Young, kosher and passionate about food

Aubergine restaurant’s chef Alon Hirtenstien meets kashrut challenges with aplomb.

Alon Hirstenstien: ‘My food is good because I know how to accept help.’ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alon Hirstenstien: ‘My food is good because I know how to accept help.’
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The tall chef’s toque makes a stiff frame for chef Alon Hirtenstien’s baby face. But behind the appearance of a youngster is a mature determination to create wonderful food. Engaging and enthusiastic, Hirtenstien, 31, says he’s really quite shy. But on the topic of cooking gourmet kosher food, there’s no holding him back.
“My family keeps kosher, and although we’re not strictly religious, we keep a very traditional house,” he says in his eager way. “I’ve never eaten or cooked anything non-kosher.
My Moroccan grandmother was a very religious woman, and very passionate about cooking. I learned from her, and from my mother. I always stood next to them while they were cooking. I think it’s great to absorb cooking from your mother, to learn early that a knife, for example, isn’t something to be afraid of, but a good friend.”
Hirtenstien graduated from the Tadmor Culinary School in Herzliya after his army service, choosing to follow a French, bistro style. It’s a difficult culinary style for a young, kosher chef with high expectations.
He must prove that kosher food can be every bit as delicious and interesting as non-kosher cuisine with every plate that leaves his kitchen. But when studying a recipe calling for meat with lots of butter, he regards it simply as a challenge, something to reproduce in a kosher way with all the character and flavor of the original recipe. Experimenting and brainstorming with other chefs, he ultimately creates a dish to satisfy the most doubtful client’s standards.
There are 20 other cooks at the various eateries in the David Intercontinental Hotel, but as chef of the fine Aubergine restaurant, Hirtenstien is perhaps the youngest.
“I wasn’t born a chef,” Hirtenstien says modestly. “I had to learn. My food is good, because I know how to accept help. Sometimes I get together with other chefs and brainstorm, exchange ideas and experiment.
Cooking isn’t an ego thing with me. I’ll grab vegetables and chop, I’m not above doing basic work if it’s needed right away, and I expect my five cooks at Aubergine to have the same approach. We work together.”
Following the modern Israeli trend, the chef seeks out the best quality homegrown ingredients. He says he had to convince his traditional-minded superiors to accept veal and lamb from the Golan Heights in the restaurant, rather than use imported meat. He uses the best local olive oil in the market, usually boutique oil from small presses. That he makes the right choices is evident in his delicious cooking, which this reporter tasted at Aubergine (without divulging her profession).
“I’ve known from my childhood that I wanted to cook,” says Hirtenstien. “I remember seeing an ad for the Tadmor Culinary School in Herzliya in a supermarket, when I was a kid, and I said to myself, ‘This is where I’m going to study after the army.’ It’s been my dream since the third grade.”
Asked what he cooks at home, he confesses, “When I cook at home, I love the stews and pies of the Moroccan tradition.
Warm, sweet halla, sofrito [braised meat or chicken], chreimeh [spiced fish], chicken with potatoes. Not fancy food.”
The influence of home is creeping into his restaurant kitchen.
“I recently served a great harissa sauce with preserved lemon at the restaurant.
People loved it. I like to cook Mediterranean and classic French combined. And I really love it that people like what I cook.”
This young chef is single, and admits that he’s looking for a wife.
“I’m a family guy,” he says.
“I want a wife, someone who will put up with a chef’s hours, and kids. Put it in the article,” he laughs, “maybe someone serious will call me up.”
In regards to how he sees his future, he answers, “I want to stay in the profession.
Lots of chefs burn out when they get older.
They learn to do something else, they leave the profession. I want to stay a chef forever. Cooks have passion. I came for a reason, I’m here to create.”
Sometimes Hirtenstien allows himself to depart from classic French cuisine and acknowledges the influence of Israel’s rich open-air markets , as his ceviche and gazpacho recipe clearly shows.
Ceviche of Salmon and Grouper with Cold Gazpacho
Serves 4
For the ceviche:
50 gr. raw, cubed salmon 50 gr. raw, cubed grouper 1 Tbsp. chopped fresh pineapple 1 Tbsp. of chopped fresh cantaloupe 1 tsp. chopped fresh cilantro leaves ½ tsp. lemon zest 1 Tbsp. olive oil Juice of 1 lemon A pinch of salt Mix all ingredients and serve immediately.
For the gazpacho:
4 ripe tomatoes 1 finely chopped garlic clove ½ peeled cucumber ½ medium white onion 1 red bell pepper 1 tsp. Tabasco sauce 2 Tbsp. fresh lemon juice 1 tsp. salt ¼ cup olive oil Blend all ingredients in a food processor until obtaining a soupy texture.
This soup is best served cold.
Serving suggestion by the chef: Put a metal ring form in the center of the bowl.
Fill it with the ceviche, packing it in tightly. Drop spoonfuls of the gazpacho around the ring. Remove the ring and serve.