Cooking honest food again

Chef Barak Aharoni of Alena, Tel Aviv, celebrates returning to simpler fare

Chef Barak Aharoni (photo credit: ANATOLY MICHAELOV)
Chef Barak Aharoni
(photo credit: ANATOLY MICHAELOV)
Chef Barak Aharoni left university at age 26 to cook professionally. He learned his trade in the kitchens of the prestigious Israeli restaurants Raphael and Toto. He also built and ran Tapas BaShuk at the Tel Aviv port, where he was proud to use raw ingredients from the nearby market. After closing that eatery, he moved on to run the kitchen at The Norman, a brasserie-style restaurant on the lobby level of the Norman Hotel, Tel Aviv. As an executive chef with an impressive professional record, Aharoni could have chosen to keep cooking the French-influenced menus that formed his professional training.
But he sensed a change in the Israeli palate. People are turning away from European cooking and seeking food that reflects simpler regional flavors.
Highly sophisticated cooking and dishes requiring 15 ingredients feel ostentatious now. European-style meals aren’t interesting anymore to people who work and play in Israel’s climate. Aharoni, who grew up in an Ashkelon home where the bright flavors of North African cooking were a vital part of family life, realized that a return to “honest food” was the way to serve Israel’s evolving taste.
“Israelis want to go back to basics in food,” he says. “They want what I see as honest food – uncomplicated dishes that get the best out of the ingredients. They no longer want to walk out of a restaurant and not be able to say exactly what they ate. They want value for their money.”
Aharoni was already executive chef at The Norman when his culinary point of view changed.
“I used to cook like everyone else,” he says. “It was all about complicated recipes and spectacular presentation.”
The epiphany came when a visiting chef commented that his food said nothing about who he himself is.
“Then I realized that what I really wanted was to be true to myself, as an Israeli of North African origin. The menu at The Norman was based on the cuisine of southern France; tasty, but with an old-fashioned European feel. I wanted a fresh concept; not only a new menu, but to change the music, the ambiance, even the name of the restaurant.”
Renamed Alena, the restaurant now features the foods close to Aharoni’s heart. Lots of fresh vegetables – “Vegetables can be fun and satisfying,” he says. And plenty of pasta, fish and seafood. Meat also has an honored place, with dishes such as lamb dumplings, grilled chicken with preserved lemons and rosemary, and char-grilled beef fillet.
“Simplicity doesn’t exclude variety,” Aharoni notes. In Jerusalem asked what Aharoni’s proudest professional moment has been.
“The present moment,” he answers, as is natural for a chef who successfully transformed the entire experience of an upscale restaurant. He generously adds, “I’m especially proud of my team. We’ve worked together for years. Changing the restaurant over wasn’t easy, but we worked together and made it happen.”
How does the trend toward simpler fare reflect in Israel’s day-to-day?
“Street food is flourishing,” Aharoni says. “I love it, I can eat street food every day.”
Is that a hint towards a future Aharoni project?
But the chef, reveling in the success of Alena, says, “Not now. Maybe someday.” He notes that as part of Alena’s plan for less formal dining, the hotel’s bar is open from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., with light meal and appetizer choices. The restaurant is now open in the afternoon and early evening, which appeals to busy people who want to swing by for lunch.
A note for readers more comfortable speaking English than Hebrew: Aharoni speaks fluent English.
“You can’t work at The Norman and not speak English,” he says with a smile.
We asked what four ingredients the chef considers essential for the home cook.
“First, love,” he laughs. “You must love cooking. Then, olive oil. Good-quality olive oil is essential. Next, fresh vegetables. Finally, herbs and spices: za’atar, oregano, paprika, cilantro, dill; the flavors you know you like or are willing to try.”
What can home cooks do to stay in touch with the foods they cook?
“Go to the market and choose the best produce,” Aharoni advises. “Treat the ingredients with respect. That is, minimize the cooking and keep it simple. Don’t use too many ingredients at once, or too many techniques. Emphasize the main ingredient; make it the focus of the meal.”
Inventive ways with fresh produce are Aharoni’s hallmark. The recipe below illustrates his focus-on-fresh approach perfectly, making a splendid dish out of that plebeian vegetable, cauliflower.
Alena in The Norman
Not kosher
The Norman Hotel, lobby level
23-25 Nachmani Street, Tel Aviv
(03) 543-5555
Grilled Cauliflower Steak
A large fresh cauliflower, sliced horizontally into “steaks” 3-4 cm. thick
1 medium zucchini
1 bunch cilantro (Chinese parsley)
1 bunch parsley
2 Tbsp. olive oil
50 gr. melted butter (if possible, clarified)
Leaves from 2 thyme sprigs
30 gr. dry bread crumbs
50 gr. dried tomatoes in oil
Make a green cream:
Separate two parsley stalks for later; set aside.
Plunge the zucchini into boiling water for two minutes.
Blend or food-process the zucchini with the cilantro, remaining parsley and olive oil.
Strain the vegetables to obtain a smooth cream.
Preheat the oven to 180 C.
In a large skillet toast the cauliflower slices with the melted butter, salt to taste, and the thyme leaves – three to four minutes per side, until the cauliflower is golden. Optional: for a handsome charred effect, use a ridged skillet.
Place the cauliflower slices in the oven. Roast for eight minutes until they’re tender and somewhat brown.
Finely chop the two parsley stalks that had been set aside.
In a small bowl, mix the bread crumbs with the finely-chopped parsley.
In a food processor fitted with the knife blade, chop the tomatoes, with their oil, until smooth.
To serve: Spread the green cream on a platter. Place the cauliflower slices on it. Dribble the dried tomato sauce over the cauliflower. Garnish with bread crumbs.