The Underground Baker

A Pittsburgh native and IDF dropout is baking pretzels in Tel Aviv

Ari Miller 311 (photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
Ari Miller 311
(photo credit: Daniella Cheslow)
ARI MILLER’S BAKERY IS A labor of love, but that doesn’t stop him from swearing at the ingredients. As he unloads plastic bags of groceries in his Tel Aviv kitchen, Miller notices that the two-pound bag of baking soda he bought has turned into a white brick. He slams it on his stainless-steel table to break it up into powder. “This f-ing sucks,” he says.
For the last six months, Miller, 34, has been baking the soft, wide pretzels that have become the hallmark of his company, FU, short for the Food Underground. The pretzels are slowly proliferating among boutique pubs, restaurants and delis in Tel Aviv.
Others go for sale to friends and acquaintances, who order by phone or online. A sandwich made of his pretzels and salt-cured salmon was named one of the best five sandwiches in Israel in 2010 by the mass-circulation daily “Yedioth Ahronoth.”
He wants the pretzels to taste, he says, like the ones his parents used to eat, “before pretzels had hydrogenated corn syrup and hydrogenated honey. My pretzel dough has four ingredients.” And so with a kitchen full of those four ingredients – flour, yeast, sea salt and sugar, Miller has pledged to bring American classics to the Israeli palate.
A self-defined “neurotic Jewish kid from the suburbs” of Pittsburgh who hoped to be toughened by the regimented, conformist life of the Israeli army, Miller has found his place baking with a beer in hand, bacon in his fridge, his face covered in stubble, his black curly hair an unruly puff, and gaping holes in his jeans.
Miller’s path to baking has somewhat resembled his twisted pretzels. He began as a student at Clark University in Massachusetts. There, he would host massive but sloppy dinners for friends. He graduated in 2000 and took two journalism internships, but then moved to Israel to enlist in the Israeli army, a dream he had nursed since his high school years in a Zionist youth movement. Yet, he says, he realized from his first minute that he had made “a terrible mistake. The power structure and dynamic, the pent-up frustration, the brainwashing that you are here to be a warrior and kill people – I didn’t expect that to be a part of the Israeli experience.”
It took Miller nine months to beg and argue his way out of the army. He stayed in Israel for his then-girlfriend, and moved to Beersheba to get his Master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at Ben-Gurion University. He finished his assignments but never got his degree because of what he refers to as a “bureaucratic dispute.” He moved, with most of his friends, to Tel Aviv, where he became a waiter at Orna and Ella, one of Tel Aviv’s best-known restaurants, located on stylish Sheinkin Street in the center of town and famous for its sweet potato latke appetizer. He supplemented his waiter’s income composing restaurant reviews for “The Jerusalem Post.” And working at Orna and Ella took him out of his own kitchen and into the world of real cuisine.
“It was my first time being in the sight of a professional kitchen,” he says. “I loved the food.”
Miller left the restaurant in 2008 for a brief stint editing at “The Post,” but then came back to food. Throughout this time, Miller and his roommate at the time, Zev, cooked elaborate dinners at their Tel Aviv apartment, even making homemade pumpkin ice cream on Thanksgiving. One day, Miller came home to see Zev boiling pretzel dough, the critical step before baking that creates the trademark airy crust.
Miller kept trying out pretzel recipes at home. He took a job cooking at Basta, a gourmet deli off Nachalat Binyamin street.
His boss was impressed with Miller’s pretzels and spread them with hand-cured gravlax, crème fraiche and onion, thus giving birth to the sandwich that earned the accolades in the press.
“It was my first time producing food at a professional level, and it was insane because the recognition was almost immediate,” Miller says. “The journalistic thing wasn’t working out and I knew I could cook casually. This gave me confidence.”
His next step was to take a job cooking at Minzar, his favorite pub in Tel Aviv, where he further perfected his pretzels as he chopped his way through evening shifts. It was also a platform to explore one of his favorite foods.
“I would go to the market, I would get a f-ing side of bacon, I would rip the f-ing skin off, f-ing slice it f-ing thick with a filleting knife,” Miller says, grinning. “I gave it to a bartender, and she said it was the best BLT in her life.”
But he realized he needed more serious kitchen skills than this.
HE CONTACTED RIMA ARI Olvera, an Israeli-American professional chef living in Tel Aviv. Olvera runs supper clubs in Tel Aviv and stars in a food and travel television show called Duet.
She happily adopted Miller as an apprentice, showing him kitchen technique like making caramel, teaching him how to manage products and clients, and running a clean operation.
“[Miller] sought me out… and said frankly and honestly that he is not a trained cook but that he loves the kitchen and wants to learn as much as possible,” Olvera writes to The Report in an e-mail. “His positive attitude and honesty is exactly what I look for in the character of anyone I take for my yearly apprentice.”
Armed with contacts and training, Miller dreamed of being an independent pretzel baker. An uncle offered to fund a professional oven, mixer, giant plastic tubs, the first round of ingredients and packaging materials. Today, Miller’s kitchen is tidy, with white boxes of the four ingredients standing alongside more esoteric snack choices such as dried fish.
Miller says he picked his name – FU – as a warning. “I wanted something dirty, something gritty,” Miller says. “One of my favorite things is hearing chefs who throw people out of restaurants because a person asks for something the chef is not making. Like at the Basta. We served a butcher’s cut, but it’s only served bloody. Can you have it well done? No.”
He began by selling pretzels to his old employers and to friends by order or at parties. He also experimented with beer bread and poptarts.
Inbal Nielsen, the manager of the Minzar pub, says she sells about 60 of Miller’s pretzels a week. “We serve them very simply, with butter and mustard,” she says. “It’s addictive.”
