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That New Kebab Joint’s Secret Ingredient? A Beloved Cult Star

Israelis love Avi Bitter’s melodramatic music and underground films. Now they can meet him while they try his recipes.

Dana Kessler
May 27, 2014
Avi Bitter sings in his new restaurant.(Photos by Liron Sokolski)
Avi Bitter sings in his new restaurant.(Photos by Liron Sokolski)

Avi Bitter first made his name in Israel as a singer in the Turkish style—a heavy, melodramatic, and emotional subgenre of Mizrahi music that is also known as “depression music,” light-years away from the modern pop- and dance-oriented side of the genre. After becoming known as a singer, he branched out in the early 1990s, starring (and singing) in a series of independent, low-budget Mizrahi B-movies that were originally intended to convey serious messages about social injustice but instead became popular cult films, regarded by many as trashy and extremely funny; sometimes he writes, produces, and even directs these films. Despite his growing cult status, the Israeli mainstream media ignored Bitter for years, until he eventually became a TV mainstay—again, mainly of the trashy/culty variety, appearing on reality TV and starring in commercials.

But even as the onetime underground star became a household name in Israel, Bitter faced financial problems due to bad business decisions. In 2007, he declared bankruptcy. Then, a year and a half ago, he met his new manager, businessman Avi Civier, and Bitter is finally back on his feet: He has a new album coming soon (the first single has already been released), a new one-man show on the way, and a new movie in the making. And now, Bitter is devoting much of his time to a restaurant that serves his own recipes and allows him to mingle with his fans and customers—and sing.

At the end of April, a modest kebab joint opened on Tel Aviv’s Hashmonaim Street called Kababitter—a rather clumsy portmanteau of “kabab” (the Hebrew word for kebab) and Bitter’s last name. He owned an establishment by the same name in another part of town in 2011, but his involvement was short-lived: “The place on Rival Street was more of a club or a pub, but I also made kebabs there and everybody loved them,” he recalled. “But that didn’t last long. The new place is much more serious, nicer, and better equipped.” This time around, Civier is the owner; Bitter is the face of the eatery—literally: A caricature of his instantly recognizable rotund face appears under a giant chef’s hat in the logo, generously displayed all over the restaurant.

Bitter is contractually obligated to sit there for four hours a day, to star in his customer’s selfies and to sign autographs, which is what brings customers to the place no less than the enticing smell of grilled lamb that fills the street. On Fridays the place has a Kabbalat Shabbat of sorts, with Bitter himself singing what he calls his “soul music” karaoke-style with the customers.

“The kebab is supposed to help the shows and the shows are supposed to help the kebab,” Civier explained. He may be new to the Mizrahi business—his musical experience involves playing the baritone horn in the IDF orchestra and being a member of a big band—but he certainly isn’t new to the food business, owning many cafés and restaurants around the country. If his first culinary venture with Bitter’s face on it does well, Civier plans to open more Kababitter branches in the future.

The restaurant serves Turkish specialties, freshly made by Chef Aly Gootlekin, who worked for 20 years as a cook in a hotel in Turkey’s port city of Bodrum. “Aly is not a Jewish-Turk, he’s a real Turk!” Civier said proudly. The presence of a “real Turk” in the kitchen benefits Kababitter’s menu, which offers lahmacun, pide—a boat-shaped pizza, filled with meat and egg or mushrooms—and other Turkish pastries. But the heart of the place, obviously, is the kebab.

Kebab means different things in different places. In Israel, kebab means ground meat patties usually in one of three varieties—Romanian, Bulgarian, or Mizrahi—differentiated by their shape, the type of meat, and the spices. Bitter claims his place doesn’t actually sell kebabs, it sells kababitters, a term he treats like a trademark. The kababitter mix is similar to Turkish kofte kebabs but has a secret added ingredient. When I ask him what it is, he says, “Me,” while keeping a very straight face.

It is somewhat unclear who actually makes the Kababitter mix. If you ask Civier, he’ll tell you that the kebabs are made according to Bitter’s recipe, and when pressed he’ll say that Bitter adds the spices to the mix himself. Bitter, on the other hand, insists that he in fact makes the mix himself.

