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Middle Eastern Cooking—Online

Stuck at home? Israeli chef Erez Komarovsky brings a new world of food directly to you.

Flora Tsapovsky
March 03, 2021
Courtesy YesChef
Courtesy YesChef
Courtesy YesChef
Courtesy YesChef

Online cooking classes are a pandemic hit. Hosted by Cozymeal, MasterClass, and, in recent months, a new video platform named YesChef, they feature culinary superstars from all over the world, transmitting their skills to a captive audience. Until recently, Israel and Israeli cuisine weren’t represented in this emerging niche—but that changed last fall, when YesChef premiered an online course with its first and only Israeli chef so far: Erez Komarovsky.

In Israel, Komarovsky has been a prominent figure on the local culinary landscape since the late 1980s, performing headline-generating career leaps every few years. He’s a baker, a businessman, and, since 2019, a TV personality, appearing as a judge on the popular reality cooking show Chef’s Games. Before he became a household name, a move to California had inspired him and put his career on a path to stardom. Now, with his most visible international offering yet, speaking in “funny” English (according to the man himself), Komarovsky has come full circle.

“I love that I can bring my approach and my Galilee cooking to a project that’s both about cooking and a sort of a documentary,” he said. “I’m hoping viewers will soak in my insights about Mediterranean cooking, the ease and simplicity of it.”

Following his partner, who was in a doctoral program at UC Berkeley, Komarovsky—then a food critic for a local Tel Aviv newspaper and owner of a catering business—ended up in the Bay Area in 1989. There, an awakening happened. He remembers being impressed with the microgreens, the boutique bakeries, and the abundance of produce. The couple stayed for five years, and upon returning to Israel Komarovsky decided to recreate the Californian artisanal bread craze in his home country. “There wasn’t much going on in Israel back then, restaurant-wise,” he said, “and when you said a ‘bakery’ people thought of the classic European cake shop, like Kapulski. I brought in something new, close to the soil, to Israel’s ethnic influences.” In 1996, Lehem Erez (Hebrew for Erez bread”), a bread-centric cafe that eventually blossomed into a chain of restaurants and sandwich spots, was born, feeding Israelis nut breads, quinoa loaves, and other once-novel creations.

Back then, an openly gay, child-free, bespectacled baker with an affinity for earthy ingredients and sophisticated sourdough stood out in Israel. But just as everyone got used to him, Komarovsky pivoted. In 2009, he sold Lehem Erez (it is still running, under new ownership) and moved with his partner to Mattat, a small community settlement in the Upper Galilee. There, just miles from the Lebanese border, he’s been growing vegetables and herbs, teaching cooking workshops, and hosting small events, while still running an in-demand catering company. In 2019, he briefly dabbled in the restaurant business, as a culinary adviser to the now-closed (due to the pandemic) New York City restaurant Mint.

While his online course, “The Roots of Middle Eastern Cuisine,” is rooted in the pastoral atmosphere of the Galilee, Komarovsky has always been drawn to transitions rather than permanency. Right now, he says, his life is split between the hustle and bustle of Tel Aviv, and the quiet and tranquility of Mattat. He’s a city guy who’s attracted to nature, a proponent of fancy sandwiches who celebrates simplicity, a Galilee farmer who pops into Tel Aviv once in a while to launch exciting projects and be on television. “If you think about it, he’s probably the most famous chef in Israel right now who doesn’t have a restaurant,” said cookbook writer and culinary consultant Adeena Sussman, a longtime friend and the culinary producer of Komarovsky’s YesChef stint. Indeed, not owning a permanent brick-and-mortar spot fits him best. “I like it the most, since it’s never repetitive, never boring,” Komarovsky said. “[With catering] you get to connect with each customer and create something unique just for them. And meet them at the best moments of their lives.”

Even without a restaurant, Komarovsky is busy. He recently launched a COVID-appropriate, delivery-only pop-up in Tel Aviv, aptly named Baladi. The word, loosely translated from Arabic as “fresh produce,” has defined his career from the very beginning. “He’s incredibly noncompromising,” said Sussman. “If you ask him, can I replace seasonal artichokes with jarred artichokes, he will look at you quizzically and just say no, you can’t! And he’ll be right, too.”

A look at the menu of Baladi showcases Komarovsky’s love for local ingredients and interpretations. Operating from a ghost kitchen, he has come up with an “almost fattoush” with kohlrabi, sumac, and toasted bread; a pkaila (a Tunisian stew) with veal and chard; and a “worker’s sandwich” with meatballs and harissa. At some point, a “Zionist ramen” was featured, mixing Japanese and Mediterranean flavors. Since launching in the fall of 2020, the ongoing pop-up has received rave reviews. “He has nothing to prove, he’s an O.G.,” wrote the restaurant critic of “But he’s a people pleaser in his essence, and hasn’t forgotten how to delight customers.”

The cooking class, filmed in his picturesque home in Mattat, is leaning on the same principles: pleasing and delighting, wrapped in smoke from the open fire. While the recipe roster is accessible and will look familiar to fans of Israeli restaurants, Komarovsky brings a countryside aroma that feels fresh. He picks vegetables from his own garden, bakes a rustic summer cake and a challah, grills lamb kebabs and serves them with mulukhiyah (Jew’s mallow) that’s native to the area. His cuisine, Komarovsky says, is not unlike the Californian “melting pot”: “I want viewers to see that modern Israeli food is light, flexible, a mixture of influences.” He’s big on seasonal and local, and seemingly immune to concerns about cultural appropriation of Arab foods by Israeli chefs. “He’s unapologetically Israeli, in the way that he’ll take inspiration from the many cultures around him and doesn’t get caught up in tropes,” said Sussman. “He has a holistic view of cooking, and has a personal relationship with people of all religions and colors.”

YesChef CEO Steve Avery says that Komarovsky “adds that extra edge” to the platform, “while still maintaining the simplicity of the ingredients.” When picking a chef from Israel to host a class, Avery added, “our goal was to bring in the chefs who offer an important perspective and have both the sort of history to go with it, as well as the ability to take you forward.”

In Komarovsky’s view, between all of his projects and life changes, forward is the only direction he’s been heading—while holding close everything he’s achieved thus far. Country life? “I’ve never lost my connection with Tel Aviv, be it through my catering or the pop-up now.” Reality-TV stardom? “I got into it old enough, and with an established enough ego, not to be too bothered by it.” The fact he has a potent Israeli accent, while appearing on YesChef next to American superstars like Nancy Silverton and Nina Compton? “As long as people understand me, I’m OK. It’s such a great way to make myself accessible to more people, especially right now, when people venture out less.”

Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.