During the COVID-19 pandemic, seating restrictions have hit restaurants hard. But Hotel Montefiore, a restaurant located in a Tel Aviv boutique hotel, has turned the situation into something beautiful: Since indoor seating is strictly limited, the restaurant has taken over the adjacent parking lot and turned the outdoor space into a lavish urban oasis, with plush rugs, white tablecloths, and live plants. Those who know Ruti Broudo, the mastermind behind the hotel and several other dining institutions under the R2M Restaurant Group, didn’t raise an eyebrow; in the Tel Aviv scene, she’s famous for her attention to detail and her affinity for beauty. Broudo’s meticulousness and European aesthetic cut through the Levantine hodgepodge of Tel Aviv like a shiny steak knife.
The carpets and the opulence can be seen as an act of protest, an artful middle finger to the situation Israeli restaurants are currently in. In recent months, as the pandemic has been slowly destroying the Israeli restaurant sector, Broudo has been one of the loudest advocates for governmental aid and major change. In July, she made public appearances on television and gave interviews to newspapers, warning about a possible collapse of the industry if COVID-19 restrictions aren’t lifted. On social media, she called followers to join what became one of Israel’s biggest protests since the pandemic hit, uniting artists and workers from the travel, food, and events industries to urge the government to release funds and assist the struggling businesses. On a more private front, she’s been battling in courts, reaching the Supreme Court in her plea to reconsider the 20% tax on the salary of every foreign worker employed, instituted in 2003. “The restaurant industry has been in decline for the past five years,” she said. “COVID-19 just made things intensify. There’s somehow even fewer workers who are willing to do certain restaurant jobs, and on top of it, we pay extra for the fact there’s no clear regulation by the government on the topic.”
When, a few weeks ago, she temporarily closed the Brasserie, a legendary bistro that has been a pillar of Tel Aviv nightlife, it made headlines. Broudo will reopen it eventually, but for now the restaurant remains a silent reminder of the government’s failure to support local businesses. “Who is the government?” she asked. “There’s no one to work with, the government hasn’t been stable for a long time.” She’s very critical of the path the Israeli government took to fight the pandemic: the extreme sheltering, the closure of businesses. In August, Broudo lost her 91-year-old father to COVID-19 complications. “But he was 91,” she said. “I think we should have watched the elderly closely, but closing restaurants was a fatal mistake that everyone will pay for.”
When Broudo speaks up, she knows people will listen. The R2M group is behind some of Tel Aviv’s most memorable and iconic eateries—from the classy Hotel Montefiore to the sceney Herzl 16, from the five branches of the refined patisserie chain Bakery to the three branches of Delicatessen, which was the first spot in the city to combine dining, a deli, and a storefront. Broudo, alongside her former husband and partner, Mati Broudo, single-handedly changed the local dining scene in two decades, introducing Israelis to elaborate flower arrangements, top-notch service, and French cuisine without cutting corners.
Lately, on top of her somewhat limited city fame, the number of people who know and love Broudo has been growing exponentially since 2018, when she joined the nationally televised reality cooking show MKR: Winning Kitchen and became a household name across the country. Its second season, currently airing, welcomed an updated version of Broudo, equipped with a headline-making facelift, and propelled her into mega-stardom. This past May, Tnuva, Israel’s biggest dairy brand, cast Broudo in a tongue-in-cheek Shavuot campaign celebrating complex cheeses that “taste good from a second bite.” In it, average Israelis bite into aged Camembert and pungent Roquefort as Broudo rolls her eyes at their initial disgust, and smiles slyly as they admit, upon a second taste, that the cheese is actually amazing.
According to Ran Allon, creative director at McCann Tel Aviv, the advertising agency behind the viral Tnuva campaign, Broudo is someone who represents “uncompromisable quality and attention to detail, a bit like the process of making the cheese itself,” but also someone who “can speak to the public in a way that won’t be perceived as condescending and cold.” The campaign was beyond effective, Allon said, and Broudo took the job very seriously, bringing to the writers’ room the same perfectionism that became synonymous with her in the culinary world.
The Israeli media landscape is compact, and joining reality TV is a safe path to recognition. While some prefer social media, a few chefs and restaurateurs, predominantly male, have turned to television to increase their appeal, becoming judges and mentors on cooking shows. But there’s never been a character quite like Broudo on the Israeli screen before. In her late 50s, “not a hottie” (in her own words), child-free and divorced, bespectacled and dressed head to toe in black, Broudo is the antithesis of the typical female persona on Israeli television. The Tnuva campaign captured her unique blend of elitism and earthiness, playing up her no-nonsense attitude. On MKR, she’s brutally honest, delivering cutthroat reviews in her signature husky voice. In interviews, she talks openly about her face lift, her abortions, her ex-husband, and the decision to finally forgo the idea of children. Every public appearance yields hundreds of positive comments, not a common sight on Israeli social media. Women call her an inspiration, a role model. Without trying too hard, Broudo has come to symbolize the shift in Israelis’ view of successful women and culinary experts in particular.
Broudo herself is a little baffled by her new status. “I assume my character is of someone who has been on a long journey, perhaps that’s why people identify with me and shower me with affection and even love,” she said. Until Hotel Montefiore, it was Mati who was at the forefront of the businesses. Then, gradually, Broudo stepped into the limelight, opening more ventures, becoming more prominent. When the power couple separated in 2008, the business ties remained, but Broudo’s TV role ensured that her name is the first to come to mind when one of the R2M businesses is mentioned. “Many women must see themselves in me,” she added. “Most of us aren’t breathtaking, young or skinny, or 30. On the other hand, I have success supporting my character, and television is just the result of that success, not the path to that.”
“The fact she’s on television didn’t change her,” said Yariv Malili, the owner of the hit restaurant Thai House and the newcomer Thai bar Kab Kem, who’s known Broudo for years and cooked with her during Time Out Tel Aviv’s culinary annual festival Chef to Chef. “She’s an honest person who says whatever is in her heart.” In the local culinary landscape, Malili said, “she’s someone to admire, one of the most important characters. She taught us about order, management, service, quality.” Hotel Montefiore, said Malili, was such a novelty at the time that even he and his wife, Tel Avivians through and through, splurged to stay for a night. “It was her innovative idea, to bring the boutique experience to Israel,” he said. “Now, everyone’s copying her.”
While some newcomers can attempt to duplicate Broudo’s high-end silverware, effortless plating, or bohemian restaurant vibes, her public persona is incomparable. Her businesses still keep her plenty busy, though; another hotel is underway, slated to open in 2021, more Bakerys, more action. Many women around her, in the staff of her restaurants, Broudo says, left the restaurant business with the arrival of children. She wishes they didn’t. “It’s a tough line of work, very demanding, but in their essence hospitality and food belong to women,” she said. “We’re better at it, if we choose not to quit.” For Broudo, quitting is not an option. The beautiful rugs adorning a dusty Tel Aviv parking lot can attest to that.
Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.