Where gut feeling and good reasoning meet

NENI is a culinary success story. At 54, together with her sons, Haya Molcho opened her first restaurant at Vienna’s Naschmarkt. The business has since grown to include twelve NENI restaurants in seven countries, as well as cookbooks and retail products. An interview with Haya and her son Elior Molcho.

Haya Molcho and her son
Haya and her son Elior.
Portrait of Haya Molcho

What's it all about?

  • The first NENI in Vienna
  • Haya relies on her gut feeling
  • Inspiration for new recipes
  • Working together as a family
The restaurant "Neni"

Haya, Elior, you and your family don’t have formal training in the restaurant business. Looking back, would you do things differently if you had to do it all again?

Elior: Oh, yeah! 😀 But it’s when you’re making mistakes that you often learn the most. When we were starting out, we hired friends who had never worked in a service job before. Or we remodelled a restaurant space – and then realised after the fact that we should have got a building permit first.
Right, I built the toilet at our first location three times. (laughs) But we also dared to do things that other people – especially trained food service professionals – might not have.

Elior: At the beginning, we set the prices for our products based on our gut feeling ... just by asking ‘How much would we pay for that?’

But in 2009, your gut feeling proved a good guide – at your first location, NENI am Naschmarkt.

Haya: Back then, it was extremely tough to get a place there. With the restaurant, it was like with our house 42 years ago. With the house, I knew right away, I’m going to raise my kids here. With the Naschmarkt location, I had the same kind of feeling. Nobody else wanted it. The rubbish bags were piled up there, there were rats ... I said: this is the place.
Elior: But that’s one of our mother’s huge talents. She sees something and knows straightaway what can be done with it.

Why the name  NENI

The name NENI is composed of the initials of Haya Molcho’s sons’ names:

N 👉 Nuriel
👉 Elior
👉 Nadiv
👉 Ilan

Where do you still rely on your gut feeling? And where don’t you?

Haya: The products in the supermarkets, the cooperation with the hotel chain 25hours – we followed our gut feeling on those, too.
(waves his hand) But these days we have a responsibility to 200 employees, so we have to do things a little differently.
When we’re developing new products and dishes, we have to ask ourselves questions like: how much electricity will that take? How much in cost of goods sold? How many plates will the service need, how much time will it take to bring it all to the table? Especially now, considering the current energy prices and staff shortages. That’s why in the restaurant business, we never stand still. We constantly have to rethink things! But I’ve never stopped listening to my gut feeling as well.

Where do you look for inspiration for your cuisine?

Haya: I spent my childhood in Tel Aviv, although I was out running around a lot more of the time than I was at home. In Israel, we have an eclectic cuisine. Our ancestors came from all over the world. I brought those influences into the food I make. These flavours from my childhood just won’t let go.

And how do new recipes come about?

Haya: Just yesterday! I want to offer an ossobuco soon – that is, veal that’s stewed for two hours on the bone. It tried it out yesterday on my family. That’s how it’s always been. With my four boys, we always had a full house. I actually never cooked for less than 30 people at home, and for bar mitzvahs it was more like 300.

So, even though you studied psychology and didn’t have classical culinary training, you didn’t actually enter this business laterally.

Haya: Right, and that isn’t the way I see myself, either. Above all, cooking means being curious. And learning means actively exploring the possibilities of different foods.

No matter how hard we fight, we hug each other afterwards and let each other know: nothing can tear us apart as a family.

Elior Molcho

Three out of the four Molcho sons work with you in the NENI business. Spending not just free time but also your work time with family members must get stressful sometimes.

Haya: Sure, sometimes the fur flies. But the exchange that happens is the most important thing.
No matter how hard we fight, and we really know how to fight (winks), we hug each other afterwards and let each other know: nothing can tear us apart as a family. That’s how our parents raised us from when we were small. So in business, too, we always have to find a solution, because we want to get along as a family.

But – democracy notwithstanding – when you can’t reach a consensus, who has the final say?

Haya: Ilan.
He’s the CEO.

Recipe tip: Arayes - by Haya Molcho

Recipe: arayes – by Haya Molcho

Many influences come together to make the NENI flavour. Haya Molcho has divulged the makings of one meal for you to try. To the recipe for arayes

For part of the first Covid lockdown, your family even lived together under one roof again.

Haya: Yeah, that was wonderful. We lived a real kibbutz life! We did yoga together, cooked together, all my sons and their wives and girlfriends, who are also part of the family. The dogs were there, too. I loved all of that. My wish for the future would be that kind of a life – like on a farm, with good food, home-made products, children, animals ... I think that’s a beautiful vision.

In the meantime, though, you’ve got other projects on the near horizon. What’s the next thing on the agenda?

Elior: Our product line ‘NENI am Tisch’ will soon also be available in supermarkets in Switzerland and the Netherlands. And we’re planning further locations.

You operate your Vienna locations yourselves, and the other NENI restaurants are franchises. Haya, how closely do you work with the franchise employees?

Haya: Oh, very closely! All the chefs from NENI on Majorca, for example, come here to Vienna and we cook together. NENI is a philosophy, a spirit. And we support the locations with the full range of our know-how.

In addition to all that, your family is pursuing a number of further projects.

Haya: As a family, we’ve never been big planners. What’s always been important to me is that we’re all happy. Each of us truly follows their passion. For example, Nuriel also has a hat business. Why? Because he wanted to buy a hat and couldn’t find one that fit. So he opened a hat shop! And in addition to NENI, Elior has also just opened his own restaurant, Kvetch. My father always said: never invest everything in just one project. That’s a way of thinking that I grew up with. Along with the conviction that there’s nothing you can’t achieve – as long as you work hard at it!

Portrait Haya Molcho

About ... Haya Molcho

Haya Molcho was born in Tel Aviv in 1955. Her childhood there formed her, both culinarily and culturally. At the age of nine, Haya moved to Bremen with her family. After completing her A levels, she studied psychology. In 1978 she married the mime and body language expert Samy Molcho, with whom she toured the world for seven years. Between 1984 and 1990, Haya bore four sons: Nuriel, Elior, Ilan and Nadiv. NENI is composed of the initials of their names. The devoted cook opened her first restaurant in 2009 together with two of her sons. Four of the Molchos now jointly run the family business – ‘democratically,’ Haya emphasises.

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