When they open restaurants in the US and England, five-star chefs with an Israeli background bring a hint of their home cuisine.
Copyright: Will Blunt/StarChefs.com
By Avigayil Kadesh
For two years running, Israeli chefs in the US have received coveted James Beard Award nominations. Michael Solomonov of Philadelphia’s Zahav restaurant won for the mid-Atlantic region in 2011, while Alon Shaya of the Italian restaurant Domenica in New Orleans was shortlisted for 2012’s best Southern US chef prize.
Coincidence? Perhaps. But the rising popularity of Middle Eastern flavors and dishes is putting a new spotlight on Israeli cooks who choose to ply their trade overseas.
Possibly the best example of this phenomenon is Yotam Ottolenghi, a 44-year-old native Jerusalemite who achieved fame in Britain for his London deli-café-restaurants in Notting Hill, Kensington, Belgravia, Soho and Islington.
His reputation went international with the publication of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook written with his Arab co-chef and fellow Jerusalemite Sami Tamimi (2008), the award-winning Plenty (2010) and Jerusalem: A Cookbook (2012), also written with Tamimi. The holder of a master’s degree in comparative literature from Tel Aviv University, Ottolenghi also writes a weekend food column in the Guardian newspaper.
“Drawing on an abundance of culinary traditions – with a focus on the Mediterranean – we strive to surprise and stir,” Ottolenghi has said.
Infusing Israeli touches
Ottolenghi’s approach seems to be a winning recipe for Israeli chefs working abroad.
Shaya says he likes to infuse the Domenica menu with Israeli touches — roasted goat shoulder and vegetables, for example, served with the iconic Israeli shakshuka (poached egg in spicy tomato sauce). “I allow my heritage to speak through the menu in a way that still feels Italiana.”
Drawing on a dish he sampled at Tel Aviv chef restaurant Abraxas North, Shaya created a roasted cauliflower specialty served with whipped goat feta on a well of olive oil and fresh chilies.
“This dish screams ‘Israel’ to me though it may scream ‘Italy’ to someone else,” says Shaya, who also was nominated as Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in his region and was named a Chef to Watch by Esquire magazine and a 2012 Rising Star by StarChefs.com.
Born in Bat Yam in 1979, he was raised in Philadelphia but retains a strong emotional tie to his homeland. In fact, he was so moved by his surroundings during a trip to Israel with other New Orleans chefs in June 2011 that he proposed to his girlfriend on a hilltop in Jaffa overlooking the beach.
Shaya’s annual Passover Seder at Domenica attracts hundreds of Jewish and non-Jewish diners. He uses adaptations of some of his mother’s recipes, and completes the traditional meal with matzo baked in the Italian restaurant’s wood-burning pizza oven.
‘A guy with an Israeli vision’
Michael Solomonov, born in 1978 and, like Shaya, raised mainly in the United States, is less subtle about the Israeli inspiration behind Zahav (which means “gold” in Hebrew).
Chef Michael Solomonov. Photo by Michael Persico
The restaurant was founded in 2008 in tribute to his brother, who was killed in action on the Lebanese border on Yom Kippur in 2003. Solomonov wanted to introduce Philadelphia diners to dishes such as humus and laffa, made with imported Israeli ingredients. Jerusalem stone is incorporated into the restaurant’s decor, and a huge photo of Jerusalem’s marketplace, Machane Yehuda, hangs on one wall.
“I want people to get what’s going on over there, and I think the easiest way to do that is through food,” he says.
Over time, the menu has evolved into American-Israeli fusion. At first, Solomonov featured dishes he calls “a little pedestrian,” including Moroccan soup and chicken shishlik (marinated chunks of meat on a skewer) accompanied by Israeli couscous and Israeli tomatoes.
Now his shishlik is made from marinated organic chicken thighs accompanied by Pennsylvania baby fingerling potatoes seasoned with za’atar, along with grilled spring onions bathed in Israeli olive oil and vinegar, garnished with locally grown organic parsley.
“I’ve never eaten this in Israel, but it’s evocative,” Solomonov says. “I am a guy who has an Israel vision.”
A couple of years ago, Solomonov presented a meal at a fundraiser for the Jewish environmental NGO Hazon using organic olive oil, olives, sesame and date products imported from Israel’s Negev Nectars. He bought out the company’s entire inventory of olive oil to use at his restaurant.
“To not have those products at Zahav would be difficult for me because they’re totally unique and are great examples of Israeli agricultural innovation,” Solomonov says.
Dancer to cake decorator
World-renowned cake stylist Ron Ben-Israel, better known as the “Sweet Genius” on the popular Food Network show of the same name, was discovered by Martha Stewart in 1996 and opened his award-winning Ron Ben-Israel Cakes in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood in 1999.
