It has been 25 years since chef Yisrael Aharoni first brought a new culinary message to the crowds in Tel Aviv and opened Israel's first upscale Chinese restaurant, Yin Yang. It didn't take long for a number of new upscale restaurants to appear. Israeli diners became more sophisticated about food and started exploring the gourmet life. A new generation of Israeli chef "wannabes" followed, trying to grab a bite of the up and coming trend. They traveled the oceans and the continents, studying in reputable culinary institutes. And then, having become adept at French, Italian and American cooking techniques, many of them came back to Israel to join the ranks of stylish, very high-priced new establishments, where they could apply and experiment with their new-found knowledge. They changed the local culinary scene dramatically. Thanks to these young enthusiasts, ethnic cuisine and "greasy spoons" no longer dominate the Israeli cuisine. But after a few years, this bubble, like so many others, burst against the harsh reality of the political situation, security fears and economic setbacks, especially in Jerusalem. Savvy, truly talented chefs knew how to adapt. They simplified their menus and lowered the prices at their lavish establishments. Somewhat ironically, this fit in well with the then-current trend that encouraged haute cuisine chefs to adopt simple and traditional cooking methods and movements such as "Slow Food" that concentrated on fresh, local produce. Chef Ezra Kedem knows this process well. In 1991, Kedem first made his mark at "Kedem," owned by famed chef Haim Cohen and Irit Shenkar. One of the country's most respected restaurants, Kedem's menu was inspired by French cooking and Mediterranean flavors. Within the framework of their sumptuously successful restaurant, Kedem and Cohen, who share a passion for traditional family cooking, began searching for an ethnic cuisine that relied on more raw local produce and less on expensive imported foods. Cohen, whose origins are Kurdish, and Kedem, who was raised in an Iraqi family, took pride in their own ethnic culinary roots. Applying modern cooking techniques, they elevated ethnic food to the level of innovative elite cuisine. This was the most significant turning point for the new Israeli kitchen. Subsequently, in 1999, Kedem opened the famous Arcadia Restaurant in Jerusalem, basing his menu on French and Italian cuisine. But after seven months of frantically chasing his suppliers for Italian Parmesan, Norwegian seafood and French goose liver, he realized yet again, as he had in "Kedem," that to put his hands on the freshest ingredients - he doesn't need to go that far. For over more than a decade, Kedem, together with a group of top Israeli chefs including Erez Komarovski, Cohen and Eyal Shani, have taken upon themselves to change the way that Israelis view their dining experiences. "Food is meant to please people and my job as a chef is to create a memorable dining experience for each guest," says Kedem, sipping a bottle of wine in the beautiful herb garden at the entrance to Arcadia. Nestled in one of the small alleyways near the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk, among the old stone houses and synagogues, Arcadia is home to the new Israeli cuisine. For Jerusalem-born Kedem, this is the ideal location for his upscale gourmet restaurant, in which he produces carefully crafted, perfectly chosen foods. "I grew up on my mother's Jerusalemite-Iraqi cooking," says Kedem, "and the dishes I create bring back childhood memories. If it's the eggplant we used to eat at Saturday's breakfast, the okra or even the staple: heartwarming kubbeh soup devoured during cold winters. "My desire has always been to redefine these classic dishes to please today's sophisticated palates. This is the basis of my cooking." Kedem's passions and loyalty to the local terrain have gained admiring attention since he opened Arcadia over a decade ago. It was Kedem's spirit and culinary imagination that have drawn praise from restaurant reviewers and other leading chefs alike. Arcadia has pumped excitement into the Israeli dining scene and there is no doubt that Arcadia continues to showcase Kedem's motivating talent, raising the bar for high-end dining in Israel. Thanks to his success at Arcadia, Kedem has served as culinary adviser for many restaurants and has collaborated with numerous great chefs from within Israel and throughout the world. Interested in all aspects of the culinary art, Kedem has seen his cuisine develop and continues to travel across the globe to learn about different cultures and their varied cuisines. His inventive approach to culinary qualities has led Kedem to develop his own culinary language. Kedem defines the Israeli cuisine as all foods that are grown here, such as seasonal