Nourished by success

After opening four eateries, Nir Tsuk says he is starting to take life easier, but that doesn’t stop him from launching new ventures.

May 23, 2013 12:14
Nir Tsuk. ‘The kitchen is the basis of home and family and happiness.'

Nir Tsuk chef 370. (photo credit: Courtesy)

Chef Nir Tsuk, known for interpreting rich French cuisine with an innovative Israeli twist, is eating breakfast at one of his four eateries. Cordelia, his flagship restaurant, offers truffled goose liver pâté and cheeses from his brother’s boutique dairy, but the youthful, trim chef is having a simple herb omelet, salad, white cheese and fresh bread.

“My taste in food is always changing, but I like very light food,” he says.Tsuk has hosted many television cooking shows and written two cookbooks. He writes a food column for Yediot Aharonot and is considered to be one of Israel’s most influential chefs. He’s been selected by the Foreign Ministry to cook for visiting dignitaries and to represent Israeli cuisine abroad.

“To represent food outside of Israel, we should talk about our vegetables and herbs, the beautiful olive oil and how to combine all this richness, the fruit of the land. This is where we are the strongest,” he says as we head over to his bistro, Noa.

Opening a new establishment every few years, Tsuk, 37, fairly sparks with energy. He greets employees entering the bistro by name and with a smile. Like his restaurant, patisserie and bar, Noa is located on Hatzorfim, one of those narrow paved Jaffa streets imbued with history and a Middle Eastern palm-tree atmosphere.

Just off the famous Jaffa flea market, the street is almost a gastronomic compound run by Tsuk, as all his establishments stand within several meters of each other.

Cordelia’s style is Baroque and romantic, lamplit, candlelit and expensive. In the more affordable bistro, a blue light falls on whitewashed stone walls and Crusader arches, the dimness relieved by a small fish pond at the entrance and a green vine that twists overhead.

Tsuk says that he designs and decorates his eateries himself.

“I started cooking very young, before I was 13,” he says. “In my house, everything happened in the kitchen; nobody ever sat in the living room. The kitchen is the basis of home and family and happiness.

By 13, I found an after-school job working in the kitchen of a coffee shop. After two weeks, I knew that cooking was my destiny.”

Tsuk worked and cooked in San Francisco for a year, but he defined his cooking style in Paris.

“I enjoyed San Francisco – the restaurant scene there, the farmers’ markets, the respect people give to the grower. But Paris formed me,” he says.

The opulent style of Cordelia attests to the French influence. Tsuk also enjoys making extraordinary moments for customers occasionally. He is known to ask what they would like to eat – without reference to the menu – and create the dinner of their fantasies that evening.

“I do eat in other restaurants but to hang out with friends, not for inspiration. I get more inspiration in the markets and from nature – the smells, the wildlife, the colors and textures,” he says.

Dishes like crab ravioli with mascarpone sauce seem to be the result of Tsuk’s wildlife studies.

He talks about life with food and success.

“Many years ago, I realized that it is everyone’s job to make the people around him a little happier. I’m not trying to make big changes because it’s presumptuous and boring. Living my life and making the people around me happy, doing an artistic job inside my four walls is good enough for me. The results are not for me to judge,” he says.

“Success, in the first place, is about taking responsibility for the people who work for me and for those eating my food. The other part is taking life easy. You can do only so much. A big part belongs to the universe.

You do the best you can, but you don’t control the universe.

So I do my best, and then I allow the world to do what it needs to do – wherever it takes me. This is the biggest change in my life. At the beginning of my career, I wanted to impress people, I wanted more control of what happened, where it happened… and then I learned to take it a little easier,” he explains.

“I’d like people to have more respect for their bodies.

People go to the gym, they take vitamins, but then they eat s***ty food. Eat properly, good food. You don’t need to go to extremes. People go to the supermarket and buy a lot of s*** – why? Buy more vegetables, more fruit, more cheese… I’d like to see people going back to home cooking,” he says.

Asked what obstacles he found on the road to success, Tsuk says, “First, bureaucracy is very difficult in Israel.

It’s a daily struggle. Second, I’m not sure I feel successful.”

What’s lacking? “Maybe peace of mind. The problem I deal with is that I have to satisfy each person, every day, as if it were the first day. That is the hard thing. When you come to eat in a restaurant, you’re not just coming to eat bread.

A good experience also depends on who you came with, the ambience, what you had before,” he says.

The chef says he feels he has to provide that ambience for everyone himself, “because service in Israel isn’t professional.

There will always be something missing.”

What advice would Tsuk give to aspiring chefs? “Be humble. Be patient. And remember that you’re cooking for other people, not for yourself. A chef is a sort of servant, part of the staff, working for people. You have to adjust your menus to the taste of your clients.

And you should be at peace with yourself.”

There seems to be no end to Tsuk’s entrepreneurial spirit. He plans to open a food market in Jerusalem’s First Station in June, with wineries, a fromagerie, a butcher and fishmonger selling upscale food to the public seven days a week.

Final words? “Eat well. Love what you do. That’s enough for life, no?

500 gr. red mullet fillets
500 gr. flat Italian green beans
Olive oil for frying
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
10 garlic cloves, sliced
4 tomatoes, coarsely chopped
1 bunch parsley, finely chopped
Dried chili pepper

Parboil the green beans in lightly salted water for 2 minutes. Drain and place in ice water a few minutes. Drain again.

Heat a little olive oil in a frying pan and fry the green beans for 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper.

Drizzle a little olive oil into a large, nonstick frying pan. Heat the oil and place fish fillets and garlic to make one layer. Fry for about 1 minute.

Turn the fish over and add tomatoes and parsley.

Lift the fish off the frying pan and place on the hot green beans. Season. Continue frying the fish and garlic in batches until all the fish is cooked.

Season with a little chili and serve.

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