Gourmet in the Golan

Meet chef Guy Ben-Simhon, who grew up in the restaurant industry and, together with his wife, founded charming French bistro and tzimmer Villa Vi.

Guy Ben-Simhon. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Guy Ben-Simhon.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Guy Ben-Simhon, 39, worked with his parents in their Jerusalem restaurant well into adulthood; he met his wife, Vered, when she was their workforce manager. Already parents of two, the couple decided to break away from the family business and start a new enterprise in the North.
They found their land in Had-Nes in the Golan Heights, and built Villa Vi – an intimate, French-style restaurant with a lovely tzimmer (guest house) attached to their home.
“I grew up in Jerusalem,” Ben-Simhon recounts, “and I lived in the atmosphere of my parent’s restaurant, La Guta. We celebrated my bar mitzva there. I used to accompany my mother to Mahaneh Yehuda and help her buy supplies. As a teenager, I’d drive into the shuk with my Vespa and fill up bags with produce for the restaurant.”
After his IDF service, Ben-Simhon cooked at La Guta professionally, taking time off occasionally to travel and work with other chefs in the US and France. He continues to travel yearly to upgrade his culinary knowledge, but hardly needs an upgrade in his business skills – as his parents taught him the profession from scratch.
“Today’s young cooks want to produce food quickly,” he remarks. “They want everything fast. But it’s like showing up at an office and expecting to become the manager right away. When I began working in the kitchen, my mother showed me every nook and cranny and put me through every stage, starting from washing dishes and peeling vegetables. I learned every element of the business, from the ground up.
It requires hard work and time.
“Today, I cook and bake pastry excellently, but I also know how to mix cocktails, wait at the table and wash dishes; I know how to fix the electricity if needed. That’s how my parents educated me, not to take anything for granted. We always had abundance at home, but we all worked hard and saved. That’s how my wife and I are bringing up our kids up, too.”
Ben-Simhon’s home turf was a big restaurant seating 120 diners, with a large staff. Wishing to establish his own business as a mature chef, he decided a French bistro suited his personal style better.
“I wanted something smaller, more intimate, in a rural setting. So my wife and I took off for the North, looking for a plot of land where to build our restaurant and B&B. We found it here in Had-Nes; there’s great potential for drawing tourism here, there are over 250 tzimmerim in the community.
We figured that people who vacation here need to eat, and eat well. We offer excellent food close at hand, where guests can drink wine and not worry about driving back to the B&B afterward.
“We built a two-part home: half is Villa Vi, and half is our home; each has its own entrance. We also offer two guest rooms, with a swimming pool and all the treats to spoil visitors.”
The food at Villa Vi is French-influenced, with international accents. The meat and fish menu changes almost daily in order to feature the freshest, most tempting foods of the season. Ben-Simhon grew up cooking kosher, and although Villa Vi has no kashrut certificate, he doesn’t allow mixtures of meat and dairy; desserts, however, are mostly dairy.
Villa Vi offers culinary workshops for couples and small groups in the afternoons.
In addition, guests can book culinary tours, visiting local chocolate-makers, dairies and artisanal bakers. Around every three months, Ben-Simhon invites other well-known chefs to cook with him, and then guests enjoy the unique tasting menu. Some of the celebrities who have joined him in the kitchen are Avi Bitton of the TV Food Channel, and musician Pablo Rozenberg, who came with his band.
We wondered what home life is like when chef and wife work together.
“It’s not easy, working as a couple. Each has their way of doing things, each wants to set the rules. The way we manage is we divide responsibilities. Vered creates the pastries and desserts, and also manages the restaurant and guest room reservations.
When our kids come home from school, Vered gives them a fresh, cooked lunch.
She’s with the kids in the afternoons. And I’m at the restaurant – which is my kingdom – until late.
“We worked together in the Jerusalem restaurant for eight years, so we opened Villa Vi with a realistic idea of what it means to work and live together. I do work on Friday nights, but Saturday is exclusively for my family.”
What’s the chef’s favorite dish? “Meat, I like meat. It has to be very clean, and free of other foods; no starchy side dish, no sauce, nothing. Salt, pepper, olive oil, herbs: that’s enough.”
What advice does Ben-Simhon have for home cooks? The answer has nothing to do with taste, and everything to do with keeping things in good order.
“Home cooks have their own habits and food preferences. We don’t use instant soup powders or artificial anything, but I’m not here to tell people how to cook.
My advice is to make a cooking schedule.
Chefs have to be very, very organized, we don’t like surprises.
“I taught my wife to make a weekly lunch and dinner menu chart to put on the refrigerator door. Naturally, she makes up the menus together with the kids, so that they get the foods they like.
Sundays, it could be chicken and potatoes; Monday, meatballs in sauce. This keeps Vered’s shopping and cooking organized, and it also gives the kids a sense of anticipation.”
Jerusalem artichoke soup
The following recipe seems simple, but the flavor is surprisingly complex.
4 servings
2 medium turnips
1 medium white onion
1 small celeriac (celery root)
White part of 1 small leek
8 small Jerusalem artichokes
3 Tbsp. olive oil
1 liter boiling water
2 thyme sprigs, chopped
2 Tbsp. coconut milk
Truffle oil Salt, to taste
White pepper, to taste
Peel and chop all the vegetables into mediumsized cubes.
In a large pot, and over medium heat, brown the vegetables in the olive oil.
Add the boiling water and 1 sprig thyme; cover and cook until all the vegetables are tender, about 40 minutes.
Add the coconut milk.
Remove pot from heat.
Blend the ingredients with a stick blender until a creamy soup results; add a little more water if needed. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
To serve: Ladle the soup into deep bowls, decorate each with a little thyme, and dribble a little truffle oil over the surface.
Villa Vi
Had-Nes, Golan Heights
Open from 6:30 p.m. until the last customer, Sunday through Friday.
Not kosher