Upscale dining in Neveh Tzedek

Award-winning young chef Orel Kimchi talks about his restaurant Popina.

Award-winning young chef Orel Kimchi talks about his restaurant Popina (photo credit: CHAIM COHEN)
Award-winning young chef Orel Kimchi talks about his restaurant Popina
(photo credit: CHAIM COHEN)
A stroll through the enchanting Neveh Tzedek quarter of Tel Aviv might well culminate with lunch at Popina, where chef Orel Kimchi stands out as one of Israel’s important young chefs. In 2013, he won the San Pellegrino World’s Best Young Chef award for chefs under the age of 30. Popina opened two years ago, drawing a crowd that appreciates the restaurant’s innovative menu, open-plan design and comfortable ambience.
“My partners and I worked hard to make the restaurant experience delightful,” says the 31-year-old Kimchi. “The design, how the waiters dress and the cooks should look – the goal was to give the place a feeling of comfort and pleasure.
And naturally, top food and service.” He adds, “My time working with the famous French chef Joel Robuchon influenced my vision of the ideal restaurant.”
Popina has a large bar overlooking the open kitchen, and diners can watch the cooks at work and talk to them.
“Some people say there has to be another kitchen hidden behind there somewhere, where we really cook the food – but it’s all out in plain sight. The customers and the cooks enjoy the direct contact,” Kimchi says.
Providing diners with exactly the right touch of comfort is a top consideration.
“We’ve succeeded in creating a highend feeling without constraint or formality.
Customers look forward to fine dining but don’t feel obliged to show up in suits and ties. We spent hours choosing the most comfortable dining chairs, ones with armrests. To test the bar chairs, we sat on them for three hours without getting up, to make sure a customer could sit at the bar comfortably for as long as he likes,” he explains.
Kimchi’s food background started at home; but, unlike many chefs, his first influence wasn’t his mother.
“My mother is a good plain cook, but my father is the big cook at home. He’s the one who likes to try out new ideas in the kitchen,” he says.
A Sephardi grandmother’s home-cooked dishes were an unconscious influence.
“My grandmother speaks Ladino, and I grew up hearing it.
There’s a great Sephardi influence in my approach to cooking.
You cook for someone you love, you wait for their smile at the first bite or the end of the meal. That’s what I remember from my grandmother’s cooking. She’s still with us, may she enjoy a long life,” he says.
“So I grew up eating well,” he continues.
“I have an older brother who’s also a restaurant chef. But I never paid much attention to cooking until I was almost at the end of my army service. I was a commander of a unit where one of the soldiers did the cooking. He’d learned in a high school program that taught independent life skills. I stuck to him to see what he was doing, and I fell in love with cooking. As soon as I was released from the army, I went to the Tadmor cooking school,” he recounts.
Kimchi later sharpened his culinary skills in New York, France and Spain.
The young chef has an innovative approach to the perfect menu.
“The food at Popina is cooked in five different techniques: cured, steamed, baked, seared and slow-cooked. I want to show how the same raw material behaves when cooked in different techniques.
Take drum fish, for example, a fish I’m very fond of. It tastes one way when it’s cured and has an entirely different taste when baked. Tastes and textures change. I like to showcase the relationship between the foods on the plate. I don’t believe that a chef’s restaurant has to serve many elements on one plate; rather, the flavors should harmonize. For example, fish with goat’s butter or, in desserts, basil or coriander leaves. These flavor combinations are surprising, but they taste good together,” he says.
Each cooking technique is presented as a menu category that includes a cocktail, appetizers, tasting dishes, main dishes and a dessert. The staff will recommend choices from the different categories so that the customer can experience all the techniques. Two tasting menus offer a choice of seven or nine dishes.
“If the customers allow us, we like to choose the dishes for them. Otherwise, we recommend that they take at least one portion out of each culinary technique so they’ll feel the difference between them,” he explains.
Diners leave the table with the feeling of having eaten well and having learned something new.
Kimchi is married and has a two-yearold daughter.
“I’m home so little, I’m happy that my wife cooks. Just yesterday I decided to make rice for us, so I measured four cups of rice and cooked it all. My wife came into the kitchen and thought I’d invited at least 10 guests for some reason. I’m just so used to cooking huge pots of everything at Popina,” he laughs.
Cheerful, unpretentious, but well grounded in reality, Kimchi gives the following advice to cooks thinking of a career as a chef: ”Make a serious decision about what you want to do. Many have this romantic vision of a chef’s life, but in fact it’s very hard. It’s hard to have a family life when you’re working 300 plus hours every month at the restaurant. It’s your second home, and you do everything for it.”
Not kosher
3 Ahad Ha’am Street, Tel Aviv
Tel. (03) 575-7477
Opening Hours: Sunday to Friday, 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Saturday, noon to 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 1 a.m.