French gastronomy in Arad

Chef Georges Camuzet of Toulouse comes to a children’s village to cook ravioli

Chef Georges Camuzet (left) of the L’air de Famille restaurant in Toulouse, with chef Sahar Raphael of Beersheba’s Cramim. (photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Chef Georges Camuzet (left) of the L’air de Famille restaurant in Toulouse, with chef Sahar Raphael of Beersheba’s Cramim.
(photo credit: MIRIAM KRESH)
Twenty-eight top French chefs arrived in Israel last week, joining local chefs in restaurants and bakeries across the country.
It was French Gastronomy Week, an annual event sponsored by France’s embassy in Tel Aviv, and several of the visiting chefs set aside time to cook in the kitchens of Israel’s SOS children’s villages, where housemothers and kids learned how to concoct special dishes from everyday ingredients.
Israel’s two SOS children’s villages, located in Arad and Migdal Ha’emek, provide orphaned or neglected children a stable family environment and supportive structure to help them reintegrate into society.
The program is the work of the late Herman Gemeiner, a social worker who founded the first village in his native Austria after World War II. It began on a shoestring budget in 1948, depending entirely on donations.
Today, some 1.2 million children and adults benefit from safe homes and family programs in 554 SOS children’s villages around the world.
In addition to the villages, Israel has two SOS youth facilities and five SOS social centers.
METRO WENT to watch the French culinary workshop in Neradim, the SOS children’s village in Arad.
Neradim has been functioning since 1981 and has 12 homes. The youngest child there is six years old; the oldest are 18, ready to enter the army. As in all SOS villages, each home is headed by a housemother supported by a team of professionals who provide 24-hour physical and psychological care.
Neradim has 11 “families” plus one house that takes in children who are in imminent danger, caring for them until they are placed in foster homes, transferred to an appropriate facility or absorbed into the village. Neradim includes a house program for soldiers who have no other home, and helps them even after their army service to place them in universities or professional training programs.
The housemothers are cheerful, comforting women of middle age. Supporting traumatized children demands all their emotional resources, so they themselves have regular sessions with a psychologist, and weekly mutual support sessions with each other. They have a tight network of friendships, as people who work hard together often do.
“It was culture shock when I first started working here, very different from what I’m used to,” admits Rosemary Eitan, one of the housemothers.
South African originally, Eitan made aliya at 17 “and never went back.” She was a university lecturer on technical English when she decided to make a life change at 52.
“I’ve always believed in giving back to society, and this is the way I decided to do it,” she says.
Eitan has two adult sons of her own. The home she runs at Neradim houses nine children from 12 to 17 years old.
“The kids stay in one home permanently, until age 18,” Eitan explains, “although it happens that one will leave and another will come in. You have to be there for them and give them everything a normal household has. You cook three enormous meals a day. I love it. I love the kids, although it’s a major challenge.”
The children come from the most dire situations, each with terrible stories of neglect, sexual abuse or parents destroyed by drugs or alcohol. They’re often malnourished or have other health issues when they arrive.
Utmost attention and patience are needed to teach them to trust adults – indeed, to trust anyone – and acquire a sense of self-worth.
While all staff members are dedicated to the youngsters’ rehabilitation and reintegration into society, it’s the housemothers who are physically on the ground.
These hard-working women not only run the houses and cook three enormous meals daily, they’re there for the kids 24 hours a day. They do homework with them, take them to the doctor and to shop for clothes, arrange birthday parties, teach and celebrate the holidays, deal with crises – and, most importantly, make the kids feel loved.
When a child reaches bar or bat mitzva age, the whole village celebrates. But celebrations aren’t confined to once-in-a-lifetime landmarks.
“We made a birthday party last week for one 12-year-old boy who’d never had a birthday party,” Eitan says. “He was so moved, he just didn’t know how to contain himself.”
When asked by Metro how she keeps her own emotional balance. Eitan mentions the bi-weekly meetings with the psychologist and the mutual support sessions with the other housemothers.
“I know I can call on any other housemother, even at midnight,” she says. “But mainly, I know I’m not responsible for the terrible things in the children’s lives. I can only be there to hold them and hug them and love them. Every night, I spend at least five minutes with each one before he goes to sleep. And before I go to sleep, I pray for each one.”
CHEF GEORGES Camuzet of the L’air de Famille restaurant in Toulouse is partnered during his visit to Israel with Chef Sahar Raphael of the Cramim restaurant in Beersheba. In one of the children’s houses, the two take whatever is in the kitchen – zucchini, eggplant, onions, flour and ground meat – and, with Raphael explaining the techniques, cook up savory platefuls of ravioli.
The small kitchen is crowded with the two busy chefs at the stove; with housemothers watching, commenting and chopping vegetables; and with a couple of the children, who came in after school to video the event. Undeterred by the hubbub, the chefs mix pasta dough and direct the operations.
Calling out “Chef!,” Raphael motions Camuzet to the stove to judge the doneness of the ground meat. Camuzet, used to managing an orderly French kitchen, is good-humored and efficient, even as he is pulled aside every few minutes to talk to the press or explain something to the ladies via a translator from the French Institute.
As he stirs the ravioli filling, Camuzet asks the housemothers to choose the seasonings. They vote in favor of plenty of cumin and fresh cilantro.
“Growing children don’t accept every flavor,” he states.
“Their palates are still developing. You have to suit the food to their taste. I chose pasta for this workshop, as children love it and you can put all kinds of healthy vegetables and meat into the dish. Children should be encouraged to eat plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.”
Asked for his impression of Israeli food, Camuzet engagingly says: “Sahar [Raphael] has taken me to eat humus and falafel. I intend to sample shwarma before I leave. Everything is very fresh, very delicious. We grow the same produce in France, but Israeli produce tastes different. It’s the difference in terroir [a crop’s physical surroundings] I think.”
Intrigued by the chef’s use of a term well-used in the wine industry, I ask how he has found Israeli wines. Camuzet turns to me, eyes wide.
“Israeli wines are very good,” he says in a tone of surprise and pleasure. “Very high quality.”
Raphael rolls the pasta out to the required thinness.
Camuzet shows how to cut circles and triangles out of it, filling them with cooked vegetables or seasoned meat. The housemothers, some of whom speak French themselves, learn how to twist the pasta into different shapes.
The final product, platters of steaming ravioli topped with a fresh tomato sauce, smell most tempting. Judging from the happy sounds of those eating, the workshop is a success.