Israeli-born chef-owner Meny Vaknin of MishMish Café in Montclair, New Jersey, is making some seriously crave-worthy Mediterranean and Middle Eastern food. He marries the French techniques and expertise he learned in culinary school with the flavors, ingredients, and memories of his childhood, and took home top prize on Chopped Champions. Vaknin’s smoked eggplant dip with feta, lemon confit and za’atar was named one of Time Out New York’s “100 Best Dishes of 2013.” Make it at home and see for yourself!

When I was a young boy, my mother would cook a smoked eggplant dish for Shabbat dinner every Friday. Years later I tasted a Turkish version of baba ganoush (that reminded me of my mother’s eggplant) and I learned this recipe from a chef from Istanbul. I combined these two food memories to create my own interpretation of smoked eggplant. I added twists by using labneh and Moroccan seasoning to make it my own.

The smoked eggplant dip is one of the most popular on our menu — I don’t think I can ever take it off the menu. We serve it with freshly baked homemade pita or it is used in other dishes like vegetarian sabich “tacos” with roasted tomatoes, cucumbers, egg, tahini, feta and pita. September is the perfect month to make this dip because the eggplants at the very end of summer are the best. Grilling the eggplants whole may be intimidating, but don’t be afraid. If you want a smokier flavor (like how my mother and grandmother cook eggplant) you can put the eggplant directly on the open flame on the stovetop. The house won’t smell so good, but the smokiness will taste good.