Roni Zahut grew up in Kiryat Ono in a traditional home of Libyan-born parents and grandparents and never thought about being a chef until he was out of the army and 22 years old.

“I started to cook at home, and I did it well. I didn’t mean to go in this direction, but after a while some friends and family saw the way I made food, the presentation and how I wanted everything to be perfect. Someone said, ‘Why don’t you go study?’” he says.

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That became a well-planned 15 years.

“I told myself from the beginning, ‘First you go to hotels and study as much as you can. After that, you have to go from restaurant to another,’” explains Zahut.

First he completed a one-year course in the Dan Hotels School and then worked in two Tel Aviv Dan hotels. From there, it was a string of restaurants to gain experience – three including Mul Yam in Tel Aviv, the best restaurant in Israel for the past six years according to the Israel Restaurant Association.

In 1999, he decided to study cooking and pastry at the Cordon Bleu, the world-renowned culinary institution, in London.

“Until then, my father was completely against my making a living as a chef and wanted me to quit.

When I said I needed to go to the Cordon Bleu, he knew I was serious and agreed to pay for it.” Zahut says.

After an apprenticeship at five of the five-star Broadmoor Hotel restaurants in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he returned to Israel in 2002 and started working in various restaurants, as well as doing gourmet catering in private homes.

In May the owner of Beit Hama’ayan, which 37-year-old Zahut calls “a Mediterranean restaurant with Italian influences,” and Pundak Ein Kerem (the non-kosher restaurant next door) asked him if he would like to be chef of the kosher Beit Hama’ayan.

“He is a friend of mine; we were kids together. Although I live in Kfar Saba, I decided it was good for me.”

Beit Hama’ayan sits on a quiet street in Ein Kerem. The historic structure has thick Jerusalem stone walls with arches and tile floors. On the main floor is a bar area and four rooms with original artwork on the walls and wooden tables and chairs that seat 71. Up three sets of wooden stairs is a rooftop deck with umbrellas and seating for 80.

Zahut gets up at 5:30 every morning to take out the dog, then he says good-bye to his wife of two years, a dance therapist who works with children, and takes the bus to Jerusalem. He opens the kitchen, makes preparations and checks the menus, which change every season. The restaurant tries to have one special every day.

The menu at Beit Hama’ayan offers seven kinds of pasta, as well as focaccia, fish, soups, bruschetta, and 11 antipasti and salad dishes, not to mention beverages and desserts. A business lunch is also available.

Zahut loves the diversity in his kitchen, with a sous chef from Moscow and four cooks – two native-born Jewish Israelis, one Israeli Arab and one Ukrainian.

The customers at Beit Hama’ayan include a few tourists but are mostly from Jerusalem.

Thinking about the food he prepares, Zahut says he thinks there is such a thing as Israeli cuisine “but it is difficult to say that it’s only from Israel. Every time I was out of the country, people asked me if I could make Israeli food. But Israel has so many different cultures.
We all came from different parts of the world, and each brought in their own foods.”

In the future, Zahut says, “I see myself opening my own place.

Light Italian style, in a small place, like a village, not in a big city. I was born and grew up in Kiryat Ono, which was then a village. It’s not something you can do every day; you have to make the right plan.”

Beit Hama’ayan is located at Rehov Hama’ayan 14 in Ein Kerem (Tel: 644-8840). It is open Sunday through Thursday, from 9:30 a.m. to the last customer; Friday from 9:30 a.m. until an hour and a half before Shabbat; Saturday evening, one hour after the end of Shabbat until the last customer.
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