Eyal Shani is a genius.
I don’t use this term lightly, particularly when it comes to chefs, whose principle objective is to deliver small doses of sensory pleasure that are, sadly and by definition, transitory. Proust lingers long after you put down the book, but that madeleine you scarfed down at the café the other day will soon be forgotten, unless you somehow imbue it with meaning and memories that transcend its actual essence. What, then, might a chef do to ascend to the hallowed halls usually reserved for painters, writers, and other purveyors of permanent truth and beauty? I hadn’t a clue until I stumbled upon Shani, Israel’s most prominent chef and, as of this week, a presence in New York’s ravenous restaurant scene as well.
The first thing you notice about an Eyal Shani joint is the menu. Most restaurants introduce their offerings in serviceable prose, brief and descriptive and workaday. Shani does not. He’s a poet. That appetizer? It isn’t a mere roasted cauliflower, the twin of every other one of its kind you’ve ever ordered; it’s “a whole head of a golden baby cauliflower on sizzling stones, melting into its very own leaves.” Not to be outdone, the eggplant is “sliced and golden in the breeze, resting atop foam of desert tomatoes, swirling in tehini.” Shani’s meat is forever “soaked in wine grapes” and his vegetables “shyly hiding in the ground.” It’s as if Shani was an Auden who’d set out to write verse but binged on Master Chef instead.
Shani’s flowery style invites ridicule even from the most indulgent of eaters, and Israelis, a no-nonsense bunch, hardly needed prompting when it came to poking fun at the chef’s platitudes. Then, however, they tasted his preparations, and the mockery died down. Bite into an Eyal Shani creation, and you realize that the poetry isn’t an affectation—it’s a faithful description. He connects to food the way a great rabbi communes with the divine, understanding that this thing in front of him is simultaneously a spiritual abstraction and a very concrete presence that demands to be worshipped according to specific rituals and exact strictures. Presiding over Okianus, his first restaurant, in the heart of Jerusalem, he was perfectly content to let his guests wait as he patiently sliced white grouper into a thin carpaccio, topped with a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkled with tomato seeds. His dishes were both simple and exquisite, because they relied not on obtuseness—slathering the food in a heavy sauce that masks its elemental flavors, say—or on silly pyrotechnics like the lamentably popular molecular cooking, but on a profound respect for the ingredients themselves. Even if you didn’t know Shani’s eccentric habits, you could guess that here was a man who spent hours crouching in darkened fields before dawn, watching his beloved tomatoes and eggplants and cauliflowers grow.
“I see myself as a servant of the Almighty, not as a creator,” he told an interviewer once. “It’s a privilege to observe the act of creation, the primal intent of every vegetable. Who is this vegetable, what is it, what does it want, where might it feel pleasure, where might it suffer, what are its aspirations? This is how we fulfill our role as human beings in this world. We are the operators of God’s software, whether we do it through cooking or something else. But the moment I try to create something myself, I lose.”
If the speaker strikes you as a humble man, you don’t know Shani. As a judge on reality TV cooking shows in Israel, he’s brash and brilliant and cutting. And as a fixture in the press—he was the subject of a widely publicized and melodramatic bankruptcy some years back—he’s opinionated and flamboyant, the sort of cat who would post photos of himself urinating to his Instagram account. But set him in front of a tomato, and you see the ego melt away: It’s always the food that matters, nothing else.
To watch him work—his kitchens are almost always open—is to see a true believer in the throes of constant doubt. He approaches the ingredients piled high in front of him as if he’d never seen them before, as if a slight tweak to the cut or a light change in seasoning may somehow unlock hidden meanings. This sensibility makes for a highly demanding yet pleasantly meritocratic kitchen, where cooks who fall short of perfection are scolded for betraying their spiritual obligations while their colleagues who lose themselves in their craft are ecstatically applauded. The last time I ate in Shani’s Ha’Salon—located in a warehouse in an industrial suburb of Tel Aviv, where Shani cooks with solemn concentration as diners dance on tables and sing at the top of their lungs—I watched the chef and his crew as the dinner service drew to an end. They looked as if they had just survived the Battle of the Bulge, depleted and scarred but also serene in the knowledge that the fight they had just put up was won in the service of all that is good about mankind.
And now, New Yorkers, too, can enjoy Shani’s offerings. His brand-new spot at Chelsea Market, Miznon, is one of a chain that spans from Tel Aviv to Paris and Vienna, all bound by a similar décor—call it shuk chic—and by a solemn philosophy that believes that transcendence comes only when the finest ingredients and the simplest delivery merge. At Miznon, Hebrew for cafeteria, you’ll find lobster and crème fraiche, say, or corned beef and pickles, all stuffed in a pita, Israel’s most emblematic culinary delivery system. It’s fast-food wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic worldview that sees beauty as perpetually transient, flawed, and fleeting: That dish you’ve got there contains the best stuff on Earth, but you’re about to wolf it down in a pita, quickly and without much ceremony. It also allows Shani to sell dishes that otherwise would’ve cost a mint at greatly reduced prices.
We need this virtue in New York. Our wicked little town has long lost its mind in the kitchen. Walk into a storied shrine like Babbo, say, and you’re likely to be assaulted with sound and fury, the former from the loudspeakers that blast loud music with no compassion for those diners who may foolishly wish to attempt conversation and the latter from the haughty wait staff who leer at you and wonder what someone as oafish as you is doing in a place widely understood to be the Asgard of the swells. By its very nature and with its very name, Miznon derides all that. The dishes it serves aren’t here to be fawned over and photographed—it’s hard to fetishize something when it’s served in the very same setting as falafel—but enjoyed heartily, in close proximity to others and without much decorum, like some Platonic ideal of Israeliness. Each bite opens the heart and reminds it that food is here to be enjoyed for what it is, a miracle of creation, an engine of community, and the bedrock of culture. And it all begins with a whole head of a golden baby cauliflower on sizzling stones, melting into its very own leaves, giving us meaning with every bite.
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