Israel has been called the “start-up nation” for its cutting-edge achievements in the world of high-tech.
But the country is also trend-setting in the kitchen, with Israeli chefs now collaborating with their international counterparts in the third edition of the Round Tables by American Express World Culinary Tour.
Eleven of the world’s top chefs – including some with Michelin stars to their names – are coming to Israel to cook their native cuisines with their Israeli hosts. The event began Oct. 29 and runs through Nov. 17, and even if one couldn’t attend, it reflects Israel’s exciting culinary scene — an important element in planning a trip to the land of milk and honey.
With Round Tables, chefs drop in from the United States, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Scotland, Spain, and Switzerland. Participating Israeli restaurants are almost all in trendy Tel Aviv, fast becoming Israel’s food capital, while one participating restaurant is in neighboring Ramat Gan, another, Mona, is located in Jerusalem, and another, at the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv, is kosher.
But no matter where the chefs cook, the approach is the same: the Israeli chefs fly overseas to familiarize themselves with the kitchens of partnering chefs, and then the partnering chefs travel to Israel to prepare a tasting menu of signature dishes.
The idea behind Round Tables is best summed up on the AMEX website itself, which calls the endeavor “a cultural project, an honorary member of the gastro-diplomacy movement, which advocates cultural, economic and political dialogue through gastronomy, maintaining that ‘The easiest way to win hearts and minds is through the stomach.’”
Restaurants participating in Round Tables are (with Israeli restaurants named first): Nithan Thai with 7132 Silver of Switzerland; HaYarkon 99 (kosher at the Dan Hotel) with Andreu Genestra Restaurant of Spain; Cicchetti with Xemei of Spain; Pastel with L’Air du Temps of Belgium; Ya Pan with Maido of Peru; Coffee Bar with El Sud 777 of Mexico City; Quattro with Il Desco of Italy; Garrigue with Ricard Camarena of Spain; The Blue Rooster with Little Social of England; Hotel Montefiore with Geist of Denmark; Mona with The Elephant of England; Chloely’s with Lochbay of Scotland; Jonathan Food Club with Kadeau of Denmark; and Thai at Har Sinai with Pok Pok of the United States.
When I first heard about Round Tables, I decided to zero in on two of the chefs: 36-year-old Ohad Solomon of Tel Aviv’s trendy Coffee Bar (which is really more than a coffee bar), and Edgar Nunez, the 38-year-old Mexico City chef of Sud 777. I reached them both by telephone.
Chef Solomon told me that his trip to Mexico City was “very exciting.”
“I think this is very important for the project,” he said, “because the idea is that we’re supposed to make Edgar’s food in Tel Aviv, and for me it was very important…to be in his kitchen and to talk to him and see which vegetables he uses and try all the spices. So it was a very good experience.”
In his one week at Sud 777, Solomon discovered what he termed “very high-end food” and managed to find similarities with Israel, like spices and the use of a lot of vegetables. “There are things that are very similar,” he said.
Of course, in the preparation of Sud 777’s menu in Tel Aviv, Coffee Bar is going to have to find products that are as close as possible to those in Mexico.
And on the subject of products, Solomon is looking forward to introducing Nunez to two of Israel’s most exciting public markets — Tel Aviv’s Carmel Market and Mahaneh Yehuda in Jerusalem — each in its own way a wonderful center of fresh, local produce and some very colorful vendors. The Carmel Market is easily the closest to Coffee Bar — a 25-minute walk away.
Also on Solomon’s agenda is a trip to the Galilee to introduce Nunez to farmers and their local products and to travel as well to Nazareth, where he said there is “great lamb.”
The menu at Coffee Bar will include a chocolate and cardamom appetizer with avocado puree and fresh cheese; for first course orange carpaccio with anchovies, crushed pepper, onions and microgreens; tomato aguachile with six different kinds of tomatoes; and octopus with chipotle vinaigrette and lemon; for second course a tuna tostada with chile verde, avocado, and carrot cream topped with chile powder; for a main course grouper fish with cauliflower, jalapeno pure, and aioli bok choi; aged beef with mole coloradito, spinach, celery root, walnuts and Spanish onions; and for dessert coconut and mango; varieties and textures of chocolate and peanuts and tiramisu with mascarpone cream, ice cream, porcini mushroom, biscotti.
The Israeli chef, who worked in top restaurants in Italy, France and England, including Michelin-starred, believes Coffee Bar’s popularity is “because we’re working hard to make good food.”
“We listen to customers in terms of flavors,” he said, “and the waiters, the service, and the atmosphere are all a big part of it, too.”
Meanwhile, Chef Nunez, whose restaurant is ranked 11th among the 50 best in Latin America, noted how the foods of so many immigrants to Mexico typically became “Mexicanized” with spices and chiles reflecting Mexican tastes. Mexico’s food culture differs from state to state — something Nunez acknowledges “has made us very rich in gastronomy.”
Nunez has a flourishing green garden behind his restaurant and prides himself on growing 35 different kinds of tomatoes. “I try to always have in my menu something with tomatoes,” he said.
In a certain sense, Nunez might be called an “accidental chef.” At the age of 16, he left for Barcelona looking for work, and there he found a restaurant that offered him a place in the kitchen, washing dishes.
From that lowly experience, Nunez eventually started cooking…and the rest, as they say, is history, including work in Michelin-starred European restaurants, where he honed his craft.
Like Chef Nunez, Chef Solomon goes in for simple food and distinctive local flavors.
Flavor, of course, is the key. “In Israel,” he told me, “I think we’re looking for new flavors all the time. When people come to Tel Aviv, they love the food. They go home and start to talk about the food.” And as he noted, Israeli chefs have now branched out to open restaurants in places like London, Paris and New York.
In a sense, Israeli food culture is in the process of defining itself and might even be called a kind of high-end comfort food.
Israel also has a strong sense of family tradition, which contributes to its food variety. An example is the pumpkin kuba that Solomon’s grandmother made.
“My grandmother came to Israel from Iraq,” he said, “so the kuba is typical of the food they made there. In my case, I would finish school and come home and could smell it in the house. I love it. It’s great.”
For more information about Round Tables, visit https://www.roundtablestour.com/en/