The sizzle of lamb chops on an open flame muffles the rhythmic click of a sharp blade against a cutting board. In one corner of the small kitchen, a young Israeli sous-chef who is learning the tricks of the trade sits on a shiny surface adjusting the radio. Two other assistants watch quietly from a distance as Chef Ilai Tomer, the owner and head chef of Ronnie James, a new restaurant in Tel Aviv, moves into action.
"On Monday nights, the kitchen staff has time to relax. But later in the week, it's a different story," Tomer says, adding that the busiest times are Thursday and Friday nights, when the restaurant is often full and requires double-time motion from everyone on staff.
"Everything has to come out perfectly, and that means having synchronized timing and coordinating the dishes so they all come out together. When we have a full house, that can be a real challenge," he says, adjusting the front of his black chef's uniform.
On a silver countertop in the center of the room, scratched by stray knife slices, rows of Saran-wrapped bowls filled with chopped green peppers, fresh arugula leaves, vine-ripe tomatoes and bright lemons form a tapestry of colors.
"I learned everything I know by myself or from books and television," Tomer says, flipping the lamb chops with one smooth turn of the wrist and then clicking the tongs together in empty air.
"I am completely self-taught," he says, keeping one eye on the color of the cooking meat as he adjusts the dials on the enormous oven to his right.
After about three minutes, Tomer puts the chops in to bake and asks Niran, the sous-chef, to prepare the mango slices, Italian artichokes, grated Parmesan and veal carpaccio for our first appetizer.
Back in the dining room, Tomer takes me on a tour of Ronnie James, a name he chose in honor of the diminutive heavy-metal vocalist (Ronnie James Dio) who replaced Ozzie Osbourne at Black Sabbath in the late 1970s. "I like their music and I think the name has a European flair to it, like the one we're trying to create here," he explains.
In the background, a gentle melody fills the intimate space. Dimly-lit crystal chandeliers hang above a small number of mahogany tables and matching chairs. Delicate curtains block out the fluorescent street lights on one wall, contrasting against the dark floorboards. And although it is well before the dinner hour, every table has been meticulously set with silverware and sparkling wine glasses. An attractive blonde leans on a hostess stand near the enormous wooden door, ready to greet guests the minute they enter. Two steps below in the second room, a smiling waitress in a crisp, white button-down offers espresso from behind a bar stocked with an impressive array of imported liquors.
"No one knew who I was when I came to Tel Aviv," Tomer says. "I'm not involved in the chef scene. I don't know other chefs. What concerns me is the feedback from my customers."
TOMER SAYS his love for cooking began at home. "My three sons are picky eaters, and every day they wanted something new. It was beyond them to eat leftovers or junk food," he says, smiling at the years of making home-cooked meals that would satisfy the high standards of his offspring. "My wife worked long hours in marketing, so I was the one in charge of dinner for years, and my boys all have meat in their blood. With such tough customers to please, there was no choice but to open some books and get creative."
Today, Tomer's oldest son has just finished his army service and his second son is just beginning his. His youngest son, 12, still lives at home with Tomer and his wife on Moshav Bnei Dror.
"My day usually starts between 9 a.m. and noon, depending on how much I got done the night before," he says. The first thing he does when he gets to the restaurant is check its Web site to read the feedback from customers. "If there are problems, I want to know about it. And if something was good, I want to know that too."
Three or four times a week, Tomer visits the Carmel Market for his food shopping. "Buying the fresh meat and vegetables that I need takes five minutes, but watching soccer and talking takes another hour and a half."
Tomer adds that he enjoys the ritual market visits and the social interaction with the sellers. "I like simple people, and the shouk is a fun place to be. Taking a stroll through the market also gives me new ideas, and I like seeing the special items that I'm going to serve with my own eyes first."
The same meticulous adherence to high standards applies to the cooking process.
"I have a sous-chef that helps with some things, but I do all of the cooking myself. I am the only one who can cook the lentils, for example. I use reduced bone marrow and the process takes more than two days, but the end result is worth it," he says.
Tomer also prepares the veal and lamb casseroles. "It takes a lot of hours and a lot of patience to make sure these dishes meet my standards," he says.
Not a fan of using too many spices or cooking anything in plain water, Tomer says the delicate flavor of the meat and vegetables blends beautifully when simmered in rich broths for long enough at the right temperature.
"I've spent years perfecting my method and I have a very European menu," he says, urging me to taste the sea fish tartar garnished with black caviar, the veal carpaccio accompanied by fresh mango slices and Italian artichokes and the roasted lamb ribs served on a bed of black lentils and beef stock.
