They’ve traveled around the globe and dined at some of the best restaurants in the world. But this group of celebrity chefs and foodies are delighted to be spending a week exploring Israel’s culinary world.
Beginning Monday, a selection of some of the most famous chefs in the United States began arriving in Israel for a week of adventure, experiences and most of all, food.
The “celebrity chef Birthright,” as the trip has been dubbed, is made up of competition TV show judges, renowned restaurateurs, acclaimed writers and other culinary luminaries. Those include Top Chef’s Gail Simmons, Amanda Freitag and Marc Murphy of Chopped, writer and restaurant reviewer Ruth Reichl and restaurateurs Jonathan Waxman and Nancy Silverton, among others.
The trip is the brainchild of Herb Karlitz, who has worked for 25 years in the culinary marketing world, designing and executing events, festivals and programs highlighting celebrity chefs and haute cuisine. That put him in the perfect position to gather together a group of high-profile faces and show them the culinary depths of Israel.
“My goal is for them to have this amazing experience in Israel, very organic, and return to the United States almost as ambassadors, unofficial ambassadors for Israel and its food,” Karlitz told The Jerusalem Post at the kick-off breakfast in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning. Karlitz said he has been planning this trip for more than two years, after visiting Israel and realizing how much he wanted this story to be told.
“I figured I was in a unique position because of all of my relationships” with celebrity chefs, he said. “I thought: I have to do something, I have to help to tell this story about the other Israel, not the Israel you read about in the newspapers.”
He said it wasn’t hard to get a slate of famous names and faces to sign on. In fact, he said, many more wanted to come, but for scheduling reasons couldn’t make it, including Martha Stewart (who instead sent one of her TV hosts, Sarah Carey), Tom Colicchio and Andrew Zimmern (who was in Israel over the weekend with some of the participants, but had to return to the US this week).
But those who could make it are thrilled to explore everything the Holy Land has to offer.
“I jumped at the chance to come back to Israel,” said Simmons, a Canadian writer and longtime Top Chef judge – who came at 14 for a family bar mitzvah and then at 18 to live on a kibbutz for two months – but hasn’t returned since. “I’m here for the cultural experience, the significance, the enjoyment, the pleasure, and the food.”
For Freitag, a chef and veteran judge on Chopped, this is her first ever trip to Israel.
“I’m always wanted to come here,” she said. “I love the food, I love all of the flavors, all of the ingredients – I work with them all the time.”
And when she told friends and family she was visiting, she was promised delicious food and an unforgettable experience.
“The hummus is something that everyone talks about – one friend said that ‘a cucumber is going to taste like you’ve never tasted it before, and a tomato is going to taste like you’ve never tasted it before.’” In addition to their recommendations, “people are responding with complete envy and jealousy” over the trip, she said.
For the rest of the week, the group – which also includes chefs Leah Cohen, Jenn Louis, Eden Grinshpan and Naama Shefi – will be crisscrossing Israel in search of memorable meals and unforgettable experiences. They already toured the Old City, visited the Western Wall tunnels and dined in the Tower of David. They’ll also be exploring Mahaneh Yehuda, visiting the Castel Winery, touring Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market, and stopping at Uri Buri in Acre, among many other destinations.
Murphy, the owner of three restaurants in New York and a regular Chopped judge, said he was eager to explore the country through food.
“I travel the world, I eat, and I think everybody in the world – that’s the only thing we have in common... we all have to eat,” he said. “I’m a chef, I’m a cook. I can help spread that word about food and the love of food. Who cares about borders and differences... it’s great to see countries through the eyes of food.”
Many of the chefs said their family members were jealous of their opportunity, and eager to come themselves.
“My mother screamed when I told her,” said Freitag. “She’s always wanted to come to Israel and she knows all the history... she’s so excited [for me].”
Simmons said she would love to one day bring her husband and children, and her trip “has a lot of emotional significance for my family. It’s a real gift to be able to take the time.”
Murphy, the son of a diplomat who visited Israel once as a child, said he’s already planning his next visit.
“I can’t wait to bring my family back, to see it on our own,” he said.
Almost all of the participants have already been sharing snaps and videos of their experiences – and meals – on social media. And both Simmons and Murphy said they’ve already seen some political arguments break out over their photos, but they’re not fazed by it.
“I’m not going to get into the argument,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t matter where [a food] is from. As long as you accept it, you transform it, you embrace it as an ingredient. You can use it.”
Simmons said she tries “not to engage with angry people, it’s a losing battle. I understand that the cuisine we think of as Israeli, is Arab food, is Palestinian food. It’s food from every culture that’s inhabited this part of the world. Nothing lives in a bubble here.”
And Karlitz said the trip and its schedule are anything but political.
“We’ve done everything we can to make this apolitical,” he said. “We’re not taking a stand on anything – this is about breaking bread, food, cuisine, the culture.”
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