Earlier this year, before the coronavirus epidemic hit our shores, Israel hosted its eighth annual So French So Food festival, highlighting French gastronomy in Israel. During the weeklong event in February, selected restaurants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’ersheva, Nazareth, Tiberias, and Binyamina received various French chefs for culinary collaborations. So French So Food, said Eric Danon, the French ambassador to Israel, “celebrates the special ties between the two countries in the most enjoyable field of all.”
So French So Food was created in 2013 at the request of the French minister of tourism, and from the start, it has been organized by the French Embassy together with Business France and the French Institute. Starting in 2016, it has been structured in partnership with a city or a region in France: Toulouse, Alsace, Île-de-France, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and this year, Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes. The event includes master classes, seminars, tastings, and more, both for culinary professionals and the general public.
One of the highlights of this year’s events was a degustation dinner at the Carlton Hotel on Tel Aviv’s beachfront, hosted by Israeli chef Eran Nachshon and renowned French chef Olivier Degand, World Champion Pâté-Croûte in 2016 by Les Toques Blanches Lyonnaises. Although the cooking style of Carlton Tel Aviv executive chef Nachshon is today far away from French cuisine, he studied classic French cooking in high school and the first restaurant he ever worked in was the French restaurant Tarragon, which operated in Tel Aviv in the 1990s; Degand is the chef of hotel restaurant La Ferme du Poulet, which is located in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region in southeast-central France. Together, the chefs created a five-course meal, which comprised tuna ceviche in honey and vanilla vinaigrette; grilled goose liver in beet texture variations; red mullet in celery and almond milk risotto; duck breast and vegetables in red wine sauce; and chocolate ganache and orange tart. Carlton Tel Aviv remained open throughout the entire COVID-19 outbreak. “We continued working all through the lockdown, with all the necessary restrictions and precautions,” Nachshon told me earlier this month. “Of course, the hotel was mostly empty, but a few tourists were stuck in Israel during the outbreak, so we catered to them. Now, like the rest of the country, we’re slowly getting back to normal activity, but on a smaller scale and with local tourism instead of our usual American and European clientele. And everything is according to the coronavirus regulations.”
In the 1980s and ’90s in Israel, French cuisine was regarded as fancy and important—the top of fine dining. Eating at a French restaurant was a status symbol. Veteran chef Shalom Kadosh, the chef of Israel’s Fattal hotel chain, is generally credited for bringing French cuisine to Israel: In 1979 he opened the legendary kosher French restaurant Cow on the Roof in Jerusalem and served dinner to world leaders from Bill Clinton to François Mitterrand. Last January, Kadosh had the pleasure of cooking dinner at President Reuven Rivlin’s residence for 45 current world leaders as part of the events of the World Holocaust Forum. Haredi news website Kikar HaShabbat reported that French President Emmanuel Macron was surprised that kosher food could taste so good.
The biggest challenge of making French food kosher is the need to omit butter when cooking meat. “In Northern France, butter is truly dominant and you need to substitute it with vegetable-based fats in order to make it kosher,” David Kichka, chairman of the Israeli Association for Culinary Culture, told me—although he noted that in the south of France, olive oil is more commonly used, and so that region’s cuisine poses less of a problem. “Obviously to make kosher French food you need to renounce seafood or pork, but that’s not a big deal—you simply don’t make those dishes. The true challenge is the desserts because you need to make pareve deserts after a meal with meat. Luckily, in Israel there are very high quality pareve desserts.”
Nowadays Israeli chefs don’t necessarily feel the need to add an apprenticeship in France to their CVs, but in the 1980s and ’90s, no respectable Israeli chef skipped the mandatory classical French phase. Most big chefs of the time apprenticed with French masters in France before returning to Israel with the holy knowledge. Kadosh apprenticed with Jean-Michel Lorain at La Côte Saint Jacques in Joigny, in the region of Bourgogne, and with Paul Haeberlin at Auberge de l’Ill in Illhaeusern, one of the oldest Michelin three-star establishments in France. Haim Cohen, who is known for developing a distinct French-Mediterranean fusion, apprenticed at Moulin de Mougins, Roger Vergé’s Michelin three-star restaurant in the south of France. Raphi Cohen, whose restaurant Rafael was big in the previous decade before Cohen got into legal trouble and filed for bankruptcy, started out working with Alain Passard and Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. Even local celebrity chef Yisrael Aharoni, who is much more identified with Chinese food, opened a gourmet French restaurant in Tel Aviv called The Golden Apple in the 1990s, which closed after a few years.
Each of the Israeli chefs who studied in France decided to do something else with their training—some of them stayed true to French cuisine while others left it behind. But even the chefs who decided to follow their hearts toward Asian or local cuisines will probably tell you that they can’t help but sometimes incorporate classic French techniques in their cooking. You could compare it to rock musicians who have classical training: It continues to inform their work.
