A group of 50 excited young men and women enter the hall, chatting in small groups. Without a fuss they take their seats and face the front, awaiting orders. Though visibly tired, everyone remains focused, as they know the evening’s operation – the peak event of a week of non-stop activity – depends entirely on their ability to execute their orders to a tee.
As with all briefings, safety procedures come first. All eyes and ears are trained on the front of the room, no one wants to lose a hand, and more importantly no one wants to go home. Seven days ago they started the journey together, and two days hence they will finish it together. No man or woman left behind.
From the front, names are called out as each individual is assigned to a group – a small task force responsible for a specific part of the evening’s mission. Suddenly, the equipment is wheeled in. The seats are emptied as everyone rushes to collect their gear.
Boxes of fresh produce – peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes and mounds of herbs and spices are handed back. Bottles of olive oil clink together as each team searches out its specialized products. The back door swings open and a cart full of mangoes, ripe and aromatic, is brought in. They’re ready to begin.
The young men and women gathered around the food, Americans between the ages of 22 and 26, are members of a unique culinary Taglit-Birthright Israel group. Made up of food critics, chefs, bloggers, experts and enthusiasts, the 41-strong group were taken by educational tour operator Israel Experts on a whirlwind tour around Israel, giving extra pause to wineries, fresh food markets and organic farms.
Tonight, the group has found itself on an IDF (Zahal) base home to some of the Israeli army’s most elite units, among them commando combat engineers Yahalom. The Birthright group is there to put its members’ cooking skills to the test, and to “give something back” by treating the soldiers to a classic American meal. On the menu: barbecue chicken, fried chicken, beef chili, carrot slaw, potato salad and french fries.
Erez Frankel, Israel Experts’ educational coordinator for English speaking groups, explained how this is many of the participants’ first time in Israel. He added that having IDF (Zahal) soldiers accompany them on their trip is always an eye-opening experience.
“Growing up i didn’t know anybody that went to the U.S. Army,” says food and lifestyle blogger Molly Yeh. “Here, every person in their teen years go off to the army. None of the eight soldiers in our group ever complained about anything, they were such strong people, so proud of their country.”
Molly Yeh, food, lifestyle and travel blogger
The evening at an IDF (Zahal) base has become a highlight of the trip over the past few years, during which various groups have cooked for the Nahal Brigade, Oketz Canine Unit and even for soldiers at the naval base in Ashdod.
Tonight, some of the local soldiers sneak in to watch the Americans at work and even to lend a hand.
Classically-trained pastry chef Evan Coben, a participant in the trip, said the encounter with IDF (Zahal) soldiers was the most enriching part of her experience of being in Israel.
“You visit a country but you don’t really get to experience it until you’ve seen it through someone else’s eyes,” she said. ”We’re the same age, and yet we grew up in drastically different conditions. I’ve never had to think about the things that they have to think about; I’ve never had to call my mom when I got off the bus to tell her that the bus didn’t blow up.”
For the Yahalom soldiers, tonight will be a mouth-watering – as well as eye-opening – experience.
“The food on the base is usually pretty good, but tonight, there’s something special,” said one soldier, happy to relinquish his kitchen duties for the evening.
A few minutes before the meal is to be served, logistical matters almost derail the precise order of the dining room: the number of soldiers keeps changing and now there may be a cutlery shortage.
The tense moment passes thanks to the group’s good humor and a little ingenuity, and before long the soldiers begin to file in. While light classical music plays in the background, bright chatter begins to fill the air as the Israelis and Americans sit down to break bread.