopted me.”
Funnily enough, the restaurant was originally supposed to be just a means to an end. In the beginning, Yorai had meant to bring Hummus and Israeli salads to the Berlin supermarkets. “While cooking, we were experimenting with Hummus every day. We were trying to develop our own Feinberg’s salad-chain. Then I realized that owning a restaurant means 14 hours of work daily, which doesn’t leave time for selling salads.” Nonetheless, the result of those experiments was an exceptionally good Hummus, which critics went on to declare best of Berlin. But Yorai wouldn’t be Yorai, if he were satisfied with just that. “I still try new variations. Hummus can always get better.”
As the years go by the restauant keeps growing. This May Feinberg’s moved into the house next door, quadrupling the available space. Lots of work to be done until summer.
Does that mean he will stay in gastronomy for good or will he soon completely change direction once more, we want to know. Yorai smiles. Next to us, the young couple puts on their coats, the Israeli family turns to leave, too. Yorai pours us another Arrak. “I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a year from now. But at the moment, I’m living the moment.”