In Israel, French food is considered haute cuisine, but it doesn’t necessarily have massive popular appeal. Nachshon is well aware that French cuisine isn’t as widely known here. “It’s true,” he told me. “Today’s kids in Israel love dim sum and hamburgers but they don’t know French food. One of the reasons is that French cooking is very classical. French chefs stick to the classics and to their regional recipes and ingredients. Another thing is that it is perceived as gourmet cooking. People feel you have to sit in a restaurant to enjoy French food. It’s not fast food or street food that you can grab on the go.”
French food may not be a quick and popular fix like pizza or sushi, but every bakery and cafe in Israel serves croissants, and some of the most successful restaurants in Tel Aviv are influenced by French cuisine and incorporate French dishes in their menus. (All of these restaurants were closed during lockdown but have since opened their doors to the public again.) The veteran Brasserie, which has stood on busy Ibn Gbirol Street for 18 years, mixes hamburgers and BLTs with classic French dishes such as boeuf bourguignon, bouillabaisse, and gratin dauphinois. Another example is Hotel Montefiore—a beautiful boutique hotel with a restaurant that describes itself as “serving French cuisine under a Vietnamese spell.” Its website states that “Hotel Montefiore is one of the only places in town where you can enjoy a classic martini & tray of oysters the likes of which you’d find in Paris, while also indulging in distinctly French-Asian dishes like Duck Breast and Vietnamese Beef Tartar.” Brut is an intimate wine bistro on Nachalat Binyamin Street that carries 200 wine labels, the majority of which are French; the food is inspired by classic French as well as Italian cuisine. Brut’s chef/owner, Yair Yosefi, worked in top Parisian kitchens such as Le Grand Véfour and Lasserre, as well as with French celebrity baker Éric Kayser, before returning to Tel Aviv after 15 years to open Brut.
Tel Aviv also boasts specifically French establishments, like Le Bistrot Francais on Nachalat Binyamin Street, where you can enjoy French delicacies such as bone marrow, foie gras, and authentic salade nicoise. The restaurant, whose slogan is “Enjoy yourself in France, right in the heart of Tel Aviv,” is run by members of a family that moved from Paris to Israel, after 12 years of managing three restaurants in Paris. Rendez-vous, in Tel Aviv’s picturesque Neve Tzedek neighborhood, offers a French kosher menu based in fish and dairy products. If French pastries are what you’re after, there are places like Le Folies on Bograshov Street, and Lehem Vehaverim, which has three locations in Tel Aviv and describes itself as a boulangerie, patisserie, bistro, and restaurant.
Two things characterize most of the strictly French food establishments in Israel: Their websites are written in French (or at least are also in French) and they are kosher—both things aimed specifically at the French Jews who reside in the country. According to the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, Israel has welcomed more than 36,000 olim chadashim from France since 2010. According to a N12 news report from last year, 10% of them return to France within three years. But most of them are still here. And obviously they need their French food fix.
Some of the French arrivals attend So French So Food. “We see many French people who have made aliyah in the SFSF partner restaurants,” Brigitte Benhayoun, head of the division of lifestyle and health at Business France, told me. “They take great pleasure in participating in events that bring their two cultures together, especially when they are gastronomic. In order to meet the expectations of French Jews, we have added four kosher restaurants to SFSF this year.”
But So French So Food comes only once a year. “Many of the French Jews eat at hotel restaurants rather than regular restaurants,” Nachshon told me. “Because hotel restaurants in Israel are kosher, and that’s important to them, and also because some of the hotel restaurants are loyal to classic French cooking.”
Unsurprisingly, the French aliyah brought with it quite a few foodies. One of them is Yael Tajszeydler, who documents her food obsessions on her beautiful Instagram page. “I made aliyah four years ago and since then I observe the local culinary scene with great pleasure,” she told me. “Many French Jews opened food-related businesses when they got here and they import French products that cater to the tastes of local French people.” She named places in Tel Aviv like Lehem Vehaverim, Rendez-vous, and Carmen, which are all French owned, but noted that even apart from restaurants, more and more imported French food products—drinks, cookies, cheeses, and cold cuts—can be found in Israeli stores, especially in French delis like Epicerie Fine Neve Tzedek or Gourmet Shop. Tajszeydler is also happy with Tel Aviv’s patisseries and cafes: “I think a few places do it well. For instance, Lehem Vehaverim. Personally, I love buying ‘French’ cakes at The Bakery. Their St. Honoré cake is the best and the closest to the original.”
Even though there is no shortage of French food in Israel, So French So Food still serves an important purpose in this field. “Our goal is not only that Israelis will get to know French food but also that they will get to know food from different regions of France,” said Benhayoun. “SFSF is a very important event of cultural as well as economic cooperation between the two countries.”
As for the future of the festival, like everything else in the world, it’s uncertain at the moment. “So French So Food festival is on hold, as are all major food festivals,” Ross Belfer, founder of Xhibition PR told me last week. “It’s such a precarious moment where we don’t know what the future will hold. But I am sure that when food festivals and restaurants without restrictions are a reality again, then So French So Food festival will certainly come back in full force!”
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.