February 21, 2020

Meet Yonathan Berrebi: The Tahini Master

Yonathan Berrebi jokes that it was only after he began his internship at the iconic Le Jules Verne restaurant inside the Eiffel Tower, that world-famous chef Alain Ducasse earned his third Michelin star.

“I peeled the shrimp,” he said wryly. 

With Parisian parents, the culinary capital of the world seemed like an obvious place to receive his chef’s hat, so in 2005, Berrebi enrolled at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu Academy. Years later, he managed the Israeli franchise of the famed French gastronomy company, Fauchon. Yet despite his French connections, there is no love lost between the 37-year-old chef and French cuisine. 

“Until this day, I hate French kitchens,” he said. “There is no soul in the food. Yes, they are great technicians, but it is nothing like the Spanish, Italian or Greek, where you can see passion [and] happiness and the flavors are bold.”

Berrebi abhors cookbooks, and follows neither recipes nor the work of other chefs. “I don’t want to be influenced by others,” he said. 

“While tahini is ubiquitous in Middle East cuisine, it’s never the main component. ‘Tahini deserves a front-row seat,’ Berrebi said.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Berrebi’s first restaurant is unique. Called HaTahinia, and located in Tel Aviv, the menu is comprised almost entirely of tapas-sized dishes made with tahini; from sea bream dipped in a tahini batter, to a dish called “The Party,” which lives up to its name with a poached egg waiting to explode under a bed of tahini, schug, harissa and artichokes. 

While tahini is ubiquitous in Middle East cuisine, it’s never the main component. “Tahini deserves a front-row seat,” Berrebi said. “It’s an amazing canvas and you can do whatever you want with it.”

The idea came to Berrebi while he was working as a private chef on a yacht owned by Israeli shipping magnate Eyal Ofer. He was invited to cook a meal for the Prince of Monaco, Albert II, together with the prince’s private chef, “a stuck-up French guy with a closed top button,” in Berrebi’s words. 

Berrebi was experimenting with mixing the paste with seafood stock instead of plain water. Slowly but surely, the tahini — and the other chef’s heart — opened up. “I showed the pompous French chef something he’d never seen before,” Berrebi said, but was quick to add that the two later became friends. 

Berrebi’s life on the yacht was star-studded — cooking for the likes of Beyoncé, Tom Jones and fashion designer Marc Jacobs — and lucrative. But ultimately, he said, it was a gilded cage. “I was lonely.” Wi-Fi access was extremely limited, making his long-distance relationship with his partner, Kareen, all the more distant. 

Kareen first messaged Berrebi on social media after a tattoo artist posted a picture of the chef getting inked on the head with the image of a bisected brain. A tattoo aficionado herself, Kareen’s tiny, tat-emblazoned frame doesn’t exactly bespeak her background in information science.

Kareen gave up a career at Walt Disney to work at Berrebi’s restaurant, finding creative solutions to get over some of its teething problems.

Much like the chef himself, HaTahinia is an open book. “What you see is what you get,” Berrebi said, gesturing to the steel kitchen in the center of the bar. Diners are encouraged to interact with Berrebi as he prepares dishes from scratch in front of them. The downside is you might have to wait 25 minutes to be served. “But you didn’t come for a fast-food experience,” Berrebi said. On the upside, you’ll be offered shots of ouzo to tide you over. 

One thing Berrebi was not willing to compromise on was the location. Except for the fish and the tahini itself — which he sources from a family in Nazareth — all his ingredients come from the Levinksy market, where the restaurant is located.

“The real culture of food,” he said, “will always come from the market.”

A correction was made to this story at 12:14 p.m. changing the name of fashion designer Mark Jacobs to Marc Jacobs.