Ithaca Commons will soon greet the newest addition to its restaurant scene: Lev Kitchen, a Middle Eastern-inspired restaurant committed to supporting the Ithaca community.
Founded by two alumni with Masters of Management in Hospitality degrees from the School of Hotel Administration, Lev Kitchen will open its doors to customers on State St. in Ithaca Commons.
Through his work with Sanctuary Kitchen — a nonprofit in New Haven, Connecticut that works with refugees in the culinary industry — Benjamin Plotke ’19 learned about the cuisine of Levant, a region spanning the eastern shore of the Mediterranean sea and surrounding islands. Plotke and his wife Yen Wu ’19 said they hope to bring what they learned to the Ithaca food scene.
Plotke said his experience visiting the Machne Yahuda market in Jerusalem in 2016 helped inspire the restaurant’s grab-and-go style, replicating the atmosphere of a busy market. Malawach, a Yemenite Jewish flatbread, will appear in the restaurant’s breakfast and all-day dishes as main menu items.
Although he first imagined introducing Malawach to the United States after his vivid experience at the market, Plotke only brought this idea to life after he started the Master of Management in Hospitality program in 2018. Through collaborative projects in his Marketing and Restaurant Development classes, he created a plan to open the restaurant.
After finishing his Master’s degree, Plotke delayed the development of this project, moving to Los Angeles to work on supply chain strategy at Everytable. He did not revisit the idea until the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when he and his wife began to scout restaurant locations.
After gauging locations as far-reaching as Santa Monica, they ultimately decided to bring their business back to Ithaca. Plotke expressed excitement at the resources that the Ithaca community and local universities have offered the restaurant.
“Cornell is an incredible resource for us as entrepreneurs,” Plotke said. He cited working with student groups like Big Red Microenterprise as well as the Cornell Law Clinic for legal assistance that he deemed “invaluable.”
According to Plotke, Lev Kitchen will focus on supporting the Ithaca community, sourcing ingredients locally and employing refugees and recent immigrants. The restaurant will highlight local proteins, produce and ciders on the menu. It also partners with Ithaca Welcomes Refugees, Open Doors English and Catholic Charities, all of which are local organizations that support refugees.
Plotke emphasized the restaurant’s commitment to social sustainability, which he noted does not always receive as much attention as environmental sustainability.
“The growth of all our employees is a priority,” he said. “Providing them with real wages, paid training and paths to real opportunity is vital.”
The restaurant will align its menu with The EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, a scientific review that provides healthy and environmentally sustainable dietary recommendations. Mediterranean cuisine’s inherent focus on grains, legumes, fish and dairy aligns closely with these guidelines.
“This makes it possible for us to achieve the goal of aligning the menu with EAT-Lancet,” Plotke said. “If we were doing a wing or burger concept, there is no way we would be able to align the menu with Eat Lancet.”
Students interested in sustainability expressed enthusiasm at Lev Kitchen’s opening with hopes that the restaurant’s values would influence other Ithaca establishments.
“As an Environment and Sustainability major, I am hopeful that this initiative will set the tone for other restaurants looking to become more environmentally and socially sustainable,” said Samantha Rosenberg ’24. “I can’t wait to experience Lev Kitchen and everything it has to offer!”