Nancy Silverton, one of America’s top chefs, hadn’t given Israeli cuisine much thought until four years ago when her friend Steven Rothfeld asked her to write the introduction to “Israel Eats,” the cookbook he was planning to write and photograph.
Rothfeld had photographed Silverton’s cookbook and told her at the time, “You’re not going to believe this, but the food [in Israel] is magical.” To which she responded, “I can’t believe the food in Israel is any good.”
Silverton, co-founder of Los Angeles’s Osteria Mozza restaurant and recipient of the 2014 James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Chef Award, agreed to accompany Rothfeld on one of his research trips to Israel, where they ate their way through the country.
“I was just blown away,” Silverton told the Journal last week during her latest visit to Israel. Silverton was a participant in what has been dubbed the Celebrity Chef Birthright. The Los Angeles Times called the Jan 27-Feb. 3 visit (which has no connection to the Birthright youth tours) “a sumptuous six-day excursion.”
Twelve celebrity chefs took part in the tour. Organized by food event influencer Herb Karlitz, the tour was designed to put Israeli food and wine on the international food map.
“My goal is that a Nancy Silverton or Marc Murphy (Food Network chef and owner of the New York event space Landmarc) will consider putting Israeli wines on their wine list,” Karlitz said. “Why are they any less valid than other wines?”
“These chefs have seen it all, done it all,” he added, “so to see the smiles on their faces while exploring the Carmel food market in Tel Aviv and eating a boreka that tastes like an old-fashioned calzone is gratifying.”
In addition to receiving personalized guided tours of Israel’s best open-air food and produce markets, the chefs dined at top restaurants, visited wineries and met with farmers and agricultural innovators. They also visited child burn victims and met at-risk youth.
The chefs’ dinner at Claro, a hot Tel Aviv restaurant in the trendy Sarona district, was one of the gastronomic highlights. Seated family-style in a sunroom at long wooden tables groaning under the weight of platters of antipasti, salads, breads and meat dishes, the chefs were relaxed and in a festive mood.
Jonathan Waxman, named Best Chef in New York City in 2016 by the James Beard Foundation, said the food scene at Claro and in Israel as a whole reflects the market-fresh/field-to-table culture espoused by chef and food activist Alice Waters. Waxman said he decided to take this, his first visit to Israel, to see to what extent the field-to-table movement is embraced in the country.
“I’ve been happy to see that wherever we’ve gone, the whole kibbutz lifestyle of harvesting, working together, cooking and breaking bread together is alive and well,” he said. “We’ve seen this with the farmers, the winemakers, the bread bakers.”
Waxman said he especially enjoyed a meal prepared by a farmer and his wife. “He produces cheese from his goats, vegetables from produce he’s grown himself, olive oil from his own trees and he’s a really good chef. This guy epitomized farm-to-table. He harvested in the morning and either cooked what he harvested or prepared it raw, with love and joy and without pretense.”
Murphy, too, said he was excited by the earthy goodness of Israeli food. “The markets, the fresh food — the food is so beautiful. The amount of parsley being sold in the markets.” he said. “There’s a longstanding tradition of using spices like za’atar and herbs. I love it, I love it. The way it’s all used, it wakes up the food.”
Murphy said he enjoyed Israel’s street food almost as much as the carefully prepared meals the chefs were served by top Israeli chefs. “We stopped by a falafel place … and we had warm chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice and herbs dipped in pita. The flavors were so real,” he said.
Silverton said Israeli food reflects the fact that Israel is a society of immigrants. “You just taste the culture. The mix of all the cultures,” she said. “Plus, Israelis eat family-style. They’re engaged with their food but don’t overanalyze it. This is so contrary to food today in the U.S and Europe, where food is so manipulated it feels like you’re at a shrine and not a table.”
She added, “Israelis eat from their hearts, and everyone is welcome.”
For Silverton, a high point of the trip was visiting the cacophonous Carmel market, where stalls brimming with just-harvested fruits and vegetables (she couldn’t believe the size and color of the pomegranates) coexist alongside bakeries, restaurants and shops selling wine, cheese and spices.
At the market, the group divided into smaller groups, and each had a different itinerary. “When we came back, we all said, ‘My tour was better than your tour,’ ” Silverton said.
While the chefs said they loved meeting Israeli experts in a variety of fields, Yaacov Oryah, the winemaker at the Psagot winery, called the opportunity to present his wine during the dinner at Claro “not just an opportunity but an obligation.”
During the past two decades, Oryah said, Israeli wine has transformed itself into a product “that stands on its own merit. We’ve worked so hard to improve our quality, and we want the world to know about us.”
Michele Chabin is an award-winning journalist who reports from Jerusalem.