Two events happened simultaneously in November culminating in a culinary festival that drew a few hundred foodies, bloggers, and business men together in Israel. They enjoyed superb cuisine prepared by top chefs, with a taste of Mediterranean cooking, and Middle Eastern herbs and spices unique to this region. Experiencing culture, art, and innovation, internationals and locals mingled in a fusion of interests and fine dining.
The Open Restaurants and Round Tables events, though different in focus, sponsored best chefs from around the world, with an emphasis on global gastro delicacies mixed with the smells, flavors, and fresh food offered in Israeli markets, such as the famous Mahane Yehuda “shuk” in Jerusalem. Around the gala events, cocktail receptions, and after-dinner parties, international chefs prepared sumptuous meals, often going from “market to table.” In the process, they underwent a transformation in their own understanding of how cooking, friendships, and shared food, on a local Israeli level, contributes to the culinary experience.
This writer’s first encounter was a Round Tables event in Jerusalem, which offered a creative menu by British Chef Simon Hulstone, who owns The Elephant Restaurant in the UK. The restaurant was founded in 2005, located in Torquay, a resort town in Devon County. The restaurant overlooks the harbor in what has been called, “the English Rivera.” Hulstone brought his team of chefs to cook in the kitchen of Jerusalem’s Mona Restaurant. Israeli co-owners, Itimar Navon and Moshiko Gamlieli assisted the British team and served the European cuisine in their fine dining room, connected to a well-stocked bar area, crowded with curious food connoisseurs.
Hulstone oversees 94 acres of farmland near his UK restaurant, and is guided by the “farm to table” philosophy. His restaurant is surrounded by agricultural areas, but is also near the sea… a perfect combination for obtaining fresh fish and seasonal fruits and vegetables. What he picks on his farm in the morning he serves at his restaurant that evening. What Hulstone likes about Israel is the concept of community, and finds it unusual that Israelis share a plate of food together. He claims this is foreign to the British who have the concept that if they order a steak, it is going to be for them, and them alone. Sharing is not an option. At Mona Restaurant, Hulstone was prepared to serve his UK fare, and was not aware that local ingredients should be considered in his meal planning. Instead, The Elephant’s signature dishes were cooked according to their exact British recipes, proving to be delicious, and the Israeli servers were more than willing to adjust for customer food sensitivities, including a variety of options.
Israelis are known for their flexibility and generous food portions. Because Israel has welcomed so many immigrants from around the world, the food style is deeply rooted in a multi-cultural context, built on relationships around the table. This is what fascinated Chef Hulstone as he met with Israeli chefs and started to understand the Middle Eastern way, and to develop local connections. He hopes to return to Israel where he is already making good friends.
The Jerusalem Open Restaurants event, dubbed an urban culinary festival, featured food tours, tastings, and an opportunity to go “behind the scenes,” to meet chefs and watch them cook in local venues. Five leading chefs were selected to visit Israel, some touring Jerusalem for the first time. They were taken on private excursions across the city, and billed as chefs with the most promising futures in Europe. Spanish Chef Juanjo Perles, Portuguese Chef Luis Gaspar, Italian Chef Salvatore Giugliano, Dutch Chef Dennis Huwae, and German Chef Torsten Piechotta were introduced as experts in their field of culinary cuisine. Israeli cooks assisted them, hoping the chefs would adopt the rich fusion of local food fare that Jerusalem has to offer. This writer spent a day with the chefs, following them from “market to table,” hosted by local entrepreneur Tali Friedman. Each chef had a unique way of presenting their own exciting dishes, most of them preparing food from their resident countries.
Friedman is an active member of Israel’s multi-cultural culinary scene. Brought up near the Mahane Yehuda “shuk” market, she has an understanding of local Jerusalem street food. An advocate for modern Mediterranean fare, Friedman studied cooking in schools in Israel and Paris. She then returned to Israel to work with highly respected chefs. At the young age of 21, she became a sous chef at a restaurant in the prestigious King David Hotel; the only female chef working there at the time. Now, she is the spokesperson in charge of culture for the Mahane Yehuda committee. When she started, she was the lone female among the 430 food vendors in the market.
After getting married and having five children, Tali decided to create The Jerusalem Atelier almost 10 years ago. It is a rooftop kitchen/restaurant, designed for culinary cuisine, where she hosts private tour groups and chefs. She brings the ethnicity of Jerusalem food to people coming from abroad, and they discover the distinctive quality of Israeli dining. “I am very proud to say that today, the Israeli cuisine is one of the elite cuisines in the world. All the world is really curious about our cuisine, which is very simple. And, as simple as it is, this is how tasty it is.”
