Chef Lior Hillel Puts Openness, Hospitality on Menu
Chef Lior Hillel is the successful co-owner of several popular restaurants. He and his partners, Robert and Danny Kronfli, recently renovated and updated their old restaurant, Bacaro LA, reopening it as Bacari West Adams. Although he’s been openly gay for years, Hillel struggled with coming out, and his experiences in restaurant kitchens were not always positive. Because he doesn’t want others to go through similar challenges, he ensures that his restaurants foster an environment of acceptance and nondiscrimination. Born and raised in Israel, Hillel has a well-regarded, established culinary presence in Los Angeles.
JewishJournal: You moved from Israel to the United States is 2005. Was that for professional reasons?
Lior Hillel: Partially. At the time, being gay in Israel was somewhat difficult. My dad was sick and the decision was made not to let him know — to keep it under wraps. So, part of the decision to move was to advance my career, but also so that I could live life to the fullest.
JJ: How was the culinary experience different here?
LH: It’s less restrictive. It was a dream of mine to go to Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and work with ingredients that didn’t have kosher dietary restrictions. It was profound to my development as a chef.
JJ: How difficult was it to adjust to living in America?
LH: It did not feel natural at first. As an Israeli, I was used to being around family. Family is your safety net and they keep you from falling through the cracks. I had parents, siblings and other family back in Israel. But I had one brother in Pasadena, and I wouldn’t have moved here if he wasn’t here. The transition was difficult and challenging.
JJ: When did you decide to be more open with your family about your sexuality?
LH: The secret was buried in 2009 when my father died. I confessed over an open grave right before they put the soil on. I confessed and completely buried that secret. I knew that I didn’t bring any shame to my family.
JJ: You got married in Israel. What was that like?
LH: It was beautiful. My brother was a little apprehensive at first, but he melted a little when he saw the ceremony. He knew it was special. It was intimate and full of love. It embodied the Jewish traditions that I connect with, such as respect for others and having good values. From that foundation, you can do whatever you want, but you need to have that basic human decency.
“It did not feel natural at first. As an Israeli, I was used to being around family. Family is your safety net and they keep you from falling through the cracks.”
JJ: Did you consciously decide to become an advocate for LGBTQ people in the restaurant industry?
LH: It’s something that evolved over time. I got involved in the ROI community (an international network of Jewish change makers/innovators/entrepreneurs in their 20s and 30s). I wasn’t always treated well throughout my career in kitchens. I was humiliated, put down. There were times when my work was sabotaged. When I got into a position of power or privilege, I knew I wanted to offer a place to work that accommodates the needs of others. If I can make someone’s life easier or smoother, I will definitely do so. Also, part of being Jewish is providing for others, just like some people did for me on some occasions.
JJ: What role does your Judaism play in your life?
LH: I’ve been questioning the religion part because we’ve lost a lot of family members due to cancer. I’ve been wondering why God is allowing this to happen. But I don’t question the values or culture. I embrace the traditions and values fully. My husband, Zachary, is not Jewish, so we have discussed how we will handle having kids.
JJ: What type of food do you serve at your new restaurant?
LH: The food is Mediterranean. When I joined the restaurant group in 2008, I put more of my imprint on the menu. What we have today is an emphasis on fresh, small plates. It’s almost like we’re taking people on a Mediterranean tour. We also have some American dishes. We’re known for using fresh, mostly local ingredients that are full of flavor. I like well-rounded dishes with an acid component, spices, crunch and colors.
JJ: Your business partners are Lebanese. What commonalities do you have that make it a good partnership?
LH: It’s interesting, because we eat the same foods, like the same flavors and have the same type of cooking. We were also raised in many similar ways — things like respecting your elders and having a strict upbringing.
JJ: What kind of experience can guests expect at your restaurant?
LH: They will be treated with great hospitality. This applies to everything from the food to customer service. We treat our guests like they walked into our house. This is a part of Mediterranean hospitality.
Allison Futterman is a writer based in North Carolina.