“I’m the spokesmodel but I also make the kebab mixture myself,” Bitter said, after making me sample just about everything on the menu, a bit too early for lunch. “My kebabs are made out of quality meat, which isn’t cheap. I mix beef and lamb with lamb fat. And I use only fresh spices, which I get freshly ground at Levinsky Market; I don’t buy powdered spices. I learned how to make kebab from my parents, and I upgraded the recipe a bit. Now I have my own secret formula.”

Bitter’s secret recipe isn’t the only reason people are drawn to Kababitter. “Obviously, the fact that this is Avi Bitter’s place was part of the decision to go there,” Noam Shaham, a customer from Herzliya, told me. “He talked to us and was really nice—and the food was delicious, better than other kebab places in the area.”

Kababitter patties are small, round, juicy, and undeniably delicious. And they’re kosher, too. “A problem I have in Turkey is that their food isn’t kosher,” Bitter told me. “They soak their meat in milk. So, when I’m abroad I eat mainly fish and pasta. My place of course is a hundred percent kosher.”

Although Kababitter has a few vegetarian options as well—Turkish pastries filled with spinach or mushrooms—Bitter is a proud carnivore. “I like to eat good food, healthy food, and in my opinion meat is very healthy,” he said. “In the U.S., people eat a lot of meat. They eat fat meat, too, and they look very good. Vegetarians are skinny and weak. They don’t have enough iron in their bodies. I feel sorry for them. My 17-year-old daughter turned vegetarian two years ago. It’s her right, but I try and tell her that not eating meat is no fun. And besides, greens aren’t healthy either. Parsley gives you kidney stones. Did you know that?”

I politely tell him I think it’s the opposite, but he doesn’t really listen. I ask him about the vegan trend that is taking over the country in recent years. “For me that’s not a trend. I ignore it,” he said. “I truly pity those people, what stupidity. If someone would have told me not to eat a snake, a rabbit, or a bird, I would have agreed. But a cow? They were put on this earth to feed humans. Indians don’t eat cows because to them they’re holy—but we are Jews!”

Bitter, 48, was born and raised southeast of Tel Aviv in Or Yehuda, which he calls “restaurant city.” But the restaurants there (like Said, Shipudey Hezi, and Etzel Ovad Ba-Kfar) aren’t fancy or trendy. They’re amami—a term that literally means “of the people” and is a compliment in a culinary context, connoting popular, unpretentious, often inexpensive food; it’s frequently ethnic, homey, and simple.

Bitter’s parents, immigrants from Turkey, ran a restaurant nearby. “I grew up in a restaurant,” he told me. “My dad, who isn’t with us anymore, had a successful grill restaurant for 10 or 15 years on Savyon Junction called Hamifgash [“the meeting point” in Hebrew]. My older brother would work on the grill and my dad never let me. I used to wash the dishes. That’s my childhood complex.”

Nowadays, Bitter lives with his family in Holon and likes to cook for his kids. “I cook at home in order to make it easier for my wife, who takes care of four kids. In addition to our kids, our dog just had six puppies, so our life isn’t easy,” he said with a chuckle. “I love cooking at home. I even have a mini shawarma machine at home. For my kids I make rice, meatballs with potatoes, Moroccan fish, steaks, and of course kebabs. I would never buy pre-made kebabs. My kids wouldn’t touch it. They know what good meat is.”

While Kababitter is definitely an amami place, it’s in a not-so-amami part of Tel Aviv; it stands where a trendy café used to be. But Bitter has always tried to represent the am—the people—in everything he does.

True to his image, Bitter says he doesn’t like gourmet food. “I like amami food and upgraded amami food, like what Haim Cohen [one of Israel’s leading celebrity chefs and one of Israel’s Master Chef judges], Raphi Cohen, or Yisrael Aharony make. All the rest are bullshit. All those gourmet restaurants, which bring you a big plate with a tiny piece of goose liver and a leaf on top for 350 shekels, are poseurs. That stuff is not for me. I don’t buy it. You pay in order to be able to say that you ate there and that’s it. My wife likes upscale restaurants, so I take her on her birthday. She enjoys the gourmet; I don’t. The portions are so small!”

Now that he’s a restaurateur himself, Bitter plans to serve only what he likes. “I love making kebab—it’s my hobby,” he said. “Music is my profession, and food is my hobby.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.