When Thibault Bera came to Israel four years ago as chef to former French Ambassador Christophe Bigot, he expected to prepare French cuisine for private dinners and official events. But after Bera left the embassy last year, he stayed in Israel to oversee the Pastel restaurant of the Tel Aviv Museum—where he became an expert in vegan cuisine. When I visited recently, he served me a bright dish of sautéed tempeh, steamed greens, and mushrooms over a soy-milk-based creamed corn sauce.
“I would never serve this in France,” said Bera, who also serves a regular menu. “This is an influence from Israel. Here we have more than 50,000 people eating vegan. It’s a lot in a small city. This is a new cuisine for me.”
French cuisine holds a special place in Israeli chefs’ imaginations; working in France is a universal rite of passage. But as Israel’s food culture grows, French chefs have also begun to look at Tel Aviv as a place to learn.
Bera noticed the opportunity to bring French and Israeli chefs together when he was still at the embassy, and he founded the So French So Tasty festival to bring French food professionals to Israel. Last week, the French Embassy brought its second delegation of chefs to cook in restaurants in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Haifa, Be’ersheva, and Nazareth as part of this year’s event. Before the event kicked off, Bera said that visiting French chefs would be bringing their classic butters, spiked with new ingredients like Sicilian lemon or yuzu, to Tel Aviv, and they would be particularly intrigued by the many Israeli treatments of fish.
During the festival, at an evening of cocktails at the sprawling Jaffa residence of the current French ambassador, I met Alban Rousseau, chef in Le Meal in Dax, France, and consultant to food companies. He explained that French restaurants have been evolving over the last 15 years, as chefs there compete with other rising cuisines: “The dishes and the ingredients are the same,” he said. “But the way of how to dress it on the plate, how to cook it, how to cut it—we changed all the form.” Later this year Rousseau plans to visit Morocco, Canada, and South Korea. In Israel, meanwhile, he already discovered one spice he wanted to take home: the wild thyme known as za’atar, which he uses in an infusion stock for foie gras.
“The French kitchen is starting to be open-minded,” Rousseau said. Over the last few years, he noticed his colleagues traveling more often “to go outside, to bring new techniques, to make fusion food. Tel Aviv is the same. It’s big for fusion restaurants … and this is really interesting.”
Israelis’ fascination with French food goes back decades and continues today. Janna Gur, founder and editor of Al Hashulchan (On the Table) gastronomy magazine, devoted her January issue to the French kitchen, including extensive coverage of a slew of new bistros in Paris. “In Israel, all the first well-known restaurants of the 1960s were French restaurants of the very old kind,” said Gur. “As the local kitchen began defining itself, it became clear that the least appropriate thing here was the French kitchen, with its butter and cream, and techniques that take lots of time.”
All the same, Israeli chefs continued to travel to France, and today, even though there are only a few French restaurants (like Jerusalem’s Cavalier or Tel Aviv’s The 6th Bistro), Gur said, “there is a reconnection with the French kitchen.” Rather than only using French techniques in their kitchens, Israeli chefs are also fusing together French dishes with Israeli ingredients.
Chef Yair Yosefi is part of that reconnection. He spent a decade in French kitchens while his wife studied and worked in architecture. “There are many techniques that have names that only exist in French,” he said. “For example, there is something called etuvee—you take a vegetable, you slightly sautee it in butter, then you add stock, you cover it, and you cook it to al dente. Only in France you have one word for a very specific operation—like Eskimos have hundreds of words for snow.”
Yosefi worked his way up from packing spices to cooking in restaurants with three Michelin stars, but then he worked back down the ladder to cook in small bistros, looking for a more intimate cooking environment. When he returned to Israel, he hoped to open a restaurant of his own based on the bistros of Paris. He mulled the idea for two years and eventually named his Tel Aviv restaurant Elba, after the island where Napoleon was exiled—an island lying between Paris and Tel Aviv.
One of Yosefi’s flagship dishes is bone marrow. The bones are sliced lengthwise, poached and roasted, and served alongside pickled cherry tomatoes and porcini butter “to make it impossible not to finish.” Two items beneath that French starter on the menu is a beef carpaccio dusted with the Middle Eastern baharat, an earthy spice blend featuring allspice, coriander, and cumin.
Most of Elba’s meat, dairy, and vegetables come from the farm of Tomer Tzuk in the hills outside Jerusalem. “For me and my chefs, it’s very important to see the animals we are going to cook, to have vegetables with soil on them, to really work with the seasons and not only get stuff in boxes and bags,” Yosefi said. “It’s a basic thing I brought from France.”
Some of the customers who might feel at home at Elba are recently arrived French immigrants, whose arrival coincides with the opening of several ambitious French bakeries in Tel Aviv and cafés in Netanya. But Yosefi said he has not yet seen many French immigrants in his restaurant or in the circle of Tel Aviv chefs, because most of them keep kosher.
For So French So Tasty last week, each of 19 visiting French chefs was assigned to an Israeli restaurant, where he or she built a shared Israeli-French menu with a local counterpart. Sylvain Sendra is chef at the Michelin-starred restaurant Itinéraires and the mini-bistro 58 Qualité Street in Paris. He cooked alongside Yossi Shitreet at Kitchen Market, a sun-drenched eatery above the swanky Tel Aviv Port. The two served mashed potatoes in vanilla oil, steamed scallops, steak tartare, and fish cooked in red wine sauce. Shitreet trained in France, and he eagerly listened when Sendra told him about wine and a dry duck sausage he brought to Tel Aviv. “All the kitchen in the world starts in France,” Shitreet said. “This is the base of the base.”
“The way of cooking in Tel Aviv is very interesting for me,” Sendra replied. “When I come back to France, I have lots of ideas. Israeli chefs are very relaxed and professional.”
The festival’s opening party was not only a meeting of food professionals, but also an event to see and be seen. Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai sipped wine as he shook hands with other guests. “I love the French cuisine, and I always wonder how come the French know how to eat so much and stay very thin,” he told me. “The mayor of Paris is a good friend of mine. And I brought our Tel-O-Fun bike-sharing system from Paris.”
Hebrew and French mingled in the warm February air as guests milled around the back patio waiting to eat the food. The cheeses were colorful wheels of Fol-Epi French Emmental, brie, creamy goat cheese, and oniony Boursin; the manners were Israeli, though, and the caterers had to fend off early nibblers.
Tourism Minister Uzi Landau glowed with pride as he stood flanked by 19 chefs in white coats. French Ambassador Patrick Maisonnave heaped praise on Israeli food culture. “I am here only six months, and really here in Israel you can find aromas, flavors, and dishes, a real representation of gastronomy from around the world,” Maisonnave said through a translator. “It is the privilege of the Jews—perhaps because of their tragedy—because they were scattered around the world.”
Maisonnave also alluded to a common frustration of Francophile chefs in Tel Aviv—the high price of imported French products like butter or cheese—and implored Landau to press the government to lower import taxes.
However closely Israeli and French chefs worked this week, the French kitchen retains an aura of pretention in Tel Aviv. I left the launch event in a cab driven by Yosef Asulin, who immigrated to Israel from Morocco as a child and still reads his dashboard meters in French. “Look, some people like this food,” he told me. “But it has so much cheese, oil, and fat. This fat food of theirs, it has a bad smell. I prefer the smell of our spices. They make the food like wine.”
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