Israel’s Great Unknown Chef
The revered chef Hanoch Bar Shalom, who died last week, reinvented Israeli cuisine by embracing local food
The biography of great artists isn’t always relevant to understanding their work, but Hanoch’s is. As he started his career, in the late 1980s, Israeli chefs mainly looked outward for inspiration. Yisrael Aharoni, the scene’s patriarch and a supremely talented chef, gained his reputation with Yin Yang, a stylish and stellar Chinese restaurant, and the Golden Apple, a pristine and proper temple for French haute cuisine. The idea behind these restaurants, and most of Tel Aviv’s finer establishments, was that there was nothing more desirable than allowing Israeli diners to feel for a moment as if they were temporarily transported from their sweaty and noisy town and whisked away to Paris or New York or Hong Kong, somewhere cooler, sophisticated, and more urbane.
That logic offended Hanoch, the hard-working kid from the moshav, the Yemeni Jew, the perennial outsider. Time and again, he said, smiling, that none of those great restaurants people flocked to could ever surpass the pleasures of his beloved shuk, with its colors and smells and produce still covered with fresh dirt. And why would Israeli cooks look to overseas, he asked, when so many Jews from so many corners of the world all brought their native traditions here? Together, we interviewed elderly Israelis who were born in Lvov or Aleppo or Cairo or Marrakech or Moscow, collecting recipes, trying to understand what, if anything, bound together the kasha and the couscous and all the diverse traditions that one could find side by side in kitchens everywhere in Israel.
Hanoch’s answer was simple. Russian Jewish cooking and, say, Moroccan Jewish cooking went together like shakshuka and mint; not the most evident combination, they nonetheless had washed up on Israel’s shores and, once there, complemented each other, entering into a dialogue rather than a competition. He realized that Israeli cuisine was just like the Israeli population, all intermarried and intertwined, a thousand variations on the same theme. And he became that cuisine’s greatest champion.
This is why he was the best choice to reinvent El Al’s menu. Beyond the obvious challenges of making airline food edible—a feat only a genius like Hanoch could accomplish—there was the idea that the meals on board Israel’s national carrier were more than just sustenance; they were a calling card, a traveler’s first introduction, perhaps, to the country and its flavors. Simple omelets, freshly cut vegetables, cheese, yogurt: Hanoch’s creations reflected what ordinary Israelis would eat for breakfast or dinner, and they gained instant and immense popularity. And it was a pleasure to help him prepare to cater an exclusive party for some captain of industry and watch as he made the sort of food that a poor factory worker might enjoy, just some eggplant with a drizzle of tehini, say, or roasted peppers on fresh bread.
Whether it was Hanoch’s stature or the luster of his beliefs, this attitude to cooking soon inspired a new generation of chefs to advocate a similar approach. Within less than a decade, Tel Aviv’s hottest spots all served the sort of food Hanoch made famous. The scene had matured; it was now secure enough in its own sense of self-worth, curious enough about its own heritage, respectful enough of its basic ingredients to cook freely, with great joy and pride.
As was I. I still lacked the master’s talent, or his grace, but I had inherited his sense of local pride, his disdain for decorum, and a touch of his unbridled, childlike passion. I had, in other words, become not just a cook but an Israeli cook.
When Hanoch was found dead in his apartment last week, he was 52 years old. The cause of death is still undetermined, but his friends and admirers suspect that fatty foods, ample smokes, and a weak heart had something to do with it. A few days after learning of his passing, I went shopping in one of those ludicrously overpriced, harshly lit emporia that Manhattan loves so much. It was the first chance I’ve had to think about my friend, and about my debt to him. I thought how much he would have hated New York, where good eggplants are hard to find and handsome tomatoes can easily go for $4 a piece.
He would have probably hated this obituary of mine, too. It would have embarrassed him. He would probably break out the simple man routine, and that gorgeous smile. So, I’ll let Hanoch do the talking, with his recipes. Farewell, friend, thank you, and forever be’teavon.
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