This is Israel’s message to global chefs and foodies – simple techniques to cook simple food. It’s the variety of immigrant recipes, which results in a food blend of unusual flavors and textures. Friedman says that Israeli cooks do include traditional Middle Eastern foods on their menus, but add their own unique twist to it. She explains, “It’s more than fusion. It’s a mixing of culture that creates a very special and unique cuisine. It’s creating multiple things on one plate with a simple technique. It’s genius.”
Friedman takes people along for the “shuk” market experience, introducing fruits and vegetables that come fresh from Israeli farms. They also go to the stalls where fresh whole fish are received from the Mediterranean Sea, and are filleted to the customer’s liking. There are various meats in the market that come from locally raised farm animals.
The chefs prepare their food with the help of Friedman’s assistants. Dining on her rooftop restaurant was the highlight of the Jerusalem food festival for this writer, where each chef presented their own culinary delights, yet added a touch of local ingredients. There are no Michelin stars in Israel, which Friedman says is a political issue. “But, if they will decide to come here to Israel, we will have several restaurants which will get one or two Michelin stars. For sure! We are that good.”
Israel has become a leading contender in the global market of culinary cuisine. But, it doesn’t stop there. With the fast changing food industry, based on consumer demands for more healthy preferences, Israeli entrepreneurs are experimenting with new innovations. Combining advanced food engineering, product manufacturing and branding, with the help of venture capital investments, they are breaking into the food tech market with speed and determination. This is drawing international businessmen who are excited about Israel’s research and development brain power. Israeli high tech leaders are offering progressive food production methods, and more efficient ways of marketing and distribution, while at the same time, bringing alternative food choices to millennials who are concerned for their own health and well-being. Leading start-ups and global speakers presented their cutting-edge solutions in retail culinary techniques during the Open Restaurants part of the food festival.
This writer spoke to Nadav Berger, a food tech specialist who resides in Israel and will soon be focusing his efforts on the European food industry, working with venture capital investments. He sees the problems in current food production because of too much sugar and salt added, and too many preservatives included, resulting in health issues contributing to diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Social media creates a buzz among food consumers who are refusing to buy certain products, which is hurting the sales of food producers. “It’s very influential. It’s like a fire, it’s happening very fast. The audience is changing their habits, so the producers have to bring new technologies to replace the bad stuff with good stuff, and create something which will be more appealing to the consumers.”
With an emphasis on high quality food consumption, visitors to Israel are being introduced to an exceptional food culture. This helps validate Israel’s contribution to the world of culinary diplomacy. It’s a source of inspiration to business professionals and foodies, alike. Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) helped bring some of the leading chefs to Israel during the recent food festival. This writer spoke to Ran Natanzon, head of Innovation and Brand Management, which is part of the Media and Public Diplomacy Division of the MFA. He explained Israel’s food story.
“Israel’s story is a combination of a few things. One of the main components is Israel’s creative energy. We hear a lot about it in innovation and technology. There is also a lot of creativity in the culinary world. I would join this to the diversity of the Israeli people.”
Natanzon explains that food is something that brings people together. “It’s people to people that is the real true connection. It’s not country to country. It’s the personal connections that make the difference.” Natanzon also thinks it’s about sharing ideas and learning from one another. He talks of reaching people’s hearts through their stomachs. It’s the mix of different foods being prepared in the modern Israeli kitchen. It’s the combination of flavors brought into the family by immigrants who were raised in different parts of the world, then came together, and now prepare special food dishes. This results in the invention of something unique to this society. As Natanzon says, “This kind of creativity and innovation is what people can experience coming to Israel. It helps people get acquainted with Israelis from a different angle… It’s another face of Israel.”
Israeli fine cuisine is now very much a part of the international grid. This recent food festival presented culinary artistic creations, produced by master chefs, in a way that bridged the gap between Israelis, world opinion leaders and influencers. International and local political debates may often be strong. Yet, as these creative chefs concentrated, instead, on their diversified gastronomical dishes, it delighted the senses of food lovers. Fine cuisine and good wine took over and politics went out the door. This is the way of diplomatic encounters… food displayed in a comfortable dining room setting; an environment for future ventures; a multi-ethnic global experience of building relationships in the modern world.