Israel’s Great Unknown Chef
The revered chef Hanoch Bar Shalom, who died last week, reinvented Israeli cuisine by embracing local food
Hanoch Bar Shalom, one of Israel’s most revered and innovative chefs, passed away last week. He was the most famous chef you’ve never heard of: Despite designing menus for corporate behemoths like El Al and Strauss, and despite being the favorite caterer of the country’s elite, Hanoch refused to open his own restaurant, routinely turned down offers for television shows or magazine spreads, and watched as younger and, often, far less talented chefs grew wealthier and better known. When asked why he was so reticent—and baffled friends and colleagues asked him often—he smiled shyly, bowed his head, and said that such things were just too much work and that he was just a simple man who liked to cook simple food.
I met Hanoch more than a decade ago. I had always wanted to learn how to cook and asked my friend Nira Rousso—Israel’s Julia Child, although she’d find such a comparison overblown and amusing—to name the person she would consider the most inspiring chef around. Without thinking, Nira named Hanoch; I could try and offer myself up as his apprentice, she said, but he was temperamental and extremely choosy about who he worked with, and there was no guarantee that he’d take me on even if I offered to work for free. Fighting back anxiety, I called Hanoch and was relieved when he agreed to meet. A few days later, I knocked on his door.
I expected his apartment, two blocks from the beach in a quiet neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv, to look a bit like Le Cordon Bleu, with spotless, gleaming surfaces and copper pots hanging patiently on the walls, awaiting their turn at culinary alchemy. And I expected Hanoch to be an intense and capricious man, a taskmaster, a yeller. The man who opened the door was short, barefoot, in shorts and a stained T-shirt and a smile that stretched between two deep dimples like an electric current. He made me a cup of Turkish coffee, offered me a Marlboro Red, and asked me out to his balcony.
As I waited for Hanoch to make his way back with the mugs and the ashtray, I went over all the talking points I had prepared in advance, all the polished arguments I had come up with to convince him to train me. I had that jittery air that young men get when they’re deeply nervous and anxious not to show it, and Hanoch could tell. He cut my efforts at official introductions short and asked instead some basic questions about what I liked to eat. I tried to sound smart, and talked about some of my favorite fancy restaurants, which only made Hanoch giggle. Before I could finish two sentences he told me I was hired, and that my first lesson was to begin immediately.
Giddy, grateful, and confused, I stood up, imagining that Hanoch would now take me to his kitchen—a messy, lively, and small space, as unceremonious as its master—and teach me knife skills or some other chef-like technique. Instead, he announced that we were going to the market.
Ten minutes later, we entered Shuk HaCarmel. Tel Aviv’s colorful outdoor bazaar offered everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to fishmongers, meat mavens, flower peddlers, pickle men, olive-oil connoisseurs, and temperamental bakers. Hanoch had chosen his apartment based on its proximity to the shuk, and its vendors treated him like family; as he slapped backs and shook hands and dispensed hugs, he gave me my first lesson. It was also, he said, the last one I’ll ever need. Cooking was all about ingredients. Know what each ingredient likes, and you know how to cook.
To me, such advice made no more sense than a zen koan. What does it mean, what ingredients liked? Did individual foodstuffs have opinions, tastes, predilections? I asked Hanoch to elaborate, and his examples seemed senseless. A shakshuka, he suggested, a traditional breakfast dish comprised of tomatoes and eggs, might enjoy a lot of mint, and eggplants were big fans of pomegranate seeds. Sensing my confusion, he tossed a few things into his plastic shopping basket, led the way back home, and went to work.
I have no way of describing the creations that followed. Food, love, orgasms, and faith are the four things that turn our language limp, and Hanoch’s cooking was a combination of all four. Adjectives could never do it justice. I ate with a sense of purpose, silent and observant. I had so many questions to ask, and not enough courage to ask them. What I had witnessed seemed less like cooking and more like an act of conjuring. I had to learn the magic the hard way. Every day, for weeks, I returned to Hanoch’s side, watching him, helping him, trying to understand.
One day, as we were making tiny incisions in a crimson-colored leg of lamb and stuffing them with garlic cloves that would melt as the meat cooked and lend each slice a divine pungent flavor, I asked Hanoch about his childhood. Hailing from a working-class family of Yemenite Jews living in a suburb of Tel Aviv, he had too many siblings and too little money to bother with artistic aspirations. After his military service and a brief spell in university, he took the first job he could find, with the internal revenue service, as an enforcer: He would knock on doors of people who owed money and threaten them with lawsuits. His smile failed him every time. He was terrible at his job, and he hated it with a passion. It took him six years to muster the strength to quit and go to cooking school, which sounded like a good idea. He graduated, was hired as a sous chef at a trendy eatery, and took only a few months to work his way to the kitchen’s top spot. He was noticed immediately, rose rapidly, and stayed at the top of his profession ever since.
For years, I tried to forget my mother’s suicide. Then a yahrzeit notice made me face the past.