Ingrained talent

Following in his father Moshe’s footsteps, Ronny Basson recently won the Cous Cous Fest in Italy together with fellow sabra chef Boaz Cohen.

Ronny Basson at Eucalyptus 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Ronny Basson at Eucalyptus 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When Ronny Basson was a child, he called his chef father Moshe’s award-winning couscous “bird food.” Basson hated it.
Now, the 27-year-old is expanding on both his father’s innovative bulgur couscous dish and his father’s culinary legacy, as he comes into his own as a chef.
Basson, who is from Jerusalem, recently won for the second time an international competition to decide the best couscous. He combined distinctive ingredients like lavender, a hibiscus and sage syrup, and ricotta into a couscous recipe that builds off his father’s original bulgur couscous.
Basson created this “Harmony” recipe with teammate and fellow Jerusalemite Boaz Cohen.
This competition, Cous Cous Fest in San Vito Lo Capo in Italy, included eight participants besides the Israeli team – Italy, Egypt, Morocco, Palestine, Senegal, Tunisia, Côte d’Ivoire, and the US – and ran from September 24 to 29.
Basson explains that in his recipe, the lavender ensures the couscous is refreshing and light even though it acts as a dominant flavor. He considers it a vital ingredient. The hibiscus and sage syrup also engages the taste buds. He describes the ricotta, which is spread across a white fish on top of the couscous, as a unique addition that blends Sicilian and Israeli cooking heritages. Particularly in Italy, ricotta is most often used for dessert. Yet this recipe’s Italian-Israeli fusion, which he says surprised many Italians, was praised by those judging the competition. They wrote they were won over by Harmony’s breakthrough play of textures and flavors, which were each recognizable while not overpowering.
With the couscous, Basson continues a tradition his father began. Just after Moshe won the Cous Cous Fest himself in 1999 with a starchier, semolina couscous, he started incorporating very fine bulgur wheat into his couscous instead of semolina. According to Moshe and Basson, even though semolina is a more traditional and prevalent couscous, it isn’t as granular and light-tasting as bulgur.
Moshe, who is renowned for mixing modern cooking with biblical traditions, also switched because bulgur is a local Jerusalem ingredient he believes was used for couscous in the era of the Second Temple. From Moshe’s invention, Basson later created his own biblically inspired bulgur couscous, “King Solomon’s couscous,” which won Basson his first Cous Cous Fest in 2007. This recipe has other rural and ancient ingredients in addition to bulgur, including pumpkin puree and chickpeas.
And it continues to be one of the signature dishes today at the Bassons’ Jerusalem restaurant, Eucalyptus.
Yet Basson is now expanding from his father’s custom of restoring ancient recipes through modern cuisine. As with his most recent winning couscous, Basson is pursuing not just remaking but innovating dishes from traditional cuisines.
“I want to take a very traditional dish and create something new,” Basson says. “I am pushing to preserve [recipes] and also to innovate.”
The Cous Cous Fest jury’s reaction to Basson’s winning recipe confirms he is on his way to accomplishing these aspirations. They wrote that it “offers something very far away from the classic couscous with vegetables, fish and meat.” It is something “new” and “original.”
Basson credits his current culinary outlook to starting a restaurant in Halifax, Canada, and managing it for six months. There, Basson says, he was “thrown into deep water,” and mixed local Canadian ingredients with Israeli spices to create Canadian-Israeli fusion dishes like a variation of muqabla, an Arab rice dish.
After working as a chef abroad and returning home to Israel, Basson now appreciates his father’s approach to creating food more than ever.
He is now dedicated to learning as much as he can from Moshe, who is referred to as the “food archeologist.”
Father and son have diverse opinions about the future direction of their restaurants. Basson is looking forward to improving traditional cooking with molecular cuisine. Moshe is interested in incorporating dishes from weekly Torah portions.
But there is one topic Basson and Moshe will continue to agree on: preserving the past.