If there ever was an Israeli celebrity chef, Omer Miller is it. But despite the fact he had a cooking show on cable TV at one point in his career, it’s his knack for social media that truly made him famous—among fans and critics alike.
So when Miller opened his new pizza shop in Tel Aviv in January, it’s no surprise that he announced it on Instagram, where he has more than 100,000 followers: “I’ve always dreamed of a neighborhood pizza shop,” he wrote in his post, alongside an image of a perfectly round pie topped with sausage and a runny egg, “one that takes all of your dreams and demons away and sets you free.”
The pizzeria is called Grandpa and the 30,000 Rabbits; Grandpa is Miller’s nickname among friends, and although he claims the rabbits were a somewhat random addition, he noted on Instagram, “I do have a rabbit-shaped birthmark on my leg.” Located on the corner of Nachalat Binyamin Street and Rothschild Boulevard, a permanently busy intersection that’s synonymous with the city’s famed nightlife, the restaurant has been packed since it opened. Inside, Miller serves personal-size, freshly baked pies topped with anything from caramelized onions and slow-cooked beef to capers, cream, and maple syrup. For those overwhelmed by the dozens of toppings listed on a simple printed sheet, there are a few suggested combinations, with titles that reflect Miller’s casually cool sense of poetics, like “Just Kill Me” and “Who Needs Friends?”
“Can you talk about Omer Miller’s new place without mentioning Omer Miller?” asked Eran Laor, a food critic from Haaretz, who fought the crowds for a slice a few weeks ago. “No, you can’t, and what’s the point?” The pizza was good, Laor concluded—as a side note; Miller’s persona occupied most of the review, which focused on the chef’s trend-chasing tendencies and the “haters” he had accumulated over the years as a result, as well as his long-lasting adversarial relationship with Israel’s food writers.
Miller, 37, first became famous as the head of Hadar haOchel (Hebrew for dining hall), the very first restaurant he opened in Tel Aviv. His second project was Shulchan (Hebrew for table), a fine-dining establishment in the heart of Tel Aviv. Throughout his early career, he also appeared on Israeli television, leading two shows: As Fresh as It Gets, which he co-hosted with food personality Michal Anski, ran for three seasons during 2011-2012 on the Israeli food channel; Chef of the Grill occupied a slot on the nationwide Channel 10 in 2012.
But two years ago, his career took a decided turn.
“My two restaurants were doing really well, and I was also on the rise,” Miller told me, “but then I went to Burning Man like I always do, and had what you call an epiphany. I said to myself, I’ve been working insanely hard from the age of 17 to the age of 36, I barely had a life. I decided to go back to Israel and make a huge change.”
First, he got out of Shulchan, where he was known to cook gimmicky yet beloved dishes like “egg schnitzel.” Then, he decreased his financial stake in Hadar haOchel, a popular spot in Tel Aviv’s theater and opera district.
Then, in collaboration with David Tur, a prominent local businessman and entrepreneur known for his nightlife know-how, Miller set out to open a different kind of place: Located on the Tel Aviv promenade between the Sheraton and Dan Tel Aviv hotels, Calypso was intended to be Miller’s rendition of a beachfront restaurant, a common format in Tel Aviv, but one that was—until Miller came along—considered largely old-fashioned and tourist-oriented. While many of the promenade establishments have been permanently stuck in the ’80s, serving deep-fried snacks and tired entrees, at his beachfront restaurant Miller creates modern twists on familiar beach-food staples, like phyllo dough cigars (he fills them with fresh grouper and serves them alongside hot peppers), as well as creative seafood-centric offerings like a shrimp patty on a pretzel bun. While he was waiting for Calypso’s lease to come through, Miller decided to occupy himself with “something small, modest: a tiny hamburger stand,” also with Tur. “We were torn between Jewish food and other street-food ideas, and finally decided to do a hamburger,” Miller said. “Who doesn’t love a good hamburger?”