vegetables and fruits, fish, a scattering of meats, grains and local spices. True local cooking, he says, "is based on the growing seasons and requires lots of patience." An inventive chef, Kedem is also well-known for his definitive opinions about food - and about nearly every other aspect of life. "It is the freshness of the foods that dictates use of seasonal raw ingredients," he declares. "I have no desire to create a dish out of squash, zucchini or any other vegetable if it hasn't been brought fresh to the kitchen from the local market. Everything taken from the natural surroundings can end with the best results. "One of my passions is walking down the shuk in Mahaneh Yehuda, looking for the grains, vegetables, and Mediterranean spices. It gives lots of inspiration to the dishes I craft. From boutique wines to outstanding cheeses and superb olive-oils, we have plenty of excellent produce that brings authentic flavors to the kitchen. Tourists from far-away countries and Israelis alike are coming here to experience the unique local taste which they can have at no other place." Kedem is generous with his experience and time and has trained many promising young chefs - including young women - in his kitchens. "I'm proud to see that many of the chefs who trained in Arcadia know the qualities of a fresh local yellowtail fish. Compare that to imported tuna fish, about which they can only make assumptions regarding how long it traveled until it arrived in their kitchen." At Arcadia, Kedem provides his guests an elite dining experience. The food is the centerpiece, but he pays attention to all the details. From the white linen tablecloths to the sterling silverware to the Rosenthal china to the show-cased artwork, Kedem has carefully chosen each component of the decor of his understated elegant restaurant. Yet, in contrast to these stylish surroundings, Kedem is an unassuming chef, dressed in comfortable jeans and a T-shirt, with an old-style kibbutz hat on his head and dark sunglasses over his eyes. Daily, after starting out in Arcadia, Kedem heads for his favorite hang-out, the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk. "Here I feel at home," he says simply. Filled with sounds, colors, and aromas of fresh bread, glorious vegetables and pungent herbs, the alleys of the Mahaneh Yehuda shuk are a marvelous place to wander. Here you can feel the pulse of the city, bumping into shoppers from all religions, ages and nationalities. Here Kedem touches, smells and tastes the great foods at unbeatable prices that will later appear on the elegant plates in his restaurant down the street. The vendors at the Iraqi section of the shuk, usually considered the poorer section, greet him warmly as he passes by. Kedem has the enraptured look of a child in a big, colorful toy store. He comes here daily, sometimes twice a day, yet is always fascinated by the stocks of colorful vegetables, the variety of fruits, the seeds and the spices. On a small side street, Kedem embraces the haredi butcher, where he purchases the meats and poultry for the restaurant. It was difficult to tell whose smile was bigger and more enthusiastic - the butcher or Kedem. They were both excited, as if they had met for the first time yet shared some enthralling secret. Patting a huge chunk of beef hanging on a hook, Kedem nods with approval. The butcher seems even happier. Kedem's enthusiasm grows as he reaches his vegetable supplier - and again, it seems that the vendor supplies the produce, but Kedem supplies - in addition to his orders - a happily contagious mixture of excitement and pleasure. "I have always worked hard to maintain strong ties with vendors," he explains with a smile. "They are the source of Arcadia's flavors. At noon, after spending the day talking about gourmet food, Italian cooking and the future of the Israeli kitchen, Kedem finds it most suitable to stop by "Azura" for lunch Azura is little more than a hole in the wall but Kedem says that these small restaurants are the roots of the elite kitchen that developed later. He squeezes his frame into a tiny space around a crowded table, which Kedem shares with other patrons whom he doesn't know. A tiny eatery located in the heart of the Iraqi market, Azura is an authentic "shuk restaurant." Diners, who come from all walks of life, may choose from among the dozens of pots and pans filled with homemade Sephardi-Jerusalem staples - majadera, rice and beans, fish patties and kubbeh. And the prices are great, too. It is thanks to basic establishments like this that motivated chefs like Ezra Kedem have learned to produce what is now known as elite Israeli cuisine. Leaning back in his chair after a filling meal, Kedem says, "This is the essence of the local melting pot."

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