Cook-up nation: Gourmet revolution puts Israel on the culinary map

Is there even such a thing as Israeli cuisine?

Chef Meir Adoni (photo credit: AVIV EYLON / COURTESY MEIR ADONI)
Chef Meir Adoni
ISRAELI CUISINE speaks a unique culinary language, its vocabulary steeped in the traditions of its diverse immigrant cultures.
Add a sprinkling of spices, fresh produce grown under a Mediterranean sun and a pinch of sass and you’ve got what some are calling a world-class cuisine.
“It’s the perfect recipe for innovation,” says Janna Gur, chief editor of Israel’s leading food and wine magazine, Al Hashulhan, and author of The Book of New Israeli Food. “The combination is unique. You’ll find many dishes that coexist here. Couscous brought by North African immigrants feels at home, as do burekas brought by Bulgarian and Turkish Jews. The cultures that adapted best are those from Mediterranean, Balkan and North African countries.
But we are different from other Mediterranean cultures in that we lack an obligation to tradition. It allows us immense freedom and creativity. It’s like a child with no boundaries.”
Celebrity chef Meir Adoni, who like many top Israeli chefs studied abroad in prestigious culinary institutions and returned to pioneer a distinctly Israeli kitchen, is of the same mind.
“Italian chefs have a tradition of hundreds of years with rules on how to cook Italian food. For me, I have no rules, no limits. I don’t cook inside a box, I’m creating the box and I’m really proud of what we are doing here. We use combinations of flavors and textures you can find only in Israeli cuisine. Israeli food is not shy. It’s emotional.
We have chutzpah in the food, more sourness, more spices that open up in your mouth,” Adoni tells The Jerusalem Report.
A good example is a dish called Middle Eastern Pleasure on the menu of his signature high-end Tel Aviv restaurant Catit: Smoked veal tongue in Bharat glaze, hummus pâtissière, peeled Hadas chickpeas, offal rillettes, garlic confit, Moroccan harissa, pickled lemon aioli, Persian lemon dust and sorrel leaves.”
“Europeans who come to Israel are astonished, amazed and surprised because they don’t know about our heritage of food,” says another of the pioneers of Israeli cuisine, chef Ezra Kedem, who founded the high-end Arcadia restaurant in Jerusalem in 1995 after studying abroad. “Let’s say the essence of the taste is the famous Israeli chopped salad that when you finish it, you take a piece of bread and dip it in the liquid that is left. Israelis miss it when they go abroad.”
Roger Sherman, a documentarian who has won an Emmy, a Peabody and was nominated for two Academy Awards was skeptical when invited in 2010 by a friend, revered Jewish food writer Joan Nathan, on a culinary trip to Israel. He figured it would be a short tour—falafel, hummus with a sprinkling of desert sand.
“I was dragged kicking and screaming,” he says in a telephone interview. “I couldn’t believe what I saw. Israelis don’t know how good they have it. I came back to the US and started telling people about the incredible boutique wines, amazing cheeses and restaurants. People laughed at me when I told them Israel has one of the most dynamic food cultures in the world. They didn’t have a clue.”
That’s when he decided to return to Israel to film a documentary on the food scene. The two-hour “In Search of Israeli Cuisine” had its Israeli premiere at the Haifa Film Festival in October. Released this year, it has already been shown in 90 festivals worldwide and will be screened on PBS next year. Sherman crisscrossed Israel to more than 100 locations, visiting home cooks, celebrity chefs, vintners, cheese artisans, farmers and street vendors.
“I would compare Israeli cuisine to the best food in the world,” gushes Sherman. “I would put Israeli cuisine against New York, Paris and London. Israeli chefs no longer feel they have to study in other countries.
Even Israel’s street food is among the best I’ve ever had,” he says.” You have all these chefs recreating, updating and spinning their grandmother’s food in incredibly creative ways.”
Sherman is often asked if the locavore concept, food grown locally, is important in Israel.
“I tell them farm-to-table is standard practice in Israel. The whole country is accessible in a couple of hours,” he says.
Israeli chefs excel with vegetables, say the experts. Local produce is improving all the time with the introduction of heirloom varieties.
“This is what makes Israeli cuisine so relevant for the world because everyone wants to eat vegetables and we know how to cook them so it’s not a punishment,” says Gur.
Anyone surfing the channels on Israeli prime-time television might inevitably conclude that Israelis are obsessed with food given the plethora of cooking and foodrelated programs starring celebrity chefs.
“We‘re a cooking nation,” says Gur. “We are a very family-oriented society and when you have Friday night dinner you cook it from scratch. Food is important in Jewish culture everywhere.”
Israel’s gourmet revolution began in the 1990s. Even as far back as 1994, a prescient New York Times article about interest in Israeli cuisine stated, “It’s as if some mystical wind from Israel were rustling through the collective unconscious of America’s chefs.”
