Food: A vacation in the kitchen

Acclaimed cookbook author Susie Fishbein leads a trip of home cooks into the top kitchens around the country.

Tour participants (photo credit: TAIRE SHRAGA)
Tour participants
(photo credit: TAIRE SHRAGA)
Most people are happy to get out of the kitchen when they’re on a vacation.
But last week a group of 32 tourists – and one famous cookbook author – spent seven days touring Israel… and its many kitchens.
While some stops on the trip may have been familiar, like a tour of Mahaneh Yehuda or a wine tasting at the Carmel winery, others were once-in-a-lifetime opportunities: a pasta-making session with celebrity chef Meir Adoni followed by lunch at his Blue Sky restaurant; or a demonstration on plating techniques by the head chef of the Inbal Hotel.
“Most of these people have been [to Israel] 20 times before, and they saw new things they’ve never seen before,” said Arnon Katz, founder and CEO of Masa Yehudi: The Jewish Journey, the agency which organized the trip.
The draw for most participants, said Katz, was the chance to get up close and personal with some of the hottest Israeli chefs and restaurants, under the guidance of kosher powerhouse Susie Fishbein.
Fishbein, a well-known figure in the Jewish culinary world, has sold close to half a million cookbooks in her “Kosher by Design” series, and The New York Times has said she has “an unparalleled following and unparalleled credibility” among kosher consumers.
While Fishbein has been to Israel many times in the past, “this speaks to me on a completely different level,” she said. “The stops that we made, the people that we interacted with, the caliber of chef, the fame of the chef, the personality of the chef, really was so much more important even than any dish that we learned.”
And there were dozens of memorable dishes, from the moment the group – which ranged in age from 16 to 83 – stepped off the plane until the last day of the trip. From a dessert demonstration with the chef of the Carmel Forest Spa to a chocolate-making workshop with chocolatier and instructor Maya Stern, and a bread-making class at the Lachma bakery in Tel Aviv, the participants got their hands – and aprons – dirty almost every step of the way.
“We probably could have done two to three more weeks and done something different every day,” said Fishbein, who is already planning what stops and activities the tour could do next year. “Over the past year I have really been made very much aware how hot the Israeli culinary scene has become.”
And though many of the most buzzed-about eateries and chefs in Israel are not kosher, Fishbein feels the trip participants didn’t miss out on anything by sticking to only certified establishments.
“We could not have had a better meal – I don’t care how trayf [non-kosher] the restaurant – than what we had at Blue Sky,” she said. “I don’t think, ‘Wow, I wonder how the non-kosher people are eating’ ever entered anyone’s mind.”
The group also met up with chef Michael Katz, of the famed non-kosher Jerusalem restaurants Adom, Colony and Lavan, and had dinner at his newest venture, the kosher-certified Trattoria Haba near the shuk.
“The two chefs we met are very famous in the trayf world – Meir Adoni and Michael Katz – and both of their newest ventures are kosher,” she said. “That tells me something, that they know they have an interested audience, they have a loyal audience and they have an audience on the edge of their seats waiting.”
“A non-kosher person, they can go to 100 restaurants in Tel Aviv,” Fishbein continued, “but someone who keeps kosher, they’re going to go to Blue Sky.”
While Masa Yehudi has done culinary trips in the past, this was the first with Fishbein, and “it was on a higher level,” said Katz. “Because Susie wants to meet the known chefs and see their way of cooking and baking.”
“Our goal is always to show different sides of Israel and to tell different stories,” said Taire Shraga, marketing director for Masa Yehudi. “The foodie scene has really developed in the past few years dramatically in Israel,” driving the popularity of the niche trip.
Shraga said the 32 participants, who came from the US, Canada and Switzerland, ranged from “experts in the kitchen to people who burn microwave popcorn.”
At one stop they put their skills to the test at an outdoor cooking competition among the participants, where they had to cook a five-course meal judged by four chefs. Other highlights included a trip to Moshav Kfar Maimon, near Netivot, which houses “The Garden of Ora,” an orchard containing 80 different types of fruit trees. There they ate a traditional Yemenite meal cooked by Ora, which included traditional Yemenite soup, kubana bread, hyssop with olive oil and chicken, rice and vegetables with Yemenite spices.
Fishbein, who has written eight cookbooks since 2003, is taking a break from churning out her next tome, instead writing a monthly recipe column for Zman magazine and leading culinary trips like this one, including one to Provence in May.
Aside from the exciting visits to kitchens along the way this trip, the cookbook author also held workshops of her own, including a guide to spices during a tour of Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Market, a knife skills class, a fruit cutting workshop and a dessert demonstration.
Fishbein said there were many highlights to the tour, but “it’s not about any one activity we did, it was about the people and the stories that they told… it was about the human personalities of the people that live here and work here and want to share their passion.”
At the Inbal Hotel last Friday, new head chef Andreas Marinkovits demonstrated the plating tips and tricks he would use for the dinner they were going to eat that very night. Participants craned their necks to see him decorate the plate of gefilte fish with strips of carrot, rolls of cucumber and salmon, cubes of beetroot and sprinkles of sprouts. He continued to show the detailed preparations for the chicken stuffed with rice, raisins and almonds, as well as the hot chocolate cake with vanilla cream, caramelized apples, chocolate maple sauce and a finish of blow-torched meringue piped on top.
Fishbein said while she has worked in the kitchens of chefs around the US and internationally, those in Israel had a different kind of spirit.
“It was like being in kitchens with everybody’s bubbe, and these were young, cool men who were nobody’s bubbes,” she said. “They’d say ‘Susie taste this,’ ‘Susie see this, did you see how I did this?’ They were so generous of spirit, of wanting to give over the information, of wanting to show off, saying ‘How does this compare to restaurants in New York, how does this compare to other kitchens?’” At Katz’s Trattoria Haba, the group watched the award-winning chef prepare quinoa salad with apple, carrots and cranberries; ceviche fish with strawberries and peppers; and white bean humous.
After a week of culinary adventures, the participants will leaving with full bellies and a whole lot of memories – plus something more tangible.
“While they were watching and eating, I was learning some of the recipes so I can go home, make sure they work properly, and give the participants a pamphlet of 10 or 15 wonderful memories that they ate and that they experienced,” said Fishbein. “Two or three weeks from now when they’re home trying to remember what they did, what they ate, where they went, they’ll actually have memories they can share with their friends and family.”