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Chef Rima V. Olvera takes pleasure in food - and believes you should too. She also believes in the civilizing effect that food, or rather, good food, can have.
"Truly great food," she says, "is not a product of trends, media hype or passing fashions, but a deep-seated necessity for true civilization, and the ability to create it is not acquired overnight."
This brings her to a third firmly held principle: dedication to one's craft. "Before you get all wild and crazy you have to understand, from the ground up, how a dish is constructed. It has to be cohesive, harmonious and solid in terms of how it's made and how it tastes, without a lot of nonsense," she says. Except she uses a far more colorful term than "nonsense."
California-born Olvera is about to get the chance to spread her passion through Duet, a 13-part syndicated television show for the international market, in which she teams up with chefs from around the globe. "I'm traveling to destinations all over the world, meeting the top regional chefs in each location and learning about their cultures," she says.
Olvera and her partner then perform a culinary "duet" in which they marry their different styles.
Olvera's style can be summed up in one word: fresh.
Now living in Tel Aviv, she was lucky enough to be part of the second generation of chefs coming up in the 1980s in Northern California, all learning their craft at restaurants inspired by the legendary Alice "Alice's Restaurant" Waters of Chez Panisse.
"I always wanted to be a chef, even when I was a kid. I started working in kitchens at age 14 as a baker's assistant, weighing flour and yeast before I went to school. I first worked at Cafe Beaujolais, which was part of the Chez Panisse movement. I turned mushrooms and washed artichokes and stuff like that."
She also learned the fundamentals of classical French cooking, which, although she terms it "uptight," was absolutely necessary to learn. "To get skilled, you need a solid foundation," she explains.
Eventually, she did go to culinary school, "but only for pastry and wine. I was already almost 10 years in the best restaurants, but for pastry and wine I believe you need training."
It was at San Francisco's famed Enrico's, an institution for Italian-American cuisine for 50 years, that Olvera formulated her cooking philosophy of simple preparations using quality ingredients. "I worked there for five years, and that place made me into a chef," she says. "It's great to know how to make all sorts of sauces and emulsions, but I realized then that all this elaborate sauce work - and I'm not discounting that - wasn't necessary if, for instance, you have a perfect fresh fish, a lemon that just came off the tree and a wood grill. You don't need more than that.
"Oh, and a little coarse salt and olive oil. It almost shows the skill of the chef more. That's why I love Japanese culture. It's like Zen - you don't need a bunch of fluff, but you have to be super-respectful of your ingredients."
Olvera's style is also reflected in her home, a rooftop apartment in Tel Aviv's hip Florentin neighborhood, shared with her husband Alon, an Israeli hi-techie who is happy to serve as prep chef in a pinch. It balances color, texture and warmth: chartreuse wall, orange floor, large wooden dining table, cats padding up the steel and wood spiral staircase, china and earthenware serving plates and, for tonight, six vases of simple white narcissus.
Unsurprisingly, the kitchen is the heart of the house - a stainless steel professional setup featuring, of course, a display of knives. "Knives are like shoes, you can never have too many," she quips to the two prep chefs busily rolling crepes for the evening meal.
The meal is a monthly for-pay dining experience called the Omnivore Club. "Every time it's a different theme, or food inspired by a different place. Tonight it's called Recession Raw Bar - unlimited seafood and Cava. It's not cheap, but these are people who travel a lot, are very sophisticated and want to taste something they've never had before. Every meal has to blow their minds. It's good for me because it keeps me on my toes."
Since moving to Israel, Olvera has only worked for private clients. "After 27 years in the best kitchens, the standards here aren't good enough," she says. "The culture of food is new here and it shows. A lot of the Israeli chefs exploit their customers. When people do molecular cuisine or fusion - that's when things go south. It's great to experiment, but don't experiment with my wallet!"
"I'd rather spend time educating people on how to use the natural ingredients that are grown here. Some ingredients are absolutely sublime - the olive oil is great, and some of the produce is excellent. But a lot of things are grown here and get exported right from the field to the airport. I've begged growers to sell me a crate of radicchio, endive or heirloom tomatoes, but they go straight to Canada or France. It's annoying because then people here don't get enough knowledge."
Olvera does, however, love the local cuisine. "The most rustic things are the absolute best. I love Iraqi food - I'm crazy about kubbeh, I love Lebanese, Moroccan, Palestinian, Druse food - the lamb dishes. I love things that people's grandmothers made. And that's what I hope doesn't get lost here." - Israel21C
Duet is currently in production by Shamaim Content and Production/Ananey Communications on behalf of GRB Entertainment of the US; syndication agreements have already been closed with several markets, including Israel, Japan, Russia and the US.