The Most Reluctant Cook

Most cooks develop an interest in food by helping with the family dinner. Maybe they’re lured by the smell of rosemary or they want to flip Sunday morning pancakes. Then there is Lilly Kanarova, an Uzbeki immigrant who didn’t grow up enamored with food. “My mother is a competent cook, but she’s a kitchen bully,” said Kanarova, now the executive chef and co-owner of Salumi Tapas & Wine Bar in Massapequa and Plancha Tapas & Wine Bar in Garden City. “I was not brought up really helping my mother. It was just, ‘Chop this onion. Chop this carrot. But don’t touch my cooking.’”

Kanarova’s family valued dinner more for sustenance than for socializing. Herbs and fruits found their way into her summer diet, but come winter the only fresh and seasonal ingredients were potatoes and onions. Kanarova grew up in Uzbekistan’s capital city of Tashkent and studied physics before immigrating to New York. A career in computer science allowed her disposable income, which let her start eating out. But although she liked exploring, it took a while for her to develop an appreciation for food. “I was here about three years and I didn’t really like food. I remember thinking, ‘I don’t like this chewing action. It’s a pain.’”

After meeting her partner, Joshua Kobrin, a fellow software engineer, the two explored lower Manhattan’s restaurant scene. Eventually their passions grew and they started to travel to locations like Spain and Northern Africa in a quest for new flavors. The couple started a family and Kanarova began to teach herself how to cook.

Eventually, after having spent 15 years behind computer screens, Kobrin and Kanarova decided to make a change that would involve their mutual passion for eating. Salumi launched with a menu of imported items like Spanish tuna, cheeses, cured meats and Mediterranean olives along with braised dishes like oxtail. More recently they opened Plancha, where the Spanish-style griddle of the same name drives dishes like scallops seared hard and fast and accented with a bold sauce.

Imported food plays a big roll in both restaurants. It’s expensive and complicated to buy overseas, but Kanarova feels buying this way is an irreplaceable element of quality control. “It’s a question of raw material. You can be a skilled salumi- or cheese-maker but if your cow didn’t eat in the Alpine meadow, or you don’t start with the right breed of pig, it’s not going to taste the same. You have to start with exceptional raw materials and do very little to it.” A pretty picky outlook for someone who once objected to the very mechanics of eating, but one that Kanarova has come a long way to earn.