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.
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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