Ben-Israel on the set of Sweet Genius Photo courtesy of the Food Network
Raised in Tel Aviv, Ben-Israel was a professional dancer for 15 years. He came to New York with the Israeli dance troupe Bat Dor after serving in the military, and then danced in Canada, where he earned extra cash baking pies at bakeries. At age 36, he retired from dance to make a living from cakes.
New York’s fanciest weddings and parties feature Ron Ben-Israel confections, which take his staff of eight fulltime artisans and chefs weeks to prepare. His 12-foot-high, eight-foot-wide cake fashioned by 17 pastry chefs provided the eye candy for the 2007 centennial of New York’s Israeli-owned Plaza Hotel.
“One of my earliest inspirations was watching my mother making schnitzel,” he says, referring to the breaded, fried chicken cutlets ubiquitous to Israeli dinner tables. “She would line up three exact-size bowls for eggs, flour and breadcrumbs. Her process was so methodical and culminated in a delicious schnitzel. In pastry, [too], a certain order gives you a successful product.”
Ben-Israel visits his family in Israel every year, sometimes making a guest appearance at local culinary schools including Bishulim-Israeli Institute of Culinary Arts and Estella. He says the success of “Sweet Genius” has changed his life, and one day he hopes to do an Israeli version of the show.
Honey & Co.
In the summer of 2012, married Israeli chefs Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer opened Honey & Co., a 25-seat restaurant in London’s Fitzrovia residential district. They had met ten years previously while working at an Italian restaurant in Herzliya, and after marrying in 2004 they took off for London and stayed put.
Packer went to culinary school there and got a job as a pastry chef and then executive chef at one of Yotam Ottolenghi’s London eateries. Srulovich, who has no formal training but grew up on the cuisine of his ethnically diverse Jerusalem home and neighborhood, worked as a personal chef.
Honey & Co. brings together Packer’s pastries (“My wife is a pastry genius — one of the best pastry chefs in the world”) with Srulovich’s savory dishes, plus homemade breads and jams.
One of his signature specials is spicy Middle Eastern stuffed grapevine leaves, cooked with mint, leeks and grapes.
“We take the time to do these labor-intensive traditional dishes, to hand-roll them and do them as they used to be done, and it’s delicious,” Srulovich says. “It’s the type of food that we grew up on and wanted to eat.”
Honey & Co. menu items often feature Israeli touches, such as slow-cooked lamb shank with rose petals, topped with spicy Yemenite s’chug. “Most of our herbs are from Israel,” Srulovich says. “When we can get them from Israel, we definitely try, because Israeli produce is superb.”
Yotam Ottolenghi’s Tahini Kofta
(printed with permission)
This recipe, from Ottolenghi’s British TV series on Mediterranean food, “takes me to Israel, the place that has had the greatest influence on my culinary education,” the chef wrote in his Guardian column. “This dish epitomizes the greatness of the country’s food.”
3 tbsp. olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
3 large onions, peeled and cut into 5mm-thick [1/4-inch] slices
400 grams [14 oz.] beef mince
400 grams [14 oz.] lamb mince
50 grams [2 oz.] stale bread, soaked in water, strained and squeezed out
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
15 grams [½ oz.] parsley leaves, roughly chopped
1½ tsp. ground allspice
15 grams pine nuts
Salt and pepper
For the tahini sauce:
130 grams [5 oz.] tahini paste
3 tbsp. lemon juice
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
20 grams [3/4 oz.] parsley, finely chopped, plus 1 tbsp. extra for garnish
½ tsp. cayenne pepper, plus extra for garnish
Put a large sauté pan on medium heat. Add two tablespoons of the oil and the onions, and cook for 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until light brown and caramelized. Spread the onions over the base of a 30cm x 20cm [12 x 8-inch] baking tray and set aside.
For the sauce, whisk together the tahini, lemon juice, garlic, parsley, cayenne, half a teaspoon of salt and 80 ml [1/3 cup] cold water until smooth – it should have a thick pouring consistency, a bit like honey. If it’s too thick, add a little more water; if too runny, add a little extra tahini.
In a large bowl, use your hands to mix together the two minces, soaked bread, garlic, parsley, allspice, a teaspoon and a half of salt and half a teaspoon of pepper. Once well combined, form the mix into patties roughly 1.5 cm [½-inch] thick and 5-6 cm [2 inches] wide.
Put a large frying pan on medium heat and add a tablespoon of olive oil. When hot, sear the patties in batches for about two minutes on each side until golden-brown and semi-cooked. Place these on top of the onions, fitting them closely.
Spoon the tahini over the patties and scatter the pine nuts on top, followed by the parsley and a pinch of cayenne. Put under a hot grill for three to five minutes, until the pine nuts and tahini turn golden and the tahini has a nice crust. Remove from the grill, drizzle with more oil and serve hot with pita.