Food Forethought: An interview with restaurateur Tal Baum

Tal Baum

This month, we’re in conversation with Tal Baum, owner of Oliva Restaurant Group, which includes Bellina Alimentari, new Westside spot Aziza, and the soon-to-be-opened Rina.

You went to school for architecture, not for food. But both are about hospitality to a certain extent. How has your study of buildings helped you to launch restaurants?

My background in architecture and the skill set my previous life equipped me with is something I use every day at the restaurant. As an architect, you learn how to transform a void into a reality. Bringing a concept to life is a very similar journey.

All three of your concepts are in mixed-use developments: first Ponce City Market, now Westside Provisions and the Ford Factory lofts. Why not a stand-alone place?
All three properties provide a great sense of community that I love being a part of. Plus, with my background in architecture, I’m a firm believer in using every piece of land in urban territories to their fullest extent and each of those properties truly excels at doing so.

You’ve worked extensively in Italian kitchens and even authored an Italian cookbook. Yet when Bellina Alimentari opened, you named Brandon Hughes as chef. Why not do the cooking yourself?
While I am passionate about cooking, I am not a professional chef. I come to the restaurant from the business side where I oversee the operations, branding, expansion, and so on. Brandon has been instrumental to our success and his personal taste and takes on classic recipes sets us apart as a restaurant group.

As you prep for two new projects, you’ve also named Chef Hughes as the Executive Chef overseeing menus for all three of your restaurants. How has his Italian work at Bellina Alimentari convinced you he is ready to tackle the Israeli food at Aziza and Rina?Brandon is incredibly talented. He has always been eager to learn – we’ve traveled to Israel together and he has spent a lot of time studying the cuisine and region before taking on this role at Aziza and Rina. He has a great sensibility of the final plate we are serving our guests and understands how to make every dish delicious and exciting. I believe that he would be able to excel with any cuisine I challenge him with.

What do you cook for your little kids at home?
We love to make pasta together as a family. My kids don’t like plain pasta so it always comes with a delicious and seasonal sauce. We also spend a lot of time during the summer grilling and using vegetables from our backyard garden.

Aziza

When most Southerners think of Middle Eastern cuisine, their first and only thought is falafel. With the success of some Spanish tapas places, we are at least beginning to understand sharing plates. What will Aziza offer to the more adventurous who are ready to level-up?
I would say that our Jerusalem Mix are the most adventurous items on the menu. They are Moroccan cigars filled with veal sweetbreads and chicken liver mousse. Each bite is so decadent. It’s easily one of my favorite items on the menu with a unique texture and flavor profile.

Do you expect Aziza or Rina to eventually offer breakfast? What’s an Israeli breakfast about, anyway?
We are planning to serve brunch at Aziza in the future. Breakfast always consists of a lot of mezze and salads. This is, for the most part, a savory meal. You always start with fresh vegetables, eggs, cheeses, and freshly baked bread. Although, you might have some jams and preserves to finish off the meal.

Bellina also offers cooking classes and various kinds of workshops. What kind of events do you hope to bring to Aziza and Rina?
At Aziza, we have a beautiful private dining room that can accommodate up to 18 guests for any kind of dinner party. We are hoping to offer a special family-style menu that can cater to any needs in the future as well.

Rina is named after your grandmother. What are some of the best lessons she gave you that will make this restaurant worthy of her name?
My grandmother gave me my passion for cooking. I learned everything from her, including a full understanding of flavors and seasoning. She is the reason I love spending time in the kitchen and feeding others, and I am so lucky to get to pursue that every day.

Of all the many excellent restaurant groups in Atlanta, only two are co-owned by women: Stephanie Castellucci of Castellucci Hospitality Group and Chef Anne Quatrano of Star Provisions Restaurants. As sole owner of Oliva Restaurant Group, you’re something of a unicorn. What advice do you have for other female restauranteurs?
Always believe in yourself and stay true to who you are. I always try to operate according to that philosophy and it pushes me to fight against all odds. I choose to use women empowerment as a source of motivation in everything I do.

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