Israel has gone from a gastronomic wasteland to what is becoming a world-class foodie scene.
“A few things happened all at once,” says Gur. “The Golan winery started a bit earlier and then boutique cheese farms and the artisanal bread revolution started by Erez Komarovsky.
“Our chefs went abroad to study and applied their knowledge to local ingredients.
The standard of living was rising and travel became a norm. But what makes it more than just fine dining, what got us here to the first baby steps of creating a new Israeli cuisine, is that these young chefs in the 1990s started to explore local Palestinian food and the food of their own immigrant Jewish culture. There is incredible wealth there and they played around with it to mold it into something suitable for contemporary restaurant dining.”
The gourmet revolution began slowly.
Haim Cohen, at the time chef of the upscale French restaurant Keren that has since closed its doors, “did something very bold that took a lot of courage,” says Gur. “He served lamb kebab for a lunch special in Keren. At that time, there was a very clear divide between Middle Eastern food, which was popular and cheap, and fine restaurants, which at the time were French, Italian or Chinese, but never Israeli. Haim started with baby steps to include Israeli food in high-class dining.”
Gur cites some problems in the local food scene, among them lack of consistency, restaurants opening and closing, and peripatetic chefs who move around.
Adoni, who opened Catit in 2002, an Israeli culinary institution, to be followed by three other Tel Aviv restaurants, announced recently that he will close Catit and its sister restaurant, Mizlala, in December. He will keep his two kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv’s Carlton Hotel and will join a growing trend of Israeli chefs who try their luck abroad. This fall, he spent time in New York working out the menu for Nur, a casual brasserie- style restaurant he is planning to open on East 20th Street in the Flatiron section of New York City. His Facebook page shows a photo of a dessert he is trying out: Medjool dates filled with smoked trout, natural almond, thyme and Bharat, wrapped with a mixture of doughnuts and Persian lemon.
Catit is closing for financial considerations ‒ the difficulty of running an exclusive restaurant with seven chefs in the kitchen cooking for only 22 diners, the restaurant’s maximum capacity. “The easy answer is people just don’t have enough money for the high-end restaurants,” says Gur. “There is a market for expensive restaurants but they are struggling, so I don’t know. We don’t have enough high-end restaurants. If you go mid-range, casual, informal, then Tel-Aviv is a world-class food destination and a fun one at that.
“In an Israeli restaurant, you can’t be underdressed. Tourists love the fact that they can wear flip flops and a T-shirt and have a wonderful meal. You can have an amazing meal at two in the morning and the best breakfast in the world at nine in the morning. There will be more and more Israeli chefs going abroad because Israeli cuisine is becoming popular and because it’s difficult to run a restaurant here.”
Israeli chefs have staked out strategic beachheads on several international gastronomic fronts in a trend that is gathering momentum.
Last year, Shaya, an Israeli restaurant in New Orleans, the capital of Cajun, was crowned the best new restaurant in the United States in the food industry’s version of the Oscars.
“Who would have thought – hummus in New Orleans?” mused Chef Alon Shaya as he accepted the award, probably perplexed by the improbability of food borne by desert winds finding its niche in a city born in a swamp.
In last year’s James Beard Foundation awards, another Israeli-American chef, Michael Solomonov, won the prize for best new cookbook with “Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking,” based on recipes from his award-winning Philadelphia restaurant of the same name. He also opened a hummus joint called Dizengoff that serves shakshuka to denizens of the City of Brotherly Love.
London-based Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook, “Jerusalem,” co-authored with East Jerusalem born chef, Sami Tamimi, sold nearly half a million copies in Britain and has become a bestseller in Germany, Holland and the US.
A London restaurant launched by Jerusalem chef Assaf Granit was named the best restaurant in the country in the 2015 Veuve Clicquot GQ Food and Drink Awards. The Palomar was described as having “without a doubt the most chutzpah of any food and drink establishment operating in the country right now.” Londoners appreciate the vibe imported by Granit from his successful Jerusalem restaurant, Machneyuda, and savor its signature dish, polenta with truffle oil served in Kilner jars.
Israeli celebrity chef Eyal Shani has taken his everything-in-a-gourmet pita chain, Miznon, to Paris and Vienna, and is eyeing New York.
Travel and food magazines have given Tel Aviv accolades with Saveur Magazine voting the city “an outstanding Culinary Destination in 2014” and Condé Nast Traveler ranking its Mesa restaurant as one of the top 80 restaurants in world.
So, is there such a thing as Israeli cuisine?” Depends whom you ask.
Says Adoni, “I think, today, we can say that there is Israeli cuisine. It took us more than 70 years to be able to say that.”
Gur is more cautious.
“It takes more than 20 years to create a cuisine. It may be too early to define Israeli cuisine but there is definitely food that speaks Hebrew.”