Thus was born Susu & Sons. Its name is both personal and tongue-in-cheek: “We all call each other ‘susu’ in the kitchen,” said Miller, “and ‘sons’ was a homage to the classic Israeli shipudia [grill house] names.”
“The plan was to open small, cook for 100, 200 people,” said Miller, who promoted the restaurant on Tel Aviv’s bustling Rothschild Boulevard primarily on social media, “but on opening day everything went viral, and we ended up working around the clock. We had no choice but to open another location.” And another. And another. Susu & Sons now has four branches in Tel Aviv and Jaffa, with three more on their way, planned to open outside Tel Aviv. In addition to the loaded burgers—topped with everything from mac-and-cheese and lobster to specials like Susu San, a patty in a steamed bun with pickled onions—the locations are also known for their long lines of customers.
Miller’s decision to turn from fine dining to street food, he says, is a nod to a worldwide trend, and also an attempt to appeal to a broader denominator: “Chef restaurants are incredibly hard to manage and maintain” he said. “What we want now is to step of out the Tel Avivian ‘snobiety’ and make people happy, make their foodie dreams happen. You want your hamburger well-done? Sure. I won’t tell you how to eat.”
Since Miller’s culinary shift, the local media have often accused him of forsaking the art of cooking for the art of marketing. Soon after Susu & Sons started dominating Instagram with its compact, colorful buns, Time Out Tel Aviv put Miller on its cover, shirtless, floating in a pool and dotted with arrows, symbolizing his spiky relationship with the Israeli press. Miller’s take on it? “The local food critics don’t understand much about food or writing, for the matter,” he said. “All they’re interested in is producing clickbait sensations—and they do their job well.”
“Sometimes the audience expects us, the chefs, to forever occupy the same niche, which I just don’t get,” said Miller’s friend Israel Aharoni, who has known Miller since his very first days as a young catering sous chef. Aharoni has made similar moves in his own career: One of Israel’s most prominent culinary figures, he has recently has been establishing his own affordable ramen chain. “Chefs want adventures, too,” said Aharoni, “and Omer’s ability to move fast and to adapt is remarkable. He’s also the first Israeli chef to understand the shifting power of our job, the growing role of social media in it.”
Indeed, Miller’s use of Instagram is a force of nature. He uses the medium both as a personal diary, documenting his many moods, doubts, and self-ruminations, and as a billboard for his many businesses. A perfect example of this clever mix is one of his recent posts, in which he announced a plan to travel to five schools in Israel and showcase healthy street food out of a food truck: “To all the teachers who always told me nothing’s going to come out of me, here you go,” he wrote. Some posts highlight mouthwatering images of the dishes served at Susu & Sons or Calypso, while others are shockingly honest recaps of his ongoing battle with Crohn’s disease or tidbits about his relationship with his wife Shiran Kadar Miller, who’s a product designer and Instagram celebrity in her own right. Dozens of comments from friends and followers usually follow.
In one memorable post, Miller “outed” the usually secretive food critic Avi Efrati, showing the critic’s face and expressing his disdain after Efrati wrote an unfavorable review of Calypso. “Instead of living a miserable life as a critic who doesn’t understand food, I chose a life of creation, of having people meet, eat, experience, and get excited about food,” he wrote. “I’m trying to be truly alive.”
His differences with food writers was part of his motivation to start making street food, like hamburgers and pizza. Miller describes the move as liberating, aiming to please the real customer, rather than the picky critic.
“Israelis love hamburger to death; I can’t explain it,” Miller said. “Is it Israeli cuisine? It’s a food lover’s cuisine; it’s international.”
Aharoni seconds that. “The Israeli cuisine is so young, unlike many European cuisines, which were built over centuries,” he said, “and Omer’s policy is that anything cooked by an Israeli chef is ‘Israeli,’ and that Israeli food is inevitably a mixture of local flavor with all the ethnic and foreign influences that have been pouring in. He’s broadening the spectrum of what this cuisine is about.”
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Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.