Meir Adoni’s mother doesn’t want him to cook for Rosh Hashana.
Despite the acclaimed Israeli chef’s four top-ranked restaurants and his victory last year on the cooking competition TV show Game of Chefs, Adoni’s Moroccan-born mother would prefer to cook all the holiday food for her extended clan herself.
“This year she told me not to bring anything,” he says with a laugh during a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post at his famed Tel Aviv restaurant Catit.
“Of course I insist that I will,” he adds, saying that despite his mother’s protests, he and his brothers always try to “alleviate her burden.”
The genial 42-year-old father of four is arguably at the top of his game in the country’s culinary world, slated to open his fifth restaurant – and the first outside of Tel Aviv – in October in Caesarea.
With the second season of Game of Chefs set to air this winter, Adoni is pursuing opening a restaurant in New York – and even perhaps in London.
But none of that really matters to his mom.
Despite her protests – and her ability to fill a table with enough food to feed a small army – Adoni says he plans to bring a stew of veal cheek and quinces, “a little sweet, with a lot of small onions, root vegetables, the quinces poached beforehand in wine and spices, the whole dish cooked slowly for three to four hours.” An almost glazed looks comes over his eyes as he describes each ingredient, imagining the whole dish coming together for the Rosh Hashana dinner with his extended family.
“There are very few places where what I eat surprises and excites me, yet with my mother, it occurs every time anew – particularly with food that I remember from my childhood and eat every year,” he says. “When my mother knows she is cooking for her children and for her grandchildren, there is a passion and love that brings the food to a higher level.”
Even before the meal, his mother prepares a wide range of dishes for the simanim – the symbolic blessings for good fortune that are traditionally recited at the Rosh Hashana meal.
“She makes them all interesting and intriguing – tastes of this and that. For every bracha [blessing], she has multiple versions; the table is packed full with a million things right from the start.”
His deep connection to his Moroccan roots notwithstanding, this is a world that Adoni says he needs to appreciate while it lasts.
“I’m happy the grandchildren have the privilege to experience this from their grandmother. It’s a world that is disappearing, and I’m not sure I will continue it in the way that she does. I take traditions from her, but I make it much more light and modern, with less tinkering.”
Despite his success and fame, he is at heart a family man, a loving husband to Orian and father to Ofek, 13, Leeyam, 10, Yatir, six, and Nevo, four months.
“I don’t leave for work until I’ve made lunch for them,” he says. “Cooking is such a big part of my life, how can I not do it for my kids?” While he is known for his inventive, upscale and often unorthodox fare, his kids have more simple tastes.
“They’re not growing up with sashimi or caviar in their mouths,” he explains.
“They may be kids of a chef, but they’re kids like any other kids. Their mother lets them have chocolate spread once a week.”
It surprises some people to hear that Adoni, whose restaurants Catit and Mizlala feature shrimp, calamari and scallops, cooks only kosher at home. Others may be less shocked since, unlike many of the country’s most famous chefs, he also operates two kosher eateries: Blue Sky and Lumina.
“The biggest joy for me as a chef is to reach as many people as possible with my food.
The kosher world really speaks to me. It’s important me that I have two kosher restaurants in Israel. I knew they would succeed, I just didn’t realize how much.”
While his upcoming eatery in Caesarea will not be kosher, he is planning for his future restaurants in New York and London to have kashrut certification.
“From what I have experienced in the rest of the world, there are very few quality kosher restaurants. I don’t see any reason why it should be like that.
How can it be that in London, Paris and New York there aren’t any great chef restaurants that are kosher?” Adoni is ready to “take up that gauntlet,” and is currently scouting locations in both cities.
“I really believe in this genre. I think there is a huge vacuum that is just yearning for somebody to fill it.”
While he doesn’t describe himself as religious, he shares that his traditional background gives him “credibility to be part of this field and to cook kosher.
In 2015, the ingredients and the techniques that exist [in the kosher world] bring me as a chef to a whole new level of cooking abilities.”
Despite the limitations on kosher cooking, he vows he will do everything he can to “create food exactly the way I want it to be, and to bring to the kosher community textures and tastes in foods that it has never encountered.”
Part of that journey, he says, is working with the kosher supervisors from the Chief Rabbinate, making them understand his vision.
“The kosher supervisors in this country are slowly becoming more professional and more understanding of their job – that it’s not just about completing a two-month course at the rabbinate, and then, out of fear, eliminating high-quality ingredients because you don’t know how to make them kosher.”
While his relationship with the supervisors at his two kosher restaurants isn’t perfect, he says, “we are in a dialogue.”
“I always come to them and say, ‘I have non-kosher restaurants; I can cook whatever I want there. I’m here to “fight” with you because I want to bring to the religious community the best, freshest, most correct and creative food that they deserve. Help me do that.’” In fact, in the upcoming season of Game of Chefs, which finished filming at the beginning of the summer, Adoni took on an additional personal challenge: to cook kosher in every one of his team’s group challenges.
The show is a competition between three renowned chefs: Adoni, Michelin-starred Moshik Roth, and Assaf Granit, who gained fame as the owner of the popular Jerusalem restaurant Machneyuda. Each of them, during the audition phase, picks a team of up-and-coming chefs who are then pitted against each other in both team challenges and solo efforts, until one chef – and one mentor – is crowned the winner.
Adoni’s decision to ensure that his team cooks kosher isn’t something that will be discussed publicly, but “anyone who takes note of what is cooked will see that everything is kosher. This is a message that is important for me, and I also want to prove that it doesn’t detract from one’s culinary abilities in any way.”
Adoni was the subject of some gentle ribbing last year from the media and his fellow chefs for his occasional bouts of tears during the show.
“I’m a very emotional guy,” he says with a self-deprecating shrug. “[The crying] will happen this season slightly less. I try to fight it a little bit, sometimes I succeed.”
He shrugs off disparaging comments about the show from fellow Israeli chef Yonatan Roshfeld, a judge on Master Chef, which aired the season finale of its fifth season earlier this month.
“Roshfeld seeks out sensationalism. He likes to throw matches and see where he can light fires. I know that deep inside he has a lot of respect for our show and for us three chefs. He has a unique way of expressing himself.
Regardless, he has to introduce sensationalism as part of the competition between the two shows.”
Adoni has some remarks about the Master Chef judges as well, although he doesn’t mention the show by name.
“Game of Chefs is a professional program. We don’t blabber on, we do the cooking ourselves. We don’t stand on the side and give our opinions about what was cooked; we cook together with our team.”
Looking ahead to the New Year, he turns reflective for a moment, giving a blessing to all of Israel – and particularly to its culinary world.
“My wish to me and to my colleagues and to all the chefs in the nation is that we can know how to enlighten and develop ourselves – who we are, as Israeli Jewish chefs, both in Israel and abroad, so that slowly the whole world will become aware of the amazing culinary scene in Israel.”