As we enjoy mouthwatering bites of ribs and fish tartar, Tomer explains that Ronnie James serves a business lunch from noon to 4 p.m. and dinner from 7 p.m. to midnight, Monday through Friday, which means he sometimes works 16 hours a day. "Like I said earlier, I don't do it for the money. I do it because I love to be in the kitchen and I love cooking. For me, it's a passion."
Despite his lack of formal training, years of experience and experimentation in the kitchen have come in handy in ways that he did not anticipate.
"I always work from my gut, and I like to come out and talk to the diners and see what their reactions are because I'm used to getting my sons' reactions," says Tomer, who ran a two-week "tasting" period before opening to the general public. "We wanted to make sure the food was what people liked, and we got rid of some things and added some new things based on what people were telling us and what was selling."
The son of Argentinean immigrants, Tomer was born on Kibbutz Nir Am in the Negev and then moved to Moshav Bnei Dror as an adolescent. "It would sound nice to say my mom taught me everything I know, but it wouldn't be true," he jokes, a mischievous glint in his bright blue eyes. After his IDF service, Tomer returned to the moshav, married his teenage sweetheart and started growing roses with his wife's father for export.
Today, he still lives on the moshav with his wife and sons and says that after long hours in Tel Aviv, its peace and quiet offers an essential respite.
"My wife is also the daughter of Argentinean immigrants, and I met her when I was 14. We've been together since we were 17, and we got married when I was 22. But the family connections go even further because my sister married my wife's brother," Tomer, now 46, tells me after a brief chat on his cellphone. "That was my wife. The long hours I'm working now have been a hard adjustment for my family. I was like the mother for many years, and suddenly there is no father."
Four years ago, as the rose export business waned, Tomer decided to open a lunch restaurant in Kfar Saba called Tsetsa. Encouraged by the success of his first culinary endeavor, he realized that the time had come to make his way to the cultural capital of Tel Aviv. "We opened right in time for the war," says Tomer, lighting a Marlboro Red and leaning back in his chair. But despite the bad timing, Ronnie James has received rave reviews and already collected a handful of regulars.
Just across from the hulking base of the Shalom Tower, where honking cars and speeding buses move through the busy intersection of Herzl and Montefiore streets outside, Tomer says that the exterior chaos further emphasizes the quiet, romantic haven inside. "Outside it's hell, but in here, it's heaven," he says as he takes another sip of soda.
A brief culinary history
Archeologists note that the practice of cooking dates back to the first human settlements when spitted game meat was roasted in fire pits. Later, bread was created, livestock were domesticated and edible plants were grown. Perhaps the most important step forward in culinary history was the invention of pottery, which made it possible to boil, braise and stew food, especially savory meat dishes. Different methods of preserving meat were discovered, and the practice of using herbs as flavor enhancers began.
As settlements grew large enough for specialized labor, cooking was recognized as a legitimate profession. According to e-cookingschools.com, the first cooking contest, at the behest of an Assyrian king, dates back to 600 BCE and the first known cookbook (written by a Greek named Archestratus sometime after 400 BCE) was titled Hedypathia (pleasant living).
It took many centuries to develop the sophisticated culinary techniques used by modern chefs. History credits the Roman Emperor Trajan with founding the first professional cooking organization in the late first century CE. In 961, the first recorded inn, Le Grand Saint Bernard Hospice, opened in Switzerland. Nearly 600 years later in Constantinople, the first caf is thought to have been founded in 1550. The term restaurant comes from the French verb restorer (which literally refers to the process of restoring oneself with food and drink) and the first known establishment of this kind was in Paris in 1765. Since 1895, when Marthe Distell founded the first cooking school, Le Cordon Bleu, similar institutions have been opening all over the world.
For those considering becoming a chef, the advice from successful professionals resonates with the same underlying message: Only become a chef if you enjoy being in the kitchen and preparing food and if you can handle long, grueling hours. They all reiterate that one should never become a chef for the financial gain.
In Israel, two institutions offer culinary courses: the Tadmor Hotel School in Herzliya, which has a range of culinary courses to compliment the hotel management program, and the Kosher Culinary Academy in Jerusalem, where a one-year program for aspiring chefs is available. However, many Israelis also choose to study in European or American programs and a plethora of international options exist.
The Reluctant Gourmet Web site (www.reluctantgourmet.com) has an informative article with seven steps to consider when trying to choose a culinary school that's right for you. First you should consider what your plans are after graduation. Then, determine what is most important in a school, such as location, entry requirements, reputation, class size, facilities, etc. This will help you narrow down the choices before you apply and make sure your decision is well-informed.
Yet despite the thousands of culinary institutions worldwide and the enormous range of specialties available, as Chef Ilai Tomer's success exemplifies, formal training is not a requirement, and sometimes having an internship or years of experience at home is enough, especially if food is your passion.