NEW YORK – On a recent rainy morning, Israeli chef Haim Cohen settled into a breakfast of steel-cut oatmeal at the New York brasserie Café Luxembourg. It was the eve of Pessah, and Cohen was describing the menu – including a hearty beef stew – that he had planned for that evening’s 30-person meal, to take place at his brother-in-law’s house in New Jersey.
Dressed in a dark sweater and jeans, his black hair flecked with white, Cohen had spent the week in New York demonstrating new techniques in Israeli cooking at the James Beard Foundation, the Culinary Institute and elsewhere around town. Credited with reinventing Israeli cuisine, Cohen, who turned 50 on March 21, demurred when I asked what defined Israeli food.
Dipping a spoon into the oatmeal, “I don’t know if I can give now the title and say, it’s an Israeli kitchen.”
Back in Israel, though, Cohen is known for combining French cooking techniques with Turkish and Kurdish cuisines. With three cookbooks under his belt, Cohen also owns the restaurant Dixie and has hosted the television show Garlic, Pepper and Olive Oil
for more than a decade.
“Food is a good way to get connected. We all need food, it’s a good way of knowing someone,” said his wife, Sigal, who joined us for breakfast. Two years ago, Cohen made a foray into the New York restaurant business, signing on as a consulting chef for Taboon, a Middle Eastern and Mediterranean restaurant in New York famous for its flatbread. “It’s piping hot and golden brown and pooled on top with extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of sage, rosemary, and sea salt,” wrote a reviewer in New York
Cohen described how he brought staff to New York from Israel to create signature dishes using local products.
Taking the long view of his career, he said: “I don’t know if I chose the career or the career chose me.” During high school, he worked nights as a waiter and fell in love with the energy of the restaurant business and his sense of the joie de vivre among diners.
Cohen, who is quick to point out that he lacks a formal a culinary education, credits travel and his mother’s kitchen as major influences. “When you eat your mother’s food, you feel at home,” he said. “I try to combine this feeling, this flavor, with the technique, presentation.”
At 25, Cohen bought a 16-seat restaurant named Keren. “I left the name because I didn’t have the money to change the sign,” he recalled. “All I wanted was to cook a few things I knew and have people come and laugh.”
Several years down the road, he took a regular patron’s advice to learn new recipes and traveled to France for a two-week intensive cooking workshop. He forked over $2,000, but quickly realized he was out of his league. Still, he memorized three recipes and brought them back to Israel: pate foie gras, stuffed zucchini and a kind of lobster cocktail sauce.
His new menu earned accolades in the newspaper Hadashot
. “I found myself in the middle of a storm,” he said. “The rest is history, you know.”
Five years later, Cohen re-opened Keren, modeled after a French restaurant inside a wooden house and an adjacent garden.
At that time, in the 1990s, Israeli cuisine was in its nascent stages. Keren was among the first – if not the first – restaurant to offer haute cuisine and a “dining experience,” the Cohens said.
“When we were kids, we didn’t go to restaurants,” Haim Cohen said. “It
was so clear that the mother[’s] food at home was the best.” Now, he
said, it’s a huge business.
In his own restaurants, he combines elegant dishes with Israeli
flavors, coaxed from charcoal grills and sauces and spices, like
za’atar, humous and tehini.
On television, Cohen tries to bring that experience to his viewers. He
and Sigal described plans to write a book about Israeli food. For his
television show, Cohen hopes to someday notify viewers in advance what
to buy at the supermarket so that they can cook alongside him at home.
At home in Savyon, Cohen cooks for his wife and their three children,
preparing basic dishes, or what he called “mother’s food.” His
repertoire – evident from its name – takes cues from food he ate as a
child in his mother’s kitchen. “I think mothers cook memories, not
food,” he said.