Cookies So Freakin' Good They Made a Shared Culinary Vision a Reality

Visiting Mokonuts, a beloved neighborhood hideout in Paris.

March 23, 2018

Words and photos by Olivia Ware Terenzio 

 

Moko Hirayama shakes off her frayed, flour-dusted apron and pulls on a coat.

It’s a Tuesday afternoon at Mokonuts, and her husband and co-owner Omar Koreitem cranks reggae on the speakers as he wipes down the kitchen. They’ve just devoured plates of staff meal; crispy octopus over creamy white beans that looks poised for primetime. Moko heads toward the door when a man at a two-top stops her.

“This is the best dessert I’ve ever had,” he deadpans, nodding toward the ruins of a lemon tart below. The man is a sommelier at Gaggan, a World’s 50 Best Restaurant in Bangkok, Koreitem mentions later with raised eyebrows. How about that.

It’s the end of lunch service at this 25-seat spot in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, which over-delivers on its “café and bakery” promise, serving fine-dining-worthy small plates and pastries extolled to local-legend heights. Moko and Omar only open to the public for breakfast and lunch – and only on weekdays.

For hours, a non-stop flow of guests squeeze into the dining room’s bare wooden banquettes; now, only a few remain and idle, their attention still drawn to the pocket-sized open kitchen. A countertop displays Moko’s famous cookies and halva cake, now mostly depleted. Crates of curly kale and kabocha squash are stacked at the pass. Shelves above hold bulk capers, preserved lemons, bottles of inky Japanese vinegar, Panamanian coffee, and an eclectic library of cookbooks: Village Paul Bert, Mediterranean Street Food, Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking.

The space epitomizes the many paradoxes of Mokonuts: part coffee-pastry shop, part serious restaurant, occasional post-lunch nibbles. The restaurant is difficult to characterize because it’s so immensely personal to Moko and Omar. It could be anywhere, but not anyone.

It’s a familiar dream among people who live for food: a small place, where they’ll cook only what they want to eat, serve a handful of regular guests who love what they do and do it all on their own terms. Mokonuts is the paradigm.

Every day as he walks to work, Omar dreams up the Franglish menu anew. There are always three starters and two mains, elevated versions of Middle-Eastern inspired dishes built from ingredients ordered (mostly locally) throughout the week. “We just play around with whatever’s in the fridge, just like at home,” Omar shrugs.

One day that’s delicata squash and fried kale atop bergamot-scented tahini, followed by braised tripe, silky treviso, and a soft egg. Another, it’s chewy pita bread dunked in labneh, black olives and za’atar, then delicate white fish, broccoli sprouts and cannellini beans. They opened with inexpensive produce; now they use turbot and fresh truffles. Moko bakes a “cookie of the day” along with her staples, which include miso and sesame, black olive confit with white chocolate, and her signature, chocochunk. (Her secret: a different base dough for every cookie since each has a different rise.)

Omar was born in Lebanon and raised in France, while Moko grew up in Japan and San Francisco. Both were raised in food-obsessed families and began cooking professionally in their 30s after working desk jobs in New York. When they met, eating out became their shared passion, and before long, they were both considering a change of career.

The transition from desk to pass wasn’t easy, but driven by blind ambition and a deep, certain love for the craft, they jumped. 

Omar enrolled at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York, and Moko looked for an unpaid job, which no one wanted to give her without a culinary diploma. No one cared that she had a law degree—or they wondered what on earth she was doing turning to kitchens. 

Both cooked in London before landing in Paris; Omar began his culinary career as a stage at Daniel (“My chef de partie was, like, 10 years younger than me,” he says), but Moko soon grew disenchanted with the city’s Michelin-starred pastry kitchens, which she found rigid and hierarchical. She wasn’t good at intricate pastry work; worse, she didn’t enjoy it.

Until one day, she baked cookies for staff dessert. Her colleagues went crazy. Shocked, she began to sell cookies to friends and family, perfecting the rustic, flavor-centric baking she loved, optimistic visions of a shop of her own spinning in her head. Of course, once she ran the numbers, cookies weren’t going to cut it—that’s when Omar came on board to build out the concept’s savory side.

For its first two weeks, Mokonuts sold coffee, pastries, and sandwiches – until Omar, fed up with sandwiches, thought: why don’t I just do what I know how to do? What he knew was fine dining. “We really wanted to open a place that would reflect who we are, how we eat, and how we cook at home,” he says. Paired with the technical flair he'd come to adopt, the style seemed to fit.

It all jives with the evolution of fine dining globally, which has simple spots run by talented, ingredient-focused chefs rivaling traditional Michelin-starred restaurants. Where it differs is in its unwillingness to compromise – on food, service, even life.

When Moko returns to the restaurant a half-hour after leaving, kicking the door behind her, suddenly everything clicks: the limited service, the insistently small operation. Running ahead of her are two little girls with matching sweatshirts and haircuts, one complaining about a sore throat and the other begging for one of Moko’s coveted treats.

In the two years since they opened, he and Moko have been bombarded with requests to open for dinner and weekends, but they refused. “I’m not hiring somebody to raise my kids,” Moko says. Later on, if the numbers aren’t adding up, maybe they’ll expand their hours – but not until they have to. “We may not make the maximum amount of money, but I’m okay with it.

Working as a mom-and-pop duo made their weekday schedule possible from the beginning. Moko baked mornings and worked the front of house during service, while Omar prepped and cooked savory dishes. “Our saving grace was that we didn’t have to pay anyone,” says Moko. “As long as we could cover the rent, we could live.” Last fall they finally hired their first full-time chef, a new mom who embraced the daytime gig.

The girls settle in and watch videos as their parents finish up, but not before they ask for milk and practice pouring it themselves; press tiny hands against Moko’s face from her lap, and drown out her speaking voice with ambling songs. Moko admits she sometimes feels guilty. “The kids suffer the most.”

That’s the challenge of staying small, but it’s also the reward. Neither Moko nor Omar has interest in moving to a bigger space with a bigger staff, even with the promise of bigger business.

“We would lose a lot of what Mokonuts is. Everything here is centered around family,” says Omar. “People come here not just for the food, but because we’re here.”

The shop officially closes at five, but it’s not empty until past six, when Omar dims the lights to stop the still-trickling flow of guests. Moko grabs the girls’ coats, and they jump up in anticipation. As long as they are visible through the windows, people will keep stopping by.

It’s time to go home.

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