“I’ve always loved food, since we were young my dad’s always had us in the kitchen, we always loved cooking.”
We’re tucked away down a Leederville laneway, having a coffee and a chat with Benji Kotkis, the man behind pop up juggernaut Yalla Bala.
It’s hard to imagine that his first pop up was at the tail end of 2021 – now, less than two years later, he’s gearing up to open a permanent hole-in-the-wall spot across just metres away from where we’re sitting in Electric Lane.
From first go at a pop up to brick and mortar in under two years? It seems wild – until you actually chat to Benji and you’re faced with his irrepressible passion for Middle Eastern cuisine, and his doggedly determined approach to Yalla Bala.
“I’ve always loved Middle Eastern food, we went to visit my uncle in Israel once and I was just obsessed with the food – the shawarmas, the hummus bowls, everything’s so fresh.”
“The Mediterranean diet’s so fresh, healthy, quick and accessible. You don’t have to sit down at a table, you can just grab and go and eat. It’s a fast-paced sort of thing, and I just love that.”
“I made it my mission that every time I’d go and visit I’d learn as much as I could, research, cook, do what I could – nag the best chefs there for recipes, nag some of the best American-Middle Eastern chefs for recipes – then I just practiced, practiced, practiced. I reckon for two years I tried to make falafel every night, until I found the right recipe.”
At the end of that two years, he was ready to emerge into the world – perfectly crisp, fluffy and herbaceous falafel in hand.
“Eventually Micrology Coffee gave me my first chance to do a pop up. I got some nice traction with that – the goal was always to open up a little takeaway spot. I saw the efficiency in the Middle East of these little hole-in-the-walls, it was just incredible.”
“I’m really glad that I did those pop ups – it gave us some growth organically. But also the learning curves! I’m the first to admit I’m not a chef – but I work really hard and I’m the first person to ask for advice and help, and to utilise my friends in the industry. I’m very lucky to have some gorgeous, amazing friends and family that help me out.”
It was this series of pop ups that introduced Yalla Bala to Perth at large – and every time he’s set up at a venue, we’ve found our feeds inundated with photos of gloriously golden drizzles of amba mingling with tahini, fluffy pita and mesmerising swirls of hummus.
Since then, Benji has also introduced a retail range – with hummus and falafel available at gourmet grocers and select venues around Perth – soon to be available at his pint-sized window in the former Servo kebab site.
In keeping with the pita pocket-sized location, the window’s takeaway menu will be succinct, focusing on a handful of dishes that he’s mastered over the last couple of years.
“The goal is to give people quality Middle Eastern food, without a long wait, that’s fresh, healthy, delicious – and not make them think to much about what they want. It’s going to be a small menu, probably four to six options, in and out, everything fresh. Very herbaceous, lots of gorgeous sauces, spicy – it’ll be nice!”
Amongst those options? The crowd-pleasing chicken shawarma or falafel pita topped with pickled and fresh veggies, and “lots of sauces” including hummus, tahini and amba. Ultra-pillowy pita are baked in repurposed pizza oven at high temperatures, and he hopes to not only offer the breads as part of his retail range, but expand to gluten free options in the future.
There’ll also be a hummus and falafel plate on offer, topped with extra pickled veg options courtesy of The Epicurean Foodie.
“Louisa, she’s the absolute boss. She’s gonna be making amba spiced pickled veg, and we’re going to be doing this incredible red cabbage with apple shaved through it, it’s going to be so yum on the plates. We formulated some recipes together and I’m really lucky to have her, and it’s nice to also work together with another local Perth food producer.”
“I’ll probably run a weekly or fortnightly special, but if you have the basics down pat I don’t think you have to overcomplicate it – if you have a nice product.”
As well as acknowledging the help of his friends and family in bringing Yalla Bala to life, he makes sure to shout out both Chris Bottega, executive chef at Servo (“I couldn’t have done it without Chris. He’s incredible, he had me in to cook a dinner, he’s so supportive!”) and his soon-to-be neighbours at Powell’s (“They’ve been very supportive of us, very sweet.”).
“It’s a nice family vibe. Food’s a really family-oriented, cultural thing for me.”
“I just want it to be a little shawarma party! Lunch runs, people sitting on beer crates, businessmen in suits, young kids, whoever.”
“Leederville’s got plenty of amazing restaurants, Leederville’s popping again you know – it’s a great little spot, I’m very lucky. I’m lucky, but I’ve also been grafting and putting the hard work in!”
“Gary Player, the golfer, once said ‘The more I practice, the luckier I get’… It’s one of my favourite sayings.”
“As long as you graft hard and put everything into it, I don’t see why it can’t succeed.”
Yalla Bala is scheduled to open mid-October, and will be located at 9 Electric Lane, Leederville.