Ilan Duvshani is one of two managing partners at La Maison, a tiny old-world meat emporium in Tel Aviv. La Maison once carried four-packs of Miller’s pretzels for 42 shekels ($12). “There are people looking for food made at home without preservatives,” Duvshani says, leaning over a glass counter filled with store-cured herring. He says he wants to put Miller’s pretzels on the regular menu. “We’re thinking about integrating it with meat,” Duvshani says. “Like wrapping it in bacon.”
That would fit into Miller’s blasphemous kitchen vision. On Purim, he baked classic tricornered hamentaschen cookies with homemade apple filling, then flecked them with candied bacon. Another version was blood sausage, made with congealed pig blood. On Passover, he bought more pig blood and hoped to use it in “blood libel matzo” but didn’t find the time to bake it.
Miller says he eats bacon because he likes it. But he also says bacon is part of a bigger food revolution unfolding in American cities.
He mixes it into apple brandy butter and tucks it between sheets of dough for pop-tarts. And whatever the reasons behind his choices, the hamentaschen, baked in a savory pastry crust, combine the silky sweetness of pureed apple with the salty crunchiness of bacon and taste great.
According to Ronit Vered, food writer for the weekend supplement of the Israeli daily Haaretz, bacon, the reviled epitome of non-kosher, has lost its shock value in Israel.
“Bacon is just another raw ingredient of the kitchen,” Vered explains. “We are absolutely free of the prejudice that someone who eats pork is coming to destroy the Jewish people.”
In fact, in recent years, swine in Israel has grown so prominent that the first pork cookbook, called “The White Book,” was published in January last year.
Vered is impressed by putting pork on a traditional Jewish food like hamentaschen.
“The day someone fills a hamentaschen with bacon…” Vered begins, before realizing it has already happened. Then she backtracks, remembering that she lives in the hedonism capital of Israel. “In that respect, the accusations that Tel Aviv is a state of its own are right.”
“[Israel] is still about the Zionist ethos,” Vered says. “The idea that we have to be modest and grounded is still very strong in many places. In Tel Aviv we have managed to shake that off a little.”
ORI SHAVIT, A FREELANCE food critic and photographer, says Miller’s FU attitude taps into a growing sentiment among Israeli customers that the chef is right.
“There was a period beginning in the 1980s, when people began understanding food, and they told chefs what they wanted, like ‘put this on the side,’ or ‘I don’t want it this way,’” Shavit says. Now, however, “people actually are happy to go to a place that doesn’t make compromises. They are happy to go to a place where it seems like the people in charge know what they are doing.”
Shavit adds that Miller’s pretzel operation, which runs out of a private kitchen, is part of a culture of “guerilla food” in Tel Aviv. She recalls a woman selling cakes off her bicycle and chefs hosting elaborate, for-pay home dinners for a select group of friends and celebrities. These less institutional businesses save their owners the financial risk of opening proper restaurants and shops.
“For example, the cupcake trend had its moment in the last two years,” Shavit says.
“It began with people baking privately, and then there were a few real stores that carried mostly cupcakes. But the first businesses were people who baked at home and sold at stands in public squares and by telephone.”
These underground food movements have seen a huge boost from the Internet, Shavit adds. Miller, for example, posts photographs of his fresh pretzels and pop tart pastries online to entice friends to buy them.
But other food experts doubt Miller’s ability to succeed, including Yaniv Brikman, sales director at Lehamim bakery. With 80 workers, Lehamim pushes fresh bread out of its ovens 24 hours a day in central Tel Aviv, and was written up by “The New York Times” for its exotic (and kosher) hamentaschen fillings, including marzipan and sour apple.
Pretzels, Brikman says, are not “the best product to bring to the country. We also tried to do pretzels. The Israeli crowd doesn’t go for it. With a beer it would be great. But it wouldn’t be free. At a bar you can already get free [Israeli-style] pretzels, popcorn and peanuts.”
Until April, Miller was sure he could cover his expenses by baking about 300 pretzels a week. His brother Dani, 28, moved from Pittsburgh to Tel Aviv to bake and bookkeep. And FU was featured in TimeOut Tel Aviv, TimeOut Israel and the Walla! online Hebrew news portal. But last month, Miller says, his uncle pulled his funding after they disagreed over his business vision. Now, Miller is going to work more shifts at the Minzar and keep baking, in the hopes of finding a new business strategy.
Miller’s stints at the Minzar and Basta and his apprenticeship with Olvera connected him to a group of food romantics. He has traveled to Serbia just to eat his way through the annual testicle festival. He has baked pretzels in the shape of the Anarchist symbol, and searches the foreign worker district of southern Tel Aviv for roast duck.
Miller has thrived in Israel despite having done everything “wrong” – quitting the army, not getting his degree and getting laid off. In fact, for Miller, the traits that could otherwise be liabilities – a foul mouth, inability to take orders, bouts of heavy drinking, and being unabashedly American – have proven to be assets in the cooking community.
In May, Miller published an autobiographical article in “Blazer,” Israel’s leading men’s magazine, entitled “I came for the State of Israel, I stayed for the State of Tel Aviv.” From his balcony he can see his neighbors zip along the sun-dappled asphalt on scooters. A few blocks away is Sheinkin Street, where he first waited tables and which is always packed with tanned, smiling and well-dressed cappuccino sippers at sidewalk cafés.
“Under no circumstances would I make my life in this country outside Tel Aviv,” he says. “Jerusalem? The North? F-k it.”
In the immediate future, Miller hopes to sell his pretzels at the Tel Aviv farmers’ market, an upscale outdoor food bazaar. If all goes well, he says, he may one day open a restaurant featuring the American-style food he cannot get in Tel Aviv.
“I’m the only person in this country who can make proper Buffalo wings,” he says.