A kitchen with a mission

Chef Ami Danieli teaches excellent cooking and something more

Chef Ami Danieli (photo credit: COURTESY MATAIM)
Chef Ami Danieli
(photo credit: COURTESY MATAIM)
Running a high-quality restaurant presents plenty of challenges, and Ami Danieli is well able to meet them.
As chef at Mataim, the restaurant on the grounds of the Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens in Zichron Ya’acov, Danieli successfully expresses a modern Israeli palate – with a generous fusion of Middle Eastern and European influences. The young waiting staff have clearly undergone careful professional training, making it a pleasure to order and even to receive the bill – not something you find in every restaurant.
But more than sending out plates of appetizing food from his kitchen and making sure that the staff knows how to explain each dish, Danieli runs a kitchen with a mission. He teaches his young staff ordinary life skills, like arriving at work on time and sticking to a chain of command and a schedule. The presentable young waiters and waitresses are kids at risk aiming to better their lives.
The pleasant, low-voiced Danieli grew up in Ra’anana. His story isn’t one of standing by his mother in the kitchen and learning to cook from childhood on, though. He relates that after his army service, he worked as a photographer. “Then I went to visit a friend in London. To have something to do, I studied at the London branch of the Cordon Bleu cooking school, and stayed almost two years.”
He also worked in the kitchens of British celebrity chef Marco Pierre White. On returning to Israel, Danieli worked as a pastry chef, then opened a restaurant, Golf, with a fellow chef in Caesarea.
“I baked the bread and the pastries. We ran Golf for 10 years,” he recalls.
He took his next step as chef of Mataim.
Located at the edge of the memorial gardens, Mataim has the modern look and peaceful feeling characteristic of all the Ramat Hanadiv offices. The Footprint Garden, where colorful plants and butterflies thrive, is located just beyond, and so is a playground, craftily set where visiting children can work out their energies while their parents relax over coffee. There’s even a hammock strung between two trees for exhausted children, and perhaps exhausted parents, too.
Inside the restaurant, diners in their comfortable chairs hear only the murmurings of conversations, not loud music. Several polite and well-spoken young people in the standard uniform of black slacks and white shirt circulate around the restaurant, making sure everyone has what they need.
I was impressed with the excellence of the food and service. What is it like, working with kids from tough backgrounds? “First, a social worker from the Elem organization manages the therapeutic aspects of the program,” explains Danieli.
As for motivation, he says, “all the kids are here because they want to be; nobody’s obliged to work here.
When they first arrive, they don’t understand ordinary concepts like arriving to work on time. We teach them that and other social skills, like how to work as a team, how to stick to a job even if it’s hard and boring.
We teach them cooking skills, too, of course, but in the process, they learn to care for each other, to drop the mentality of everyone out for himself.”
The kids come from Zichron Ya’acov, Binyamina, Pardess Hanna and Givat Ada. They work six hours daily and receive a salary.
“We’ve run this program for three years already,” says Danieli.
Where do the youngsters who have finished the program go? “One is about to join the army, one still hasn’t found himself,” he says. “No one has stayed to work in the kitchen. But our hope for these kids, even those who stay here only three months, is that they leave understanding what the cycle and the demands of a job are – how to keep a job. Knowing that they are learning cooking and can leave here with a profession, if they want, is great.”
I ask if daily work with at-risk kids has changed him personally.
“I’ve always been a patient man, that hasn’t changed,” he says with a laugh. “But these years have taught me much about working with young people – how to approach and work together with them. It fulfills another kind of need.”
His advice to beginning cooks: “Don’t be afraid to try out new ingredients. So many new ingredients are coming into the markets, all the time. It makes cooking interesting. And families with children shouldn’t be afraid to introduce them to cooking. I do that with my own kids; they cook great food. My eight-year-old already knows how to make ravioli.”
What about the mess in the kitchen after the kids have finished cooking? “It’s just like working with the kids here at Mataim,” he says. “You get them used to working. If you teach them that it doesn’t finish when you finish cooking the dish, and that you have to leave the kitchen tidy, they learn.”
Eggplant Sinya
Eggplant Sinya “Sinya” refers to food cooked in a tehina sauce, usually meat or fish. This eggplant version, which I tasted myself at Mataim and enjoyed very much, is a colorful, lively vegetarian adaptation.
Serves 2 as a main dish, 4 as an appetizer
Equipment: a 24-cm. casserole
1 cup coarse-cut bulgur wheat, rinsed and drained
2 cups room-temperature water
1 small red onion
1 mashed garlic clove
2 Tbsp. olive oil
2 large eggplants
1 cup raw tehina
1½ cups cold water
Juice of 2 lemons
Additional clove mashed fresh garlic
Salt and pepper to taste
50 gr. cranberries
50 gr. pistachios, chopped
1 medium white onion, fried in olive oil until tender-crisp
Extra olive oil and lemon juice for marinade
Handful of baby-leaves mix
Soak the bulgur in the water half an hour or until it softens. In the meantime, slice the red onion thinly and marinate in a little olive oil and lemon juice. Roast the eggplants over a flame or under the broiler until soft, then peel. Drain the bulgur. Season with salt and pepper, mashed garlic clove and olive oil. Spread the seasoned bulgur over the bottom of a casserole.
Season the flesh of the roasted eggplant with salt and pepper. Spread evenly over the bulgur. Blend the tehina with the water, lemon juice, mashed garlic and salt and pepper. Spread over the eggplant. Bake at 180° until all is heated through and the tehina is starting to brown at the edges, about 10 minutes.
Scatter the cranberries, pistachios and fried onion over the dish as soon as it leaves the oven. Pile baby-leaves mix and marinated red onion over all. Serve immediately.
Mataim is kosher dairy, open Sunday-Friday. Reservations by phone or email: (04) 844-9998 or 050- 449-9590; event@mataim.net.