The world according to Uri Buri

The man who put Acre on the culinary map.

The Efendi Hotel, Acre (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Efendi Hotel, Acre
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When in January this year the hugely popular Trip Advisor international travel website announced its outstanding restaurants of 2013, there was a surprise in store in the category for the Middle East. An Israeli restaurant proved the most popular choice of travellers from across the globe, beating, among others, the renowned luxury eateries of the Arabian Gulf states such as Dubai, Qatar, and Bahrain.
With so many classy, high-priced restaurants in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, it came as a further surprise that the award went to a restaurant in Acre, close to Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. Uri Buri, a fish and seafood restaurant in the Jewish-Arab city, won the plaudits for the restaurant’s founder and inspiration, the charismatic Uri Yirmias.
Situated on the seafront close to a lighthouse that gazes out over the Mediterranean, the restaurant itself is simple and unpretentious – just about the only negative comments on Trip Advisor were that the interior could do with freshening up – but once seated in either of the two dining areas, the customer’s gaze will rarely stray far from his plate.
Greeting his guests as they arrive at Uri Buri is the big guy himself. His physical presence is unforgettable and he has been described as “Israel’s very own Father Christmas” or a “lost Israeli member of the rock band ZZ Top.” From his ample belly, your eyes lead up to a long, white beard. “How long have you been growing it?” I ask. “I forgot to shave this morning,” chuckles the man who has long since put Acre on the culinary map, and is now attempting to do the same with a boutique hotel project, The Efendi.
Yirmias’s path to the top of the restaurant trade has taken him on a long and fascinating journey, a journey he shares with me as we watch the world go by from the front window of the restaurant.
“When I first heard about it [the award], I thought that maybe someone was making a joke” he admits to The Jerusalem Report. “Actually, I was surprised but I can understand it. This is not a restaurant for very much passing trade. People just dropping in [who don’t know the place] might be disappointed that there is no hummus! I have managed over the years to get very specific clients who come especially from afar to eat here and know exactly what to expect.
“We are not in competition with anyone,” Yirmias notes. “We make the best we can, using the freshest materials available in the market. Four days of storms and you will not find one fish from the sea. And if it is very calm, you also won’t get fish from the sea as they won’t come to the shore. On regular days, you will find a mix of sea fish, sweet-water fish, and farmed fish.”
Yirmias was born in Nahariya almost 70 years ago. His father was an agricultural adviser to the stream of Jewish refugees from Europe in the 1930s, many of whom left professional jobs to follow the Zionist dream of turning what was then British Mandatory Palestine into a Land of Milk and Honey. Most of them had little or no knowledge of farming, so the advice they received from Yirmias the elder was essential to the success of kibbutzim and farms across the north of the country.
“My father was born in Poland as a German,” Yirmias recalls. “Then, after World Wat I, his town of Posnan was given to the Poles and he was expelled from Poland as a German. Then he was thrown out of Germany for being a Jew!”
Yirmias’s mother, a kindergarten teacher, opened up the family home and adopted a series of children – both Jewish and Arab – a pluralistic environment that served their son well in finding his place in northern Israel, an area of the country with Jewish, Muslim, Arab and Druze populations living cheek by jowl. While he was to become a restaurateur whose attention to detail has been his passport to success, the same fastidiousness was notably absent during his schooldays.
“When I was 16, I left school. It was by mutual understanding as we both realized that we didn’t serve each other! I went hitchhiking for a few months in Europe...then [came back] to army school and trained as an aircraft mechanic and served in the air force. Then I went off travelling again throughout the 1960s and ’70s. In between, he returned as a reservist to serve in the IDF and volunteered to retrain for the dangerous role of bomb disposal expert.
But why bomb disposal? “It’s a highly technical unit and very interesting,” Yirmias says. “The other thing is that I didn’t feel I could kill people, but I wanted to contribute. The chance as a bomb disposal expert that you have to kill people is very small; it’s more about saving people. I felt it was more my kind of thing. I didn’t want to shirk my responsibilities or duties. I was in Lebanon, Egypt, Syria and Jordan, disarming mines and booby traps.
“IN 1973, I served almost six months in the army, mostly on the Golan Heights where there were a lot of unexploded bombs from all sides. There were rockets that hadn’t exploded, damaged tanks behind enemy lines that were considered to be booby-trapped, even bodies that lay in the field had to be checked for booby traps. That was not very pleasant; the hardest job I ever did. Whenever there was a war, I was mobilized; Lebanon in ’82 and until we left Lebanon in 2000.
Have those experiences made him a fatalist? “I was never a big believer,” he says. “I don’t know who God is, where he is, or what he does. I know just one thing. I don’t ask him for anything, but I thank him for everything I have.”
After working in procurement for UN forces in the Middle East, Yirmias, whose self-taught skills as a fish chef had already attracted attention locally, was encouraged by friends to open the first fish restaurant in Nahariya, just north of Acre. In 1989, after spending a year learning how to run a restaurant, Uri Buri opened (buri is a very popular local fish known in English as gray mullet), and was a big hit. Eight years later, he decided to move his business to nearby Acre and the restaurant became an even bigger success.
“I am the chef and I train all the staff,” Yirmias explains. “The mainstream is youngsters here from the street. I bring them in and they start to work in the kitchen. Then after two years they go to a cooking school in Haifa. Then they finish and get accepted as [professional] cooks.
“Half our workers are Arab. The young Arab and Jewish kids get a full salary while they’re learning and working, and then they stay for longer. Just six months ago, one of the guys left after 24 years. I have waitresses who have been with me for 16 years, the pastry chef for 14 years, even the dishwasher for 14 years. This is very unusual.
Acre is a town with a genuinely mixed Jewish-Arab population and has witnessed only a few unsavory local incidents.
The 2008 Yom Kippur rioting in Acre was widely reported after a Jewish mob beat an Arab man driving through a Jewish neighborhood on the Day of Atonement. “There is no place with so many different people without undercurrents,” Yirmias opines. “Any idiot can light a big fire and that was the case [that day], but the problem was that people from outside, radicals from both left and right, attempted to elevate it into a much bigger issue than it actually was.
“Everybody was shocked that something like this might happen. I think that now, after the events of the last few years in the Arab world, Israeli Arabs feel much more Israeli than ever before. Before, if someone had a wish to be Palestinian, Syrian, Lebanese, Egyptian or God knows what, today they now realize their very definite interest is to be Israeli.”
On a more positive note, it is clear there has been investment in the city. The seafront promenade has received much praise, as have the excavated templar Knights Tunnels, and Acre’s Fringe Theatre Festival regularly attracts around 250,000 visitors over four days during the Succoth holidays (11-14 October this year), demonstrating the huge potential the charismatic city has as a tourist haven.
The Old City of Acre is arguably the last unspoiled ancient city in Israel. Yirmias’s latest project, The Efendi Hotel, is helping to put Acre on the hotel map. He’s taken a very big gamble, but the ex-bomb disposal expert is characteristically philosophical about taking chances and believes that this Jewish-Arab environment is well worth investing in.
“You have to understand that Acre can’t be put on the map. It’s been on the map for 5,000 years. All your life is a gamble. We say that if you hide under your bed there is no guarantee you will not be hit. The only guarantee is that you won’t sleep well. I’d rather sleep on the bed, do things I love to do, and take into account what a lucky person I am.
“When I came here 16 years ago, no one wanted to invest in Acre, and no one ever thought a Jew could make a good business in Acre. This is one of the most interesting cities in the world with a mix of Jews and Arabs. It has been underestimated for so many years. I call it the Sleeping Beauty.”
The Efendi is actually a meld of two formerly palatial 19th century residences built in the classical Arab style. The buildings were completely dilapidated 10 years ago. It had been condemned by one government department, while, on the other hand, the Antiquities Authority declared it a topgrade conservation building.
The 12-room boutique hotel has been lovingly restored to its former glory, from the basement wine cellar that dates back 1,500 years to the Byzantine period, to the Crusader-built section of the 12th century, the late-Islamic additions of the 14th and 15th centuries, through to the present day. The building includes the original hamam (Turkish bath), high-ceilinged frescos, elegant bedrooms and sumptuous lounges. Like his restaurant, the hotel has attracted high praise from Trip Advisor, which named it one of the “10 Best Small Hotels in Israel.”
The restoration of The Efendi took a great deal of Yirmias’s money and eight-and-ahalf years of hard and sometimes frustrating work. As we chat, gazing south across the Bay of Haifa as the sun set, I suggest that such a huge project is something most people at his time of life might shy away from.
“Some people say you should live every day of your life as if it were your last,” he smiles. “This is something I really resent, because always living as if this is the last day and not taking responsibility is not at all my style. I live as if I have another 200 years, and if I’m mistaken, then sue me!”
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