Several weeks ago, paparazzi shots circulated in the Israeli media of a bearded, tattooed, trench-coat-clad man modeling expensive watches. Although he was featuring a proper Blue Steel and a confident stance, the man wasn’t a professional model. Rather, it was celebrity chef Assaf Granit, quietly reaching another career milestone—this time, as the ambassador of Hublot, the Swiss watch company that had previously worked with mega-influencer Chiara Ferragni and supermodel Bar Rafaeli.
In a small country like Israel, a chef can get famous by becoming a social media sage or by going on television. Granit isn’t on social media—not really, anyway; his Instagram profile has only five posts and fewer than 10,000 followers. And while he is on TV—as a judge on the popular TV show Game of Chefs—that’s not what he’s most famous for. Instead, he’s made his name as a member of the very exclusive group of Israeli Michelin star holders. And, perhaps equally notably, he’s the only Israeli chef who’s also a style icon.
Granit’s name is mostly synonymous with Machneyuda, the noisy restaurant adjacent to the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem that he opened in 2009 with two business partners; it is still one of the hottest tickets in the country. “Granit and his partners had created a new genre of Israeli eateries: the market restaurant,” said Orly Segal, the owner of a public relations and marketing strategy firm specializing in food and tourism, who worked with Granit on the project. She refers to a colorful mishmash of fresh vegetables as decor, an open kitchen, and an atmosphere of decadence fueled by loud music and vodka shots. “Many have tried to copy his work,” she said, “but few, if any, succeed.”
Since then, Granit’s Israeli restaurant empire has grown to include GG Kubala, a casual spot focusing on lavish sandwiches; Yudale, a bar; and HaSadna, a fine dining establishment, all in the country’s capital. Instead of eyeing Tel Aviv—a desirable destination for Israeli chefs and restaurateurs, where he only recently staked claim with GG Kubala’s new location—Granit opted to go overseas next, opening The Palomar in London, then a few more restaurants in London and Paris. His most recent endeavor, Shabour in Paris, was the one to earn the chef his first Michelin star in 2021, causing a flurry of media attention.
Right before I went onto the runway I thought, I’m a chef, what am I doing here?
While his signature hospitality brand is all about bubbly, welcoming spots with the colorful dishes that worldly connoisseurs have become accustomed to expect in international capitals—think grilled lamb with chimichurri harissa, or glazed octopus with kohlrabi and dates—Granit’s persona has retained a veil of mystery, even in the gossip-loving Israeli media landscape. In 2019, a Haaretz correspondent had followed the chef to Paris and London for several days, on the heels of his then-fresh openings, and described him as “enigmatic, not truly exposed between his multiple hats and characters.”
The “characters” part was a reference to the fact Granit is a beloved choice when it comes to local advertising of anything from rental cars, to gourmet pots and pans, to, most recently, luxury watches. Ahead of the 2021 school year, Granit—father to a school-age son—appeared in a campaign promoting Nevet, an Israeli NGO tackling food insecurity among schoolchildren. Perhaps it’s his reserved, quiet appeal combined with a tough, businesslike veneer and an aroma of international success that make him such a natural candidate. It’s also the way Granit himself prioritizes and curates his sartorial persona.
“Fashion really interests me—I educate myself on it,” he said. “It’s a natural connection for someone who’s a creator, like myself.” Granit says that, while collaborating on a food and fashion talk a few years ago, he realized that the two fields share the same approach in Israel: “at first, a strong historic urge to be like someone else, not be local, and then, later, embracing our roots and understanding that what we have at hand is much more interesting.”
A few years ago, following a divorce, he underwent a transformation, shedding significant pounds and giving in to his love of tattoos. This was also the birth of Granit the style-influencer, who poses for Parisian fashion shoots in Israeli women’s magazines and is open about his affinity for custom-made suits.
Last year, during the Israeli Fashion Week, which took on a televised format due to the pandemic, Granit participated in the fashion show for Nouveauriche Dog by Maoz Dahan, a high-end men’s brand. He walked the runway and was photographed in the epitome of gender-fluid fashion, a fringed embroidered cape. “That was a bit weird,” he said. “Right before I went onto the runway I thought, I’m a chef, what am I doing here?” His enigmatic poker face, however, went perfectly with the task.
Just as food critics enjoy intriguing contrasts, so do pop culture writers love a celebrity they can’t quite solve. “The media had loved him from the very beginning,” Segal said. “All the female reporters, especially.” As for Granit’s success and influence, Segal noted: “It would be a cliche to say that Assaf is made from a different cloth than the average chef, and yet, with him, you can talk about history, modern art, cinema, and music. Plus, his attention to detail goes way beyond the ingredients and the dishes.”
The past year has been rough on everyone in the hospitality industry, even successful international chefs like Granit—the attention-drawing Michelin star was announced while Shabour was technically under lockdown. The constant dynamic of “expanding and shrinking my businesses” on the pandemic’s whim has been, he says, pretty tiring. But 2022 is shaping to be exciting. His collaboration with Hublot, albeit kept in relative secrecy, is slated to include culinary collaborations and social media activations; the brand has other culinary ambassadors in Europe, and Granit reluctantly shares that a joint meal, co-created with his stylish European colleagues, is an idea that’s been floated.
A series of restaurants his business group is establishing for tech campuses in Israel—clients include the website-building giant Wix—is underway. A new reality TV show with him as a judge was just announced: The Next Restaurant, in which contestants present restaurant concepts and cook selected meals from the menu, to win funding for the restaurant of their dreams. “I’m looking forward to opening two more restaurants and a deli in Paris, a place in Berlin, in the Caribbean,” he said matter-of-factly. Abroad, facing international partners and investors, all the components of the Assaf Granit show get a boost of curiosity. “My Israeli-ness interests people,” he said. “Then, my connection to Jerusalem—it’s front and center in our businesses, it’s our added value. Jerusalem is a mad microcosm that sometimes produces clashes, but also can produce amazing things.”
I asked Granit if there’s a creative dream he’s yet to realize. “I want to act in a film,” he said unexpectedly. No, not an Israeli film—something bigger, more ambitious. “Perhaps,” he said with a smile, “a James Bond villain.”
Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.