Israeli cuisine was long considered a melting pot, mixing recipes from wherever its citizens immigrated from—primarily North Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Levant—as well as a sponge soaking up local Arab and Middle Eastern influences. But as new generations of tzabarim are born and raised in the Jewish state, these borrowed flavors seem less relevant in the kitchen. Until recently, the standard for Israeli chefs was making upscale and creative variations of either their grandmother’s cooking—wherever she came from—or of local street-food staples such as hummus or shawarma; those things don’t seem innovative anymore.
A new breed of chefs is emerging that is trying to redefine Israeli cuisine. And hard as it is to believe, these chefs don’t attempt to put anything fancy into a pita and don’t use a drop of tahini, as this is all too predictable. Instead, they are focusing on regional produce and a farm-to-table approach, utilizing the country’s different climate zones, topographies, and soil types, as well as its world-famous agricultural technology. They are foraging, growing their own fruits and vegetables, and showing ingenuity and creativity to make something new that draws primarily on produce grown in Israel.
One of these young and ambitious chefs is 33-year-old celebrity chef Shirel Berger, who founded Opa five years ago. Berger grew up in Jerusalem with parents belonging to the Messianic Judaism movement who made aliyah from the U.S. As a child, she spent her summer vacations at her grandparents’ hamburger joint in California, which is where she fell in love with the kitchen. This is also the reason that many years later, she named her restaurant Opa, which means grandfather in German and is what she called her own grandfather.
Her journey, which included studying at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in New York, working in restaurants in Israel and the U.S., and going vegan, took her from watching her grandpa flipping burgers to running the most upscale plant-based restaurant in Israel together with her twin sister Sharona. Shirel is the culinary mastermind while Sharona is in charge of the business side.
Opa is a fancy restaurant in a run-down part of Tel Aviv. Since its establishment, Berger has been accumulating awards, honors, and press mentions, and this year she won the “One to Watch” award from San Pelegrino’s Middle East & North Africa’s 50 Best Restaurants. Nowadays, Berger is realizing an old dream of offering a tasting menu of seasonal plant-based dishes. Diners don’t need to choose anything, except for wine and beverages. They are surprised by a long line of tiny dishes, each presented like a work of art.
Having dinner at Opa is not so much having a meal but rather taking a trip through Berger’s psyche, which is aspirational, cerebral, and unashamedly pretentious. It is definitely not what Israeli diners are used to. It is much closer to Philadelphia’s Vedge Restaurant, New York City’s ABC Kitchen, or Stockholm’s Växthuset.
Berger sources her produce from a family-run farm 40 minutes north of Tel Aviv, as well as from what she grows in her own garden on the roof of her restaurant. On my recent visit, young hipster waiters with mustaches, black nail polish, and tattooed shins poured wine from an organic and biodynamic ultracurated wine list that was attached to a piece of dried melon rind, alluding to Berger’s zero-waste ideology—which was evident in her food as well. Then they served a series of strange little creations, mostly without telling us what they were, so they could wow us when revealing the ingredients afterward.
The dishes on Opa’s tasting menu are named after the vegetable or fruit they’re based upon. Every dish is a miniature art installation made out of a few different parts, which are variations on the main theme. Since each part grants you between one and three bites, you usually spend more time looking at these dishes than you do eating them. The color, texture, and composition are as much of the experience as the taste. For instance, the dish called Cucumber is served in two little ceramic bowls containing tiny slices of different parts of the cucumber resting in a sauce: one glistening bright green, one milky white. Almond yogurt, cucumber juice, and “herbs from our garden” are also involved in this creation.
Another dish, anchored around the celery root, includes four items: 1. thinly sliced celery root, aged sourdough, Israeli black truffle, 2. celery peel cooked in fermented celery root stock and doengjang, 3. celery root, fermented celery root, celery leaf gremolata, and almond cream, 4. peanut and koji celery seed tartlets with fermented celery foam, and caramelized charred celery with date liquor. All parts of the plant are maximally utilized, from the leaf to the peel. And the desserts are no less creative: One of them includes wheat ice cream while the other is made of sunchoke (also called a Jerusalem artichoke).
The fact that many of Israel’s street food staples—hummus and falafel, for example—are naturally vegan, and that Tel Aviv is one of the most vegan cities in the world, work in Opa’s favor, but this is in no way the vegan fare people are used to. “I don’t use tahini because sesame isn’t grown in Israel anymore, and I try not to use seeds or nuts that don’t grow here,” Berger explained. “Besides, people are fed up with tahini. I love tahini and eat it all the time, but I don’t serve it in my restaurant. Opa is not what you’d expect from a vegan restaurant. I wouldn’t even call Opa a vegan restaurant—I’d call it simply ‘plant-based.’”
In an interview for Haaretz, Berger defined Opa as “a laboratory for vegetables and fruits,” and added, “I research them and do experiments on them to understand what flavors can be extracted from them. That’s what excites me.”
When I asked her what Israeli cuisine is, she said, “I think it’s a matter of personal interpretation because there really is no such thing. Except for the ptitim that David Ben-Gurion invented during the austerity period, there is nothing that’s 100% Israeli. I am on a quest of finding what Israeli food is, which is why we grow Israeli herbs on the roof: seasonal herbs which are indigenous and grow wild in Israel, like mint, ezov, white wormwood—which grows wild in the Aravah in the Negev Desert—tall wild pea, and many more. For me, Israeli cuisine is made from plants that originally grew here, but I also use some plants that didn’t grow here originally but do now.”
Berger added: “In my research I also find plants that grew here and don’t anymore. For example, before the State of Israel was born, many kinds of wheat grew here, but they don’t exist here anymore because the people from the First and Second Aliyah didn’t recognize them from Europe and assumed they’re no good. Nowadays there are places like the Agricultural Research Organization (Volcani Center) and Nativity Seeds that preserve native plants and seeds, but Israel was in survival mode for so long that no one gave these things any thought. Trying to restore plants that once grew wild here and using them in the kitchen, that to me is the future of Israeli cuisine.”
Another question that arises when discussing new Israeli cuisine is how, exactly, the land of shawarma goes hand-in-hand with fine dining. Berger agreed that this is not exactly a match made in heaven. “That’s why the atmosphere at Opa is relaxed,” she said. “We’re not stuck up. We don’t have white tablecloths and three waiters standing over every diner. We offer a more laid-back and fun approach to what fine dining can mean. The food is meticulous, but the atmosphere and service are more relaxed.”
Another young chef who is striving to define contemporary Israeli cuisine is 29-year-old Roee Dori, the chef of Rouge restaurant at the exclusive Pereh Resort in the Golan Heights. Both Rouge and Pereh opened at the same time, two years ago. Pereh in Hebrew means “wild,” which once again alludes to indigenous plants and wildlife and to fostering a connection with the soil.
Pereh’s restaurant, on the other hand, has a distinctly French name: Rouge, meaning red in French. Together with Dori’s French cooking background, the name ties in with the fact that where Pereh now stands used to be the historic French Customs House that was established at the beginning of the 20th century by the French Mandate in Syria near the border with the British Mandate in Palestine. Between 1948 and 1967, the Supreme Customs House served as the central Syrian outpost in the area, with several bunkered and heavily armed shooting and sniping stations. Pereh strives to preserve the history of the site and utilizes some of the French Customs House’s original structures while adding other, new ones, to it.
Dori’s personal take on current Israeli cuisine is combining French cooking techniques with local flavors and the raw materials of the Golan and the Galilee—a region that is considered the pinnacle of Israeli agriculture and farming. His seasonal menu showcases the abundance and diversity of local produce. He only uses fish from the Dan River (no sea fish), favors artisanal cheeses from the area, and avoids traditional Middle Eastern cuisine, as it’s too expected from Israeli chefs.
“As a chef I find it important to have a connection with the physical terrain I’m in,” Dori told me when we sat for a chat at Pereh. “Israel is a small country but it has many different landscapes and climates and it’s important for me to express the fact that we’re in the Golan. Since there are many Druze villages in the Golan, this means, for instance, that I’m strongly influenced by Druze cuisine.”
All of the herbs Dori uses—such as marjoram (which he learned how to use from a Druze cook), as well as thyme, sage, oregano, za’atar, white micromeria, geranium, chives, mint, melissa, coriander, parsley, and basil, as well as some of the fruit, such as figs, mangoes, and grapefruit—grow in Pereh’s private garden and orchard. “The soil of the Golan is very fertile. Due to the minerals in the basalt, it is excellent soil,” said Dori, referring to the fact that the Golan Heights are part of an area of volcanic basalt fields that were created due to volcanic eruptions millions of years ago. Sometimes Dori’s team also gathers herbs and weeds in the wild. Last year, for instance, there was a lot of nettle and mallow in the Golan, which he was more than happy to use in his kitchen.
“There are different perceptions of what Israeli food is,” Dori told me. “I think it is very personal and subjective. Young chefs in Israel today take their personal ethnic roots and connect them to their locality and to what they like to cook. I am half European and half Yemenite. My Yemenite roots definitely show in my cooking, but not in an expected way. I make hawaij panna cotta, for example. And I’m planning on making kreplach with z’hug sauce, mixing between Poland and Yemen. But my ethnic roots are just a small part of what I do. I mix that with the place we’re in and with my gastronomic DNA, which is French. I use just as much butter as olive oil.”
Shirel Berger and Roee Dori are not alone in their search of new Israeli cuisine. The list of relevant restaurants is long, and includes Tel Avivi restaurants like Raz Rahav’s OCD and Yossi Shitrit’s HIBA. Outside of Tel Aviv, it’s worth mentioning private chef Yinon Baeri, who lives in Paran in the Aravah, or Hilah Ronen Sahar and Yizhar Sahar’s restaurant Rutenberg, which is situated on the banks of the Jordan.
Culinary expert David Kichka, chairman of the Israeli Association for Culinary Culture, explained that this new type of restaurant is part of the post-COVID state of mind, which made room for smaller restaurants. “Another factor is that international establishments such as The Michelin Guide and The World’s 50 Best Restaurants lists have started to recognize Israeli restaurants,” he explained. “Israeli chefs want international recognition and they know what these guides are looking for. Also, on Instagram you can see what everybody’s doing everywhere, so international trends such as Scandinavian and Japanese cuisine have entered Israeli cuisine and chefs are surprising their diners with Asian flavors in Mediterranean food or all sorts of combinations. This new breed of young chefs is very eclectic. Diners want to constantly be surprised and often the surprise comes from a source of inspiration from a distant land. Some of the leading chefs give expression to locality by using local materials, while the surprise is in the treatment of those materials. Nowadays you can find umami tastes or fermentations in Israeli restaurants.”
This desire to be international does not contradict the pursuit of authentic Israeli cuisine—on the contrary. “Today the idea of terroir is much more present in Israeli discourse,” Kichka agreed. “And it’s not just about the wine, but the areas where different crops are grown because of the differences in the weather and the soil. There is a huge difference in Israel between the north and the south. Often different areas in Israel also include a social story of a certain community that settled in that area. Israel’s different terroirs, paired with the country’s advanced agricultural technology, make it clear where all of this is coming from. Young chefs express their local identity by using local and seasonal raw materials, while constantly being influenced by the outside. The fact that caviar, truffles, vanilla, wasabi, and berries are all grown in Israel these days, under impossible conditions, makes this possible.”
These new trends, apparently, appeal to local connoisseurs as well as seasoned tourists. “Tourists that have already been here a few times already know hummus and shawarma, and they want to try new things,” Kichka told me. “They come to these new restaurants and enjoy the new variety that Israel has to offer. They love the young Israeli chefs’ interpretation of international trends as well as of local cuisine.”
Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.