Yuval Ben Neriah

Asaf Karela

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Go Fish

Tel Aviv chef Yuval Ben Neriah wants to change how diners—and at-home cooks—feel about fresh seafood

Flora Tsapovsky
August 07, 2023
Yuval Ben Neriah

Asaf Karela

Unlike most people, chef Yuval Ben Neriah doesn’t have a profile photo on his WhatsApp account—his is a blank, gray avatar. Similarly, you won’t see his face on billboards advertising cookware, or in the many cooking reality shows that have populated the Israeli TV channels in recent years. And yet, Ben Neriah is behind two of the best known restaurants in central Israel: the daring, “Asiaterranean” Taizu, celebrating a decade in business this year, and the buzzy, impossible-to-get-into A, which will soon celebrate its two-year anniversary. Even as he embarks on his next big venture—aiming to educate the Israeli diner about the intricacies of preparing fresh fish—he opts to remain relatively anonymous. “I do things differently,” he said. “In fact, I just focus on doing.”

Indeed, Yama—Ben Neriah’s most recent project with partner Haim Bracha, an experienced fish importer—stands out on the local culinary scene. Part fish shop, part online encyclopedia of sorts, it offers a dazzling selection of fish cuts and whole fish, local and imported, as well as what can be seen as an elevated, fish-centric version of Blue Apron: delivered kits that allow customers to plate and serve ceviche, sashimi, and other sea-centric dishes at home, with minimum prep or skills.

On the Yama website, generous information on each fish reads like a short story: its origin, its habits, the dishes it shines the brightest in. On the delivered kits, QR codes lead to accompanying online videos that offer guidance; meticulous written instructions, attached, make sure nothing goes awry. Yama’s physical location, on the outskirts of Florentin, currently Tel Aviv’s hippest neighborhood, is chic and strikingly clean, with a white counter and a vault of refrigerated drawers housing treasures from the sea.

“For years we’ve been wondering why the fish shops are so old-fashioned—places with unpleasant smells, fish sitting on ice, very little flexibility, and not much knowledge or input from the salesperson,” Ben Neriah said. In contrast, he says, positive changes have been happening recently in Israel’s butcher shops: There’s been a surge of spots with a better look and feel, to which increasingly knowledgeable customers flock to request special cuts of meat. “We thought it would be right to enter the market, and change things up a little,” he said. “We want to encourage consumption of local fish and explain its origin and method of farming—this is stuff people normally don’t have a clue about.”

Ben Neriah is no stranger to educating local diners. Sharon Ben David, food writer at TimeOut Tel Aviv, said, “At the time, Taizu had opened a window to South Asian cuisine while all Israelis were served was sushi and noodles.” Ben Neriah, who frequently travels to Asia, introduced steamed bao and crab meat curry, pandan and tapioca, and infused his dishes with unabashed crossovers of Mediterranean, Indian, and Vietnamese flavors that would make any modern day U.S. food critic pontificate on the line between “fusion” and “appropriation.”

With Yama, Ben Neriah, together with his partner Haim Bracha, seek to reimagine the fish-buying experience
With Yama, Ben Neriah, together with his partner Haim Bracha, seek to reimagine the fish-buying experience

Amit Giron

With time, Ben Neriah’s unbuttoned approach to Asian flavors spun off to more affordable, fast-casual eateries: Miazaki, specializing in ramen and Japanese robata dishes, and, most recently, Taizu Town, a simpler, all-day version of Taizu—both are favorites on Wolt, Tel Aviv’s leading delivery platform. A, on the other hand, is decidedly high end, with its pristine sushi sets and weekly parade of A-listers. This high-low combination has been serving Ben Neriah well throughout his career. “Every business is a stand-alone universe I’ve explored and learned,” he said. “In Israel we don’t have the NYC hordes of tourists, so we work with pretty much the same audience. Every business addresses a different segment and has its own story.”

What sets Ben Neriah apart on the local scene, said Ben David, is his uncompromising standards—with a healthy dose of humility: “He is strict about every detail in the kitchen and on the floor, and constantly works on improving his restaurants,” she said. “At the same time, he lets his cooks express themselves and develop. In a profession where ego plays such a role, Ben Neriah gives his staff room for dialogue, collaboration, and creativity.”

The chef’s constant flirtation with affordability versus aspiration plays into the same lack of ego. “Yuval is able to translate his strengths into different concepts, while remaining authentic,” said Ben David. “Despite the fact he’s mostly associated with fine dining, he’s able to recognize approachable business opportunities and make them his own.”

With Yama, no doubt another step in the affordable direction, Ben Neriah hopes to reach the home cooks and, in a way, own the narrative around fresh fish. “Local fishermen here can tell you the fish is ‘fresh’ when it actually arrived from Cyprus two days ago,” he said. He’s not afraid to introduce lesser-known fish for at-home consumption, like Japanese hamachi or cod, and to gently encourage customers to challenge themselves. “We know that people normally avoid cooking fish and ‘dealing’ with it,” he said. “But you can have an easy time in the kitchen and don’t have to gather tons of ingredients, and still feel like a chef in front of your friends and family.”

Unlike some other Israeli chefs, Ben Neriah would rather think of himself as a behind-the-scenes innovator, rather than a public figure. Last year, at the peak of the NFT boom, he launched an NFT series and a members club. Since then, the hype died down, and so did the project. In local interviews, he has often brought up the fact his parents come from a medical background, on the complete opposite side of the career spectrum. Yet, he said, “I think my parents gave me the appetite for research, the critical eye, thinking outside of the box, not accepting things as given and questioning everything.”

And there’s been a lot to question lately. In January, the social protests in Israel began; in Tel Aviv, the weekly Saturday night demonstrations have centered around the Kaplan Intersection—a strategic spot adjacent to a busy highway, the Kiryah army base, and the popular Azrieli mall. It also happens to be right outside A’s windows, confronting Ben Neriah with a whole new set of highs and lows.

“The first year of A was amazing, we enjoyed a constant buzz,” he said. “But during the protests, the roads around us are blocked, and the parking lots can’t be reached, and it hurts our volume dramatically.” Some days are still incredibly busy, he says, while others end with 90 or 100 diners instead of 200-plus. Ever the envelope-pusher, Ben Neriah has decided to offer a discounted menu on demonstration nights, inviting protests to stop by before or after exercising their civil rights, and using the slogan “Come as You Are.”

The move earned him a story in the local news, as well as support on social media. And yet, Ben Neriah says, things are quite challenging at the moment. “On one hand, my business is hurting. On the other hand, I support the protests and think that what’s happening in the country is terrible,” he said. “You’re torn between your wish to make a living, and the legitimacy of the protests—which sit right on your head. It makes you think about the country, about the market.”

The thoughts have led Ben Neriah to look toward other countries: London, where another prominent Israeli, Assaf Granit, is flourishing, or perhaps New York City or Tokyo, a place with a “statement, but also foot traffic.” Not that he will leave Israel entirely—it’s just that he’s used to thinking ahead. Perhaps, at the end of the day, innovation is simply a survival mechanism.

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