Get ready, American cuisine: The Israelis are coming!

Israeli cuisine expands its footprint on the American food scene.

 Galit Grutman (photo credit: COURTESY GALIT GRUTMAN)
Galit Grutman
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

Asked where the center of American-Israeli cuisine might be, most would probably say New York. However, the impact of Israel is being felt from coast to coast and north to south.

Jewish country

Though it may best be known for hot chicken and banana pudding, Nashville has been busting out of the country-fried corral, and now enjoys a wide range of dining destinations including the multi-cultural Butcher and Bee (

“There’s a lot of ‘use what’s local’ happening in our world,” Chef Michael Shemtov observes. “This concept is truly the only way I know how to cook, and that’s due to my Israeli heritage.”

Shemtov says that when he opened in 2011, “Israeli food was not well represented in the south of the US,” but suggests that he (along with his cousin, Kaduri Shemtov, and Kaduri’s sister Ruti) helped popularize it in Nashville and nationwide.

 Butcher and Bee: Michael Shemtov (credit: COURTESY MICHAEL SHEMTOV) Butcher and Bee: Michael Shemtov (credit: COURTESY MICHAEL SHEMTOV)

“There is a place for Israeli food even in... cities without big Israeli populations,” said Shemtov. “Israelis often tell us that we’re sneaking Israeli food into people’s lives.”

Is-ra-el to ATL

In Atlanta, the Oliva Restaurant Group ( is helmed by Haifan chef Tal Baum.

“My most powerful memory is making breakfast for my [family] when I was young,” Baum recalls. “I loved seeing the impact I had by making a meal, and this still rings true today.”

While studying architecture in Florence, Baum fell in love with more international cuisine. And while her first American venture focused on Italy, more recent restaurants offer fresh takes on traditional Israeli dishes.

“When they take the first bite,” Baum says of her devoted customers, “the satisfaction... is tremendous!”

A voracious eater herself, Baum remembers going to her grandmother’s after school and taking in whatever she fed her.

“I was always excited to try new things,” she recalls. As her Bubbe did not use written recipes, Baum would “stand by her side... to see how she cooks and the love that went into her dishes.

Such improvisational cooking has apparently served Baum well, helping her promote her Haifan roots in very different surroundings.

“People have loved us since the day we opened,” says Baum, mentioning that she has lead programs, including a planned culinary tour of Israel, with the Jewish National Fund. “Israeli cuisine is something that you share with others. It’s a social food.”

Vegas, bubbelah!

Las Vegas has always been known for its celebrity performances, and in recent years the marque menu has expanded to include not just Cher, Elton John, and Penn and Teller, but chefs like the community-minded Gordon Ramsay and Guy Fieri. For the past 35 years, however, one of the most popular eateries in Sin City is Paymon’s Fresh Kitchen (

“We offer a menu that features many of the staples in Israeli households,” explains operator Jeff Ecker, citing foods that are “incredibly tasty, but better yet – healthy.”

Growing up in an Arabic family, Ecker lived next door to a Jewish family that had escaped the Nazis.

“I was exposed to two phenomenal cooks in each household,” recalls Ecker, who also serves as president of the Restaurant Consultants of Las Vegas, “and had the pleasure of eating both Arabic and Jewish cooking.”

Though he started in the kitchen helping his grandmother roll phyllo dough for baklava, Ecker soon expanded his repertoire to include other foods he knew people would love, and that have Paymon’s fans (many of whom are Jewish) lauding it as the best restaurant in Las Vegas.

“We have so many Jewish friends that we call family,” Ecker says, noting that his longtime girlfriend is Jewish. “We are extremely supportive of Israel, and we find it appalling that such a friend and ally of America has been persecuted by the flames of prejudice. It has to stop!”

Fortunately, Ecker sees in Israeli food not only something to enjoy together, but also something to inspire others as well.

“Israeli food is optimism,” he says, and that he plans to expand his use of Israeli foods in a new concept called Paymon’s Fresh Kitchen Express – “and it is on the rise.”

Is it kosh-ah?

Boston is known for its institutions of higher learning, great medical care – and a devoted Jewish population. It may be no surprise, then, that the number of those in the area making Israeli food has been growing steadily.

From outposts of Israel’s famed Landwer Café (, Ilan Barniv’s BONAPITA (, Avi Shemtov Hummus v’Hummus and Chubby Chickpea food truck ( to Cuban-raised “Corned Beef King” Steve Peljovich of Michael’s Deli (, the Boston area is overflowing with Israeli-inspired food! And while these main men are mavens, there are many Sabras who are staking their claims as well.

When Galit Grutman arrived in Boston more than 20 years ago, her children were used to traditional Israeli challah. Despite the Jewish and Israeli community in the Hub, however, Grutman says that she could not find the right recipe. In fact, it was not until she forgot to add a certain ingredient to her own improvised recipe that she knew she had found the secret. Since then, dedicated fans flock to her bakery in Newton, Massachusetts, ( to pick up the best challah around (as well as super sandwiches and beautiful baked goods).

“Most of us like to try new things,” says Grutman, “so maybe that explains why customers with a variety of backgrounds visit us and try our food.”

Grutman said that what she has brought to the Israeli food table is being able to use ancient recipes from our forefathers and foremothers that are accessible and available to all – at least until she sells out, as she often does.

“I have had so many customers eating my cakes and cookies, and bursting into tears [because] it reminded them of their grandmothers,” she said. “This is something the big chains would never be able to recreate.”

Though Grutman’s Bubbe did not use recipes, Grutman echoes Baum in suggesting that such mixing and melding is also an Israeli tradition.

“Israeli food is a recreation of many foods around the world together,” she suggests. “It’s a perfect combination of different places and cultures.”

Like Baum, Hila Krikov of Sweet Tahini ( came from Israel to the American south. As there was not much of a Jewish community in Texas, Krikov began to use the “local ritual” of barbecue to build community, combining traditional western American foods like steak with Middle Eastern favorites like spiced chicken thigh skewers, grilled eggplant with tahini, pita and hummus.

“It was a way to show who we are,” Krikov says proudly, “and to connect.”

Another way Krikov reveals her heritage is by using images of Israel on her packaging.

“All [the] photos have been taken by friends and family members who live there,” she says.

Though some suggested she not emphasize her Israeli roots, Krikov maintains that it has not hurt her businesses – and may very well have helped!

“I can’t hide who I am,” she says, noting that Zionist or not, customers appreciate the simple, plant-based foods that fit current trends but add a bit of Mediterranean spice. “I am more Israeli than American.”

While she now enjoys life in the Boston suburbs, Krikov misses Israel, especially her own rituals.

“I remember going to the farmers market on Sundays with my mother,” Krikov recalls, noting that she sold her goods at the same sorts of markets throughout Greater Boston before finding retail partners like Whole Foods.

Krikov attests to her tahini-based treats, authentic spices, and other Israeli staples. “When people taste it, it sells.”

Another Boston-based transplant is Liron Pergament-Gal of Choc-Allure (, who went to chocolate school after graduating from the Technion with a degree in software engineering.

“I felt I needed a balance with something more artistic,” explains Gal, noting that when her chocolate business took off, she decided to “pursue my longtime dream and quit my job in software.”

While many Israeli chefs credit family for inspiration, Gal is most inspired by other foodies.

“Eating out has been the best teacher,” she says, and that in Israel, “‘made from scratch’ isn’t a term that needs to be used, because that is the default.”

Among Gal’s freshest ingredients are traditional halva and labaneh. She also uses pomegranates in a special set of sweets for Rosh Hashanah and offers special chametz-free desserts for Passover.

“I am lucky enough to live in an area that has a large Jewish and Israeli community,” she smiles. “Both have been incredibly supportive, and I have met a lot of people interested in exploring the Israeli flavors I combine into my chocolate.”

From challah and chocolate to shakshuka and tahini, Israeli food has something for everyone who likes fresh, delicious, authentic food. And just as Israelis enjoy more diversity than should fit in one nation, the expansive and ever-expanding menu of Israeli-flavored favorites continues to spread in a dining diaspora that has clearly made its mark on American shores. ■