One has to wonder what the Jerusalem Municipality was thinking when, as a tribute to 40 years of a united Jerusalem, it pitted top chefs from Tel Aviv against chefs from Jerusalem in a gourmet cooking competition.
At the risk of sounding unfaithful to the city I live in, I could understand a contest between the metropolis and the capital for the best rugelach, the best Jewish art, the best rabbis - but the best gourmet meal?
Anyone conversant with in the Israeli culinary scene could easily have predicted the winner even before the contest began. Jerusalem may be the capital of Israel, but Tel Aviv is the capital of Israel's restaurant industry. While many talented chefs were born and raised in Jerusalem, those seeking a career in the kitchen eventually moved to the big city, like Aviv Moshe of Messa and Rafi Cohen of Raphael, where the cosmopolitan cooking culture pushes them to international standards of excellence.
But if the event was meant to promote the last weekend of the Hamshushalayim festival, during which cultural institutions are open to the public free of charge and local restaurants offer special menus, the competition was well done. The conference hall of the Inbal Hotel, where the event was held on Monday, was packed with city officials, journalists and press photographers vying for a glimpse - and perhaps a bite - of the two four-course meals inspired by the holy city.
"We are sure Jerusalem will win," said Tal Marom Malovec, spokesperson of the tourism and culture unit of the Jerusalem Municipality, ahead of the competition. "They worked a full week on the menus, the plan. They'll give Tel Aviv a fight."
But Jerusalem set itself up for defeat when it invited Meir Adoni, chef of the acclaimed Catit restaurant, to be part of the Tel Aviv team, along with Shaul Ben-Aderet of Kimel, Chef Antonio Mensa of Ali-Oli, and Chef Hadassa Wolf of Comme Il Faut. Catit was recently voted by readers of Time Out magazine as the best restaurant in Tel Aviv, and a few weeks before that, Adoni became an instant national chef celebrity when he was the first of four Israeli chefs (including Aviv Moshe) to beat out French chef Stephane Froidevaux in Channel 10's cooking showdown "Battle of the Knives."
Despite Adoni's fondness for Jerusalem, which he developed as a chef under famed chef Ezra Kedem of Jerusalem's Arcadia restaurant and as a boy growing up in a Zionist household, he wasn't about to cook with mercy. "It looks bad [if Tel Aviv wins], but we'll still win, even if it's by half a point," Adoni forecast ahead of the cook-off.
But the competition was digested in good fun by both teams. The atmosphere in the large kitchen of the Inbal was lively, optimistic and friendly, with chefs from each team encouraging each other and Adoni leading his team in old Jerusalem folk songs.
"There's no pressure, we're cooking in good spirits," said chef Itzik Mizrahi, head chef of the Inbal Hotel and its Sofia restaurant, the official caterer of the president. He headed the Jerusalem team consisting of chef Marcus Gershkovitz of Canela, chef Motti Zigron of La Carossa, chef Guy Ben-Simhon of La Guta and chef Dafna Baruch of Pituyim.
He was in charge of the Jerusalem entrÃ©e, consisting of lamb chops on a bed of root vegetables. "We want to show that Jerusalem is about more than just humous and ktzitzot [meatballs]."
Both teams prepared their dishes using raw materials endemic to Jerusalem, including Jerusalem artichoke, chickpeas, root vegetables, sesame, wheat, beets and za'atar.
Ben-Simhon prepared his team's starting dish, a gourmet rendition of me'urav yerushalmi, a popular Jerusalem street food consisting of a mix of grilled meats usually served in pita. He served the meat inside bone marrow on a bed of spicy chickpeas. While plating the dish in a tin pan set on Jerusalem stone garnished by olives and olive leaves, he expressed his confidence. "It's always fun to win, especially against another city, and I think we'll win. If not, a tie is also good."
The courses were served to the three judges on the dais: television cooking personality chef Haim Cohen, host of TV show Garlic, Pepper and Olive Oil; cookbook author and food writer Phyllis Glazer; and actress Sarit Vino-Elad.
Dishes were served unmarked, but both Cohen and Glazer admitted to In Jerusalem that they could recognize the creators by the mere presentation.
"From the first dish, I felt who was Jerusalem and who was Tel Aviv - the taste, the presentation, the plating," said Cohen.
"From what I've seen of Tel Aviv," added Glazer, "it's not so much the plating, but the taste. They're more sophisticated, use a range of ingredients and are more delicate."
The final overall score came out to 135:150, Tel Aviv.
Simhon got his "tie" with Adoni, who served sashimi on a bed of chickpeas - quite a feat (unless there were mercy points).
Dafna Baruch beat Antonio Mensa of Ali-Oli in Tel Aviv for best dessert with her scrumptious sesame pastry filled with halva cream, garnished with brandied figs.
But the winning entrÃ©e, "A Jerusalem Winter Stewpot," concocted by Shaul Ben-Aderet, went hands down to Tel Aviv (literally, after the journalists couldn't stop themselves from dipping their fingers into the large pot in the kitchen). The homey stew artfully and deliciously reflected the authentic Jerusalem kitchen, with lamb, beef cheek and tongue, cooked wheat, stuffed artichoke and cinnamon and paprika spicing.
"This is the Jerusalem dish," said Cohen of the stewpot. "It comes from here. Lamb chops don't come from here."
The winning recipes were served to President Shimon Peres on Thursday. Upon accepting the Medallion of Honor on behalf of Tel Aviv, Adoni generously announced to the city of Jerusalem, "It's yours!"
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