Hillel Gardi may be the winner of the latest season of MasterChef Israel, but he didn’t cut his teeth in a fancy kitchen or prestigious culinary school.
Rather, his genius comes from knowing and working the Land of Israel and tasting the natural, fresh produce that it yields.
At heart, Gardi is really a shepherd, a cheese maker and a farm worker.
“I haven’t worked in a restaurant with chefs and never learned in a formal setting,” said Gardi last week. “Not even in my mother’s kitchen... she didn’t allow me to go in... because I would make too much of a mess.”
There wasn’t much of a mess last week when Gardi hosted a group of journalists at the Avrutzki family farm and Ein Camonim restaurant located just a few miles from Safed.
The restaurant and farm work in tandem to serve patrons simple foods that feature homemade goat cheeses and delicious, fresh, locally grown ingredients.
The shepherd chef led a tour of the farm that included information on the plants and mushrooms that grow there as well as the farm’s goats, a large herd that produces the milk from which the restaurant makes its famous cheese.
The event was to promote Wild Pizzas, a new line of farm-to-table pizzas that incorporate a variety of local ingredients, many of which can be found on the farm itself. The new line of pizzas was born of a partnership between Domino’s and Gardi.
Domino’s explained that these pizzas are “inspired by the farm-to-table [concept], based on the best local produce from the pasture and the field, with rich goat cheeses, labaneh, hobza and fresh thyme leaves, sumac and grated yogurt stone.”
What are the pizzas in this new line?
There are three pizzas Gardi devised for the new lineup. One is the “wild green pizza,” a veggie mixed pizza that Domino’s says “includes labaneh, mozzarella, hobza, goat cheese, onion, cherry confit, thyme leaves and a yogurt stone grated on top.”
Another is the “wild cheese and mushroom pizza,” a pizza with Champagne mushrooms that includes ingredients such as cream sauce, mozzarella, red onion, goat Gouda, garlic confit, chilies and grated yogurt stone.
The third offering is the “wild onion pizza,” which incorporates cream sauce, mozzarella, red onion, leeks, green onion, garlic butter and grated yogurt stone.
Gardi has a lot of experience with cheese. He worked as a goat shepherd and made cheeses from their milk.
“I worked for six years in a special place for cheese (the Delta farm in the Sataf area, located in the Jerusalem hills). All the biggest chefs were coming there to learn, to taste, to understand and to share a little bit,” Gardi recounted. “So I’m really, really in the cheese world... it really was the best place in Israel – and, I think, in the world – for cheese.
“And now, at Ein Camonim, the team is also really good at cheese making.”
Gardi also told Mako that he believes all the utensils found in a kitchen are luxuries, and that it’s possible to manage with just branches, stones and mud. He showed that to be the case when, part way through the tour of the farm, he paused at a roughly constructed firepit to prepare flatbread and labaneh with freshly collected ingredients over an open fire.
To conclude the tour, Gardi demonstrated why he was named the MasterChef season winner by preparing the new line of Wild Pizzas by hand, using a proper oven.
Not only does the use of goat cheese make for a different, interesting and tasty take on pizza, but the expert use of fresh, real ingredients took the pizzas to a different level altogether. Every ingredient, from the salt to the onions and peppers, managed to simultaneously remain distinct while also melding into an unbelievable